I'm actually a little surprised. Yes the The Muppets opened with $42 million over five days and yes the film cost only $45 million to produce, but it wasn't exactly a box office firestorm. The Muppets ended up with $88 million in the US (not even a 3.0x multiplier off its $29 million Fri-Sun opening) and $156 million worldwide. That's a strong result, but considering the advance press and the solid opening, I think we were all expecting something a little bigger in the end, especially considering how good the movie turned out. In truth, I'd argue that the reason it didn't truly break out is that it was more for the adults that loved the Muppets than kids who Disney was trying to hook on the property. It is a bittersweet and often somber drama, filled with just as many lumps in the throat as belly laughs. I've seen the film twice, and both times it was the grownups who were captivated while the kids squirmed in their seats. Still, Disney's not one to turn away any would-be franchise that didn't lose tons of money, so they are indeed pressing ahead with a film sequel to The Muppets, with the key caveat being that Jason Segel won't be co-writing it this time. Director James Bobin and original co-writer Nicholas Stoller are returning, but Segel is apparently too busy to commit to anything right now. Come what may, he may have the right idea.
Maybe that's because he knows what I've been saying since I saw the film back in mid-November. The Muppets is one of the best films of 2011, and it truly does a service to Jim Henson's characters. But more than anything else, the film works not as a franchise reboot or the jump-start for a new franchise, but as a final chapter. The film, at its core, is about the Muppets asking if the world still needs them, and the world replying that it more-or-less does not. Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, and the gang realize that while they may need each other in some capacity, the world has moved on. But their reward for their journey is the one thing they, and the franchise itself, never got: one last great show. The Muppets is powerful because it operates as a last goodbye and fond farewell to the characters we grew up adoring. It was a feature-length wake for Jim Henson, two decades after his sudden and painfully unexpected death, and a chance to say 'thank you' for the legacy he left. On an emotional scale, there really is nothing that can top it. I suppose there can still be a place for films like Muppet Treasure Island or A Muppet Christmas Carol, but in the 'real-world' continuity, their story is pretty much over. The Muppets was a pitch-perfect franchise finale, and I'm not sure I need to see what happens next.
Putting aside the whole "kids have their own icons so they don't need to get addicted to ours" argument (because I've whined about that before), it's the same reason I don't want a Toy Story 4, the same reason I don't want JK Rowling to write another Harry Potter book, arguably the same reason I referenced the finale of Star Trek VI the other day. While I wouldn't begrudge those who want more Muppet movies or Muppet TV shows, there is a large part of me that wants the franchise to end where it did, absolutely on top and with a lovely grace note. I can think of no better conclusion than the two tearjerking climactic moments that close out The Muppets (SPOILER-- the whole gang joining in the end of "The Rainbow Connection" and the rapturous greeting outside the theater). In an odd way, Segel's failure to return feels like the end of a classic western, where the hero who brought civilization and peace to the townsfolk realizes that he's not civilized enough to live among them. Segel gave us back the Muppets, but now he's left it in the hands of others, riding off into a much-deserved sunset. Maybe I'm alone, but I think that Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo, and the rest of the gang already rode off into the sunset. And now it's time for you to tell my why I'm wrong.