It's been 20 years since the death of Jim Henson. And Frank Oz has retired as the voice of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear.
But the Muppets live on in The Muppets, thanks to actor-writer Jason Segel. The star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Bad Teacher, among others, Segel would seem an unlikely choice to spark a revival of the lovable foam-and-felt puppets, but here they are -- as funny, outlandish and sweet as ever.
Segel cowrote the script and stars as Gary, who has grown up in Smalltown, USA, sharing a bedroom with his brother Walter -- who is, in fact, a Muppet. No one, however, mentions that fact (at least not until a heartfelt song in which the brothers sing, "Am I a man -- or am I a Muppet?").
As it happens, Walter is a huge fan of the Muppets. He wears Kermit the Frog t-shirts, dresses up as Kermit for Halloween and dreams of someday visiting the Muppets' studio in Hollywood. He gets his chance when Gary and his girlfriend of 10 years, Mary (Amy Adams), announce that they're taking Walter with them on their vacation to Hollywood.
But the Muppets' studio tour turns out to be something of a bust. Everything is draped in cobwebs, none of the attractions are open - and none of the Muppets themselves are around.
Then Walter sneaks into Kermit's abandoned office -- and accidentally overhears Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), a wealthy businessman who supposedly is going to take over the property and turn it into a Muppet museum. But Richman actually has a more nefarious plan: to tear the studio down and drill for oil underneath. He's so evil that he can't even cackle; he has to utter the words, "Maniacal laugh," instead.
So Walter, Gary and Mary go in search of Kermit to alert him to this scheme. Kermit is retired and hasn't seen the old gang in years -- but Walter is so fervent in his belief in the Muppets that he convinces Kermit to track them down, round them up and put on a show to raise the money necessary to foil Richman's intentions.
The first Muppet movie came out in 1979; the last was Muppets from Space, 12 years ago. And like those films, the script for this one - by Segel and Nicholas Stoller -- is full of inside jokes and self-referential humor, both to the movie itself and to movie conventions in general. At one point, after Kermit rounds up a few of the Muppets, it's suggested that traveling to collect the rest of them will be too time-consuming. Better that they should collect the rest in a montage, someone says -- so they do.
And when the heroes, who are driving in Kermit's town car, discover that Miss Piggy lives in Paris (and realize that you can't drive from the U.S. to France), they announce that they'll travel there "by map," a moment that is followed by the sight gag of a small model of their car tracing a line on a map from New York across the Atlantic to Cannes.
Director James Bobin (The Flight of the Conchords) finds the perfect breezy tone, as does Bret McKenzie of the Conchords, who wrote the goofy, catchy songs. A variety of celebrities - everyone from Jack Black to Alan Arkin to Emily Blunt -- show up in cameos that are fast and funny, most often because they don't call a lot of attention to themselves. If anything, the script could have used a few more jokes, but that's an adult quibble; kids will eat this up.
Segel and Adams make an adorable team, perhaps because Segel is a big, pudgy shlub who isn't afraid to look silly. Adams also has that unself-conscious chirpiness that says, "I may be acting like an idiot -- but I'm a happy idiot." And Cooper is the film's pleasant surprise: craftily funny -- and game to toss off a mean-man rap song.
The Muppets -- particularly the self-aware, show-biz-crazy Muppets that created such wackiness on TV and in films in the 1970s -- may have faded from public awareness, but that's about to change. Parents can take their kids to The Muppets confident that they'll all come out entertained, without fear of being talked down to, either.
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