It's a sad sign of the times when the word 'muppet' is probably best known by today's generation for being used as a derogatory term. But it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise; after all, it's been 12 years since the last theatrical outing (the somewhat obscure Muppets from Space) and the classic TV series ended in 1981, after a run of just five series.
In 2004 Disney decided to buy the Muppet brand, so presumably they believed that there was still life in the old gang yet. But how relevant can a frog, pig and bear be to modern audiences? It's a canny question, and one that actually features at the heart of this new film.
Smalltown USA: home to brothers Gary (Jason Segal) and Walter. Although the brothers are related, one is a little different from the other. Walter's a little shorter than Gary, for instance. He also appears to have two fingers less than his brother. Oh, and he's also a muppet. We never meet their parents (which is probably just as well), so it's difficult to see how this actually came about, but no-one else in town seems to have a problem with it, so it's really no big deal.
Gary is a nice enough guy, but is clearly a commitment-phobe; he's been together with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) for ten years now and has still yet to put a ring on it. All this may change however on their planned trip to LA to celebrate their anniversary.
As a surprise for Walter, who just so happens to be the world's biggest Muppet fan, Gary has bought an extra ticket for him to tag along. This means that his dream of visiting the old studios, where the Muppets filmed their shows, can finally come true.
But when Walter takes the studio tour, it's not quite how he imagined it. It turns out that it's not a big tourist attraction after all, merely a number of run down and derelict buildings. Walter sneaks away from the guide and enters Kermit's office. There he encounters Statler and Waldorf, the two grumpy old audience members from the show, who are selling the studio to a rich oil magnate, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper); he informs them that he's going to restore the studios to their former glory. Waldorf tells him that there's one proviso however; if $10 million can be raised, the Muppets can have the property back. Once the two old codgers leave, Walter, still in hiding, hears of Richman's true intentions: to knock the entire place down and mine for oil.
Walter runs off and tells Gary and Mary of Richman's evil plans. They decide that they have to track Kermit down and tell him what's really going on. Horrified by the news, Kermit believes that there's only one thing for it – to get the old Muppet gang back together for a telethon to save their old studios. So with so much at stake, it's time to play the music and to light the lights one last time for the most important Muppet show yet.
With this classic franchise clearly in disarray, it's obvious that for a new film to work, it had to come from a different approach. The obvious angle would have been a re-boot; sex up these tired old Muppets and make them feel fresh for today's modern audiences. Thankfully that route was ignored. Instead, this new film is nothing more than a genuine love letter to the original series.
The key to the success of this film is down to one man, English director James Bobin. He's been involved with some edgy British comedy in the past, directing the likes of The 11 O'Clock Show and Da Ali G Show (both UK and US versions). More recently however, he co-created and directed the HBO series The Flight of the Conchords, about New Zealand's third biggest folk duo attempting to make it big in the US. The result was a great blend of quirky comedy mixed with a collection of witty parodies around popular music. It's his experience working on this show that made him the perfect man to direct this feature.
So what Bobin has done is merge the world of the Muppets with that of the Conchords. This is especially evident in the inclusion of a number of songs written by Conchord member Bret McKenzie. And after hearing the song 'Man or Muppet' (Oscar-nominated no less), there's no disguising the Conchord influence.
The script, also co-written by its 'man' star Segal, is also pretty brave. As well as providing an unavoidable fuzzy felt feeling of going down Muppet memory lane, it also sees Kermit evaluate his and his fellow Muppets own relevance to today's modern audiences. It's a pertinent point, but not one you would expect your leading Muppet to be dabbling with during his big comeback film.
In one sense it's a question that backfires on itself; the film is so completely geared towards an eighties audience that it's difficult to see how a younger audience – one that has lived in a Muppet-less world (poor things) up until this point – will react to a puppet frog, pig and bear, with all their friends, putting on a bit of a show.
But let's not worry about them. Instead, if you ever found yourself sitting in front of the TV marvelling at the original Muppet show, this is the perfect hit of nostalgia that will bring out the inner kid in you once again. Muppet perfection.