The Muppets, of course, have been around since the 1960s, with Jim Henson’s characters shining everywhere from The Muppet Show to its successor series to Saturday Night Live. The original three Muppets movies followed — 1979’s The Muppet Movie, 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper, and 1984’s The Muppets TakeManhattan — although that particular Muppet epoch came to an end with Henson’s death in 1990.
There were more Muppet movies throughout the 1990s, including The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and Muppets From Space, and while they all have their fans, none were quite up to the level of the first three. Disney acquired the Muppet characters in 2004 but didn’t do much with them in the early years.
Enter Jason Segel. The actor, at the time hot off a series of popular movie comedies, as well as How I Met Your Mother, had long dreamed of making a Muppets movie. In 2011 — ten years ago this week — he succeeded, with a movie that got just about everything right. It had plenty of humor, great songs, and did a good job integrating human characters with the established Muppets. And most of all, it understood what the Muppets were all about, and got the individual characters right.
The 2011 The Muppetswas directed by James Bobin, long associated with Flight of Conchords, with songs written by the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie. Like The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan, a movie that was primarily about the Muppets, as opposed to one that stuck them into a separate adventure.
The movie begins with Gary (Segel), a human whose brother, Walter, is a Muppet, something that goes unremarked upon for the majority of the film. Gary, in a relationship with Mary (Amy Adams), heads to Los Angeles, where they learn that a villain named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is planning to buy the Muppet Theater out from under the Muppets, who have long since disbanded.
So they go on a quest to reunite the gang and throw a telethon to save the theater. Throughout, they perform different musical numbers, old and new. The parallel plot has Walter on a quest to come to terms with his identity as a Muppet, as illustrated in the Oscar-winning “Man or Muppet”:
I have a bit of a personal connection to this movie. When I interviewed Segal while he was promoting 2009’s I Love You Man, he mentioned that he was pushing to make a Muppets revival movie, and at that point, he was waiting to hear from Disney about his script.
Also, in 2011, I was a relatively new father, and throughout that year, my then-1-year-old son was absolutely obsessed with Kermit the Frog. He carried around a little stuffed Kermit everywhere he went, and he wanted to see every clip of Kermit that existed on YouTube, whether from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, or from the various previous movies. So that was all on my mind when I first sat down to watch the movie.
Sadly, The Muppets‘ new era was short-lived. Another movie, 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted, was just fine, but not nearly as transcendent, and there have been no big-screen Muppet films since. There was a not-very-good ABC network sitcom — which went for hype by “announcing” Kermit and Miss Piggy’s breakup — and based its entire idea on “what if we made 30 Rock, with the Muppets?”
The good news is, a vast amount of Muppets content is available on Disney+, including the entirety of the ’70s Muppet Show
Most recently, after it kiboshed a Josh Gad-led project called Muppets Live Another Day, Disney+ aired a season of a generally forgettable show called Muppets Now in 2020, which appeared to have been assembled from Zoom calls but actually was produced pre-pandemic. It’s not clear if a second season will follow, but it is very clear that the Muppets aren’t anywhere near the top of the list of the most important intellectual property to Disney.
The good news is, a vast amount of Muppets content is available on Disney+, including the entirety of the ’70s Muppet Show and most of the movies, including The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and, yes, the 2011 movie (The Muppets Take Manhattan, for some reason, is not on Disney+ but is on Pluto TV.)
There’s no indication that another Muppets big screen reboot is in the works, but it would be hard to do it better than the 2011 film.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.