Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Muppets" revival joyful and witty

The Muppets (2011)
98 min., rated PG.

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" star Jason Segel and director Nicholas Stoller declared themselves monster Muppet fans after creating their inspired "Dracula" rock opera with Muppet-y hand puppets. Their collaboration for writing the screenplay, directed by James Bobin of HBO's Flight of the Conchords, revives Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and friends, and reaffirms their relevance as pop-culture icons. "The Muppets" is such a joyful, irresistible, and enjoyably witty celebration for nostalgic baby-boomer fans of Jim Henson's beloved, late-1970s troupe that it's like the gang never left. 

In their small Americana town of Smalltown, U.S.A., Walter (a new Muppet inductee, voiced by Peter Linz) and his human brother, Gary (Segel), have grown up to be huge fans of the Muppets. Walter even owns a Kermy wristwatch. When Gary and his sweetie-pie girlfriend Mary (the effortlessly adorable Amy Adams), a schoolteacher, plan a trip to L.A. for their ten-year anniversary, Walter tags along to tour the Muppet Studios. But the trio finds the Muppet Theater to be decrepit and in perpetual renovation, with Walter overhearing oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) planning to tear it all down to drill for oil underneath and turn the sentimentally valued building into a museum. To preserve the gang's old homestead, the Smalltownians find Kermy (voiced by Steve Whitmire) in a moldy Bel-Air mansion and round up all the other Muppets, including Fozzie (voiced by Eric Jacobson) who's performing with a rip-off band called "The Moopets" in Reno. Back in L.A., the Muppets realize they need $10 million to keep their studio, but once a no-nonsense network executive (Rashida Jones) breaks it to them that they aren't famous anymore or relevant in the kids' market, putting on a telethon in tribute to "The Muppet Show" in their very own theater is their last chance. Also: a celebrity host is a must. Meanwhile, throughout all of this, Mary just wants to have anniversary time with her beau, and Gary and Walter will have to ask themselves individually, "Am I a man or a muppet?" 

The plot is mostly a combination of "getting-the-band-back-together" tropes with a "let's-put-on-a-show" spirit and, natch, an excuse for splashy musical numbers and plenty of "who's who" star cameos. None of the numbers get as hum-worthy or own up to the scope of the opening "Life's a Happy Song" in Smalltown. Adams gamely performs a cute ditty with "Me Party," where she embraces being by herself and sight-seeing in L.A., and "Mah Nà Mah Nà" is performed by the entire cast through the ending credits. Segel and Adams mostly stand in the background, grinning and clearly having fun, but are also very charming and get their chance to sing and dance. Playing against type, deadpan actor Cooper makes a fun meanie, literally uttering "Maniacal laugh! Maniacal laugh!" with his Muppet-y minions, and out of nowhere owns a hip-hop rap number "Let's Talk About Me." Jim Parsons (whom you know as Sheldon on TV's The Big Bang Theory) gives the most clever cameo; it's a hoot to see Emily Blunt reprising her snooty secretary character from "The Devil Wears Prada" now working for Miss Piggy (also voiced by Jacobson) at French Vogue; and Jack Black, as Mr. Black, actually figures into the plot. Keeping with the spirit of previous Muppet features, many other celebrities pop up for recognition sake, including Alan Arkin, Kristen Schaael, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, and Neil Patrick Harris. 

"The Muppets" is cleverly self-aware, as one Muppet suggests to wind the story up with a quick montage or "traveling by map," and consistently topped with meta jokes where characters break the fourth wall. Bobin's comic timing is sharp, despite a few draggy moments leading up to The Big Show, but a clucking version of Cee Lo Green's "Forget You" performed by Camilla and the Chickens is one of the most inspired bits during the telethon. Writers Segel and Stoller and director Bobin clearly have a deep reverence for their characters, recapturing what the Muppets have been for the last three decades. Just like the Disney/Pixar Toy Story short "Small Fry" that precedes the feature, our other old friends are back. Old or young, adult or child, fan or newcomer, you won't be able to wipe the smile off your face; the cheery, lively spirit of "The Muppets" is contagious. 

Grade: B +

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