The big-screen revival of The Muppets, cleverly titled The Muppets, is a generally charming exercise in nostalgia. The musical comedy whimsically and often cleverly revisits the characters, their shtick, and the TV show and movies that made them most famous.
British TV director James Bobin, a veteran of the wonderfully dry musical comedy series Flight of the Conchords, and Jason Segel, the world's biggest Muppet fan, have concocted a wistful walk down memory lane that's about, well, a walk down memory lane for The Muppets.
Times have changed, character after character says in the film: "You're relics."
"I guess people sorta forgot about us."
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But they're getting The Muppets back together for one last show, a telethon to save their tatty old theater and their old movie studio from a rapacious Texas oilman named Tex Richman, played without the requisite glee by Oscar winner Chris Cooper — "Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh."
Forget that subplot. It's stolen from A Prairie Home Companion. What's cute here is the frame that Segel (who co-wrote the script) built for it. He plays Gary, a goofy guy who grew up with a Muppet brother. Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) never really fit in, couldn't figure out why he wasn't growing like his brother, until the day when he saw his first episode of The Muppet Show. Here were his people. Here was his kind of entertainment — corny, dated, self-aware.
Cut to their adult years, and Walter comes along with Gary and Gary's longtime bestest gal, Mary (Amy Adams, perfect), as they sing and dance their way to Hollywood for a visit to Muppet history. That's where they see how forgotten puppets are, how their studio tour is a wreck.
"Is this Universal?" the clueless Japanese tourists want to know. "Yes, it is," deadpans the tour guide, played by Oscar winner Alan Arkin — one of scores of cameos in the picture.
Tex Richman's diabolical plans and "maniacal laughs" must be foiled. Let's get the gang back together. Which isn't going to be easy. Well, actually, it is. "Didn't you see our first movie?
Kermit is almost a hermit, living in a fading mansion in Bel Air. Fozzie is fronting a tribute band, The Moopets, in Reno.
Gonzo runs a plumbing supply house, Scooter works at Google, and Miss Piggy is plus-size editor at Paris Vogue with Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada). Animal, the drummer, is in anger management group therapy with Jack Black.
Along the way, they joke about the old movies and the fact that they're making a new one: "Wow, that was an expensive-looking explosion. I'm surprised we could afford it on this budget."
They tell the old jokes. Until it's "time to play the music, it's time to light the lights."
But the giddiness that Jim Henson & Friends brought to the original Muppets is missing. The antic energy, the old vaudeville/TV variety show references are just plain alien to modern kids. It's telling that in the big telethon scenes, the audience in the theater watching it (including Hobo Joe, played by Zach Galifianakis) is old enough to remember the old TV series. There aren't any kids.
The songs are amusing enough, and Adams and Segel make a cute duo. Adult fans who grew up with the show will grin. You have to wonder, though, if kids will get The Muppets, and if this generation of Muppet performers is little more than a tribute band itself.