As the new Disney movie “The Muppets” opens with the song “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” we see two brothers as seemingly mismatched as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. There’s big brother Gary and little brother Walter, who seem to go just about everywhere together – often sporting matching outfits like plaid flannel pajamas and powder blue suits.
While watching television one night, they see an episode of “The Muppet Show” featuring funnyman Steve Martin. Soon life changes forever. Gary and girlfriend Mary, eager to celebrate their tenth anniversary, plan a trip to Los Angeles – and Gary suffers the first of many “Walter needs me” moments.
Walter has a bit of a one track mind, so the trio soon find themselves on a tacky tenth-rate tour of the old Muppets studio, where Walter overhears a Texas oil baron talk of tearing the joint down. Walter knows what he has to do – reunite the Muppets for a telethon to save their turf. He starts by tracking down Kermit, who helps him gather more Muppets during travels from Reno to Paris.
From a dusty hall in the old Muppets studio that’s lined with photos of celebs like Florence Henderson to the offices of Miss Piggy decorated with covers of magazines from Esquire to People, the journey is a nod to nostalgia – with a character named ’80s Robot behind the wheel. Lines like “gag me with a spoon” feel a tad less subtle. So does dialogue praising the Muppets of old over contemporary pop culture – though the converted won’t mind being preached to.
The movie stays remarkably true to the Muppets’ real roots while updating the vibe with dashes of rap and recovery mantras. Fans of musical theater will appreciate the film’s multiple homages to both the genre and classic works like “The Phantom of the Opera.” And let’s face it – there’s really nowhere else to go if you favor films that mix dancing butchers with singing chickens.
The wee ones among us think Big Bird and Elmo when they hear talk of the Muppets, which might explain why grown-ups in the theater seemed more smitten with this movie than their children. After all, we’re the ones who built the city on rock and roll – and think others need us when it’s really the other way around.
Thank goodness for gags, like Fozzie’s fart shoes, that span the generations. For songs like “Rainbow Connection.” For movies that show even failure can lead to triumph. For musical tours de force from “mimimi” to “mahna mahna.” But most of all, for movies that mix the species without anybody giving birth.
Coming up: “Being Elmo,” Fixing what’s broken