There are two ways to approach The Muppets: As a nostalgic throwback to the pop culture phenomenon of the 1970s and ‘80s, or as an introduction to iconic characters whose popularity waned after the death of creator Jim Henson. Either way, you’ll be delighted, which is the biggest compliment you can pay this lively, disarming movie. The Muppets may have been born out of a desire to revive a dormant franchise that was once a cash cow, but there isn’t a single beat in the film that feels crass or opportunistic. This one is from the heart.
Or hearts, rather. Director James Bobin (Da Ali G Show) and screenwriters Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel (who also stars in the film) obviously adore Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal and Gonzo; so do the rest of the famous faces (ranging in age from Mickey Rooney to Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez) that make cameos. The plot is ingenious, allowing the filmmakers to take a meta-approach to the characters: A greedy oil tycoon has bought the crumbling, cobweb-ridden Muppet Studios in Hollywood and plans to demolish them. The Muppets have only a few days to raise $10 million and prevent their former home from demolition. But first, Kermit must track down his former colleagues — who have embarked on new careers — and convince them to reunite.
And what have the Muppets been up to since we saw them last? Fozzie is in Reno, performing at a club with a Muppets cover band called The Moopets (they’re like sinister, thugged-out versions of the Muppets). Miss Piggy is the Wintouresque editor of French Vogue. Gonzo has made a fortune in the toilet bowl industry. And just as the reunion bits start feeling repetitive, someone tells Kermit “May I suggest we pick up the rest of the Muppets using a montage?” and the movie fast-forwards to the stuff you really want to see.
That kind of cleverness extends to the song-and-dance numbers that dot the film. The Muppets is a bonafide musical that alternates between covers of contemporary pop hits (such as a hilarious rendition of Cee Lo Green’s Forget You by Camilla and the Chickens), new versions of beloved Muppet classics (Rainbow Connection is a showstopper) and some fantastic new tunes – the catchiest, wittiest original songs of any movie since South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Even Chris Cooper, who plays the villain, gets his own rap number.
The Muppets gathers momentum and suspense as it heads towards its irresistible finale: The movie gets better and funnier as it goes along, and Segel and Amy Adams (playing a couple having relationship troubles) wisely cede the spotlight to their inanimate co-stars. The movie’s central question — can these endearingly earnest characters still find an audience in today’s cynical, coarse world? — is a great one, serving as the engine that drives the plot and a commentary on pop culture.
The answer, I suspect, will be a resounding yes. “I guess people sort of forgot about us,” Kermit the Frog laments early on in The Muppets. This sparkling, joyous movie should remedy that. Sometimes, you can go home again.
Cast: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Jack Black and many other surprise celebrities.
Director: James Bobin.
Screenwriters: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller.
Producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 105 minutes. No offensive material. Opens Wed. Nov. 23 at area theaters.