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The genius of the Muppets has always been the show’s ability to cut its gee-whizness with winking self-deprecation and a hint of cynicism. The somewhat insufferable Kermit the Frog has his rainbow-connectedness karate-chopped by an always-insufferable but realist Miss Piggy. Fozzie Bear and his terrible jokes are heckled by cranky balcony-dwellers Statler and Waldorf. And in the new film The Muppets, chickens sing — to Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You.”
Resuscitated by lifelong fan Jason Segel, who co-wrote and stars in the film, the Muppets are back to win over a new generation of fans. No, they won’t get the jokes about Benson or Tab, and they probably won’t recognize Mickey Rooney or Dave Grohl (the latter winning Coolest Cameo Ever). In fact, much of the script’s dry humor will go over little ones’ heads, such as Amy Adams playing an elementary-school teacher who heads an auto-mechanics class (“And that’s how you fix a 12-volt starter!”) or when her character, Mary, says when the inevitable conflict is introduced, “This is going to be a really short movie.”
And Los Angeles, where Segel’s big-kid Gary, his girlfriend, Mary, and his Muppet brother, Walter, go for vacation? It’s not quite Tinseltown but a city alight with police sirens. There’s even a barbershop-quartet performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (Hard to imagine Courtney Love giving the go-ahead, but it must have happened.)
There’s gotta be a good-versus-evil angle, of course, and in this case it’s saving the dilapidated Muppet Studios from an oil baron (Chris Cooper) who says he’s going to turn the place into a museum but really plans to drill, baby, drill. (As the character, who embarrassingly raps in one of the film’s more misguided numbers, would say, “Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh.”) So the Muppets, now spread all over the world pursuing different careers, must regroup to put on a last-ditch telethon show. (Kermit and Gary et al. gather a couple of the crew before Kermit’s helper robot says, “May I suggest we save time and pick up the rest of the Muppets using a montage?”)
Though there are multiple setbacks, the show eventually comes together, and when the Muppet theme song is finally played — well, members of a certain generation may feel a little tingle if not a happy tear. It’s no spoiler to say the telethon is a triumph, as is the movie itself: Segel’s pitch-perfect in his gee-whiz performance (though Adams is underused), he’s written the Muppets true to their characters, and every sentimentality is counterbalanced with a hit of dry wit. Even Statler and Waldorf would approve.