Let's start with the basics. Jim Henson was a true visionary and his philosophy was what guided the entire concepts of what the Muppets were about. Now, not to be too laudatory when it comes to Jim. He wasn't some kind of god (if I can be sacrilegious for a moment)! And a lot of the ideas that motivate and inform the Muppets are basic common sense and "Golden Rule" elements that we all should be doing with each other, all the time anyhow.
The fact that nobody in the organization seemed to grasp these facts was how we got something like "Muppets From Space," a film that completely defied everything that the Muppets represented! The fact that being different was okay, the fact that you may not always do things right but you definitely didn't set out to sabotage, the fact that you worked together to help each other, and wouldn't do "insult humor" for a cheap laugh... these were all of the elements left out of "Muppets From Space." And it showed just how far this group of characters had fallen.
So, let's start with the good. In "The Muppets," what we have is a return (albeit with strings attached - npi) to those Henson core values. Rather than Gonzo being the misfit, this time we have Walter, arguably the Muppets biggest fan (and who looks suspiciously like a clown I actually know in real life who could seriously challenge Walter when it comes to that title, interestingly enough) who gets to tag along with his brother and his brother's girlfriend (played with affable charm and cutesy quality by Jason Segel - who also co-wrote the script - and Amy Adams respectively) on a road trip to Los Angeles.
It's actually a brilliant choice to center the movie on an "unknown" character, because really Jim's characterizations (and Frank Oz's as well) really do cast a long shadow over the current performers. Where Jim and Frank created and EMBODIED the bulk of these characters, their "replacements" are forced to do an impression of what they were, and that means it will always be one step removed from authentic. Walter is who he is, so we got the genuine article there.
Obviously the true measuring stick of this film was the original film, "The Muppet Movie," and, in fact, there are several parallels between this film and that one. Of course, the first movie was the story of how Kermit and his pals met, got to Hollywood and became stars. This is also a similar story with a similar obstacle... Where Kermit had to deal with Doc Hopper that first go round, this time there's an oil baron named Tex Richman, who discovers there's black gold under the Muppet Studios and plans to demolish it all to get at it.
So, yes, there are parallels to the first film, which are sometimes easy laughs to just reference something from that earlier work.
And there are a host of cameos sprinkled throughout the film, but here's one of the real shortfalls of "The Muppets." No offense to Selena Gomez or Whoopi Goldberg or even to Jack Black who has the job of being the "celebrity host" for the Telethon to raise the cash to get the Muppets' theater/studio back. But there really was no magic there.
I mean, in that first film, when the camera turned and you saw Edgar Bergen, there was some magic there. Bob Hope selling Fozzie and Kermit an ice cream was magic. Richard Pryor selling Gonzo balloons was magic! Milton Berle... well, you get the idea. And I don't know that it was the fact that the magic was that they were bigger stars than Sarah Silverman or Alan Arkin or Neil Patrick Harris. They were just presented in a way that made them seem so much bigger and special.
I'm sure there was a great deal of reverence and respect Jim had for every star who worked with the Muppets; after all he did dedicate the film to Mr. Bergen, who passed away a few months before it was released. And I think part of the magic was the fact that Jim really loved those people. In turn, his love for them radiated back in their performances for him! And that's what I think was missing from the cameos here.
Instead, these appearances were just opportunities for publicity, as was so clearly stated in the script! So, I felt that was part of the reason it didn't work as well.
But not to be too harsh. I did *like* "The Muppets." Chris Cooper was decidedly oily in his role. Most of the songs were good. I do think Whoopi would have made a better Network Exec than Rashida Jones, because she would have been tougher and it would have probably made those scenes funnier.
Ultimately Jason managed to recapture some of the essence of what Jim was trying to do, and for that he deserves kudos. I think he brought the Muppets back from the brink. But the difference between "The Muppets" and "The Muppet Movie" remains the fact that the people involved are impersonating Jim, not living the part. They're finally making the right motions, but they aren't connecting the right emotions.
At least, with this film, I feel like there's still a chance, one little glowing ember in the pile of ash, that can still spark and burn as brightly as Henson's heart.