*The Muppets (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Hard as it is to pick one scene that captures everything that's so delightful about the endlessly entertaining The Muppets, let's go with this one: During the climactic live Muppet Show revival at the end, Camilla, beloved chicken of Gonzo the Great, and several poultry friends perform a version of a certain ubiquitous Cee Lo Green hit. The tune is sung entirely in "buck buck" noises and the longer it goes, the funnier it gets.
Maybe you have to love everything the Muppets were in their late '70s heyday to appreciate why that's quintessentially Muppet-tastic. First, it's musical, capturing the let-us-entertain-you variety vibe that carried The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie. But also, it's equal parts silly and subversive. Co-writer/star Jason Segel not only "gets" the Muppets, but he knows how to recapture what made them great.
Segel and writing partner Nicholas Stoller find their surrogate in Walter (performed by Peter Linz), the Muppets' biggest fan — and also, though he seems completely unaware of it, a Muppet himself. When Walter and his devoted brother Gary (Segel) take a trip to California with Gary's longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), they learn that ruthless developer Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to tear down the old Muppet Theater to drill for oil. Scant days remain to raise $10 million to save the place, which means it's time to find a now-retired Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and try to reunite the fuzzy crew for a benefit telethon variety show.
The resulting plot is a mix of the road-trip flavor of the first Muppet Movie, Andy Hardy "let's put on a show" musicals, and the "we're putting the band back together" premise of The Blues Brothers, complete with finding Gonzo now a wealthy plumbing entrepreneur who may not want to give up his swank gig. It's a setup that allows for plenty of free-flowing humor, and the kind of trademark meta-awareness that allows characters to share exposition that "sounds like it's going to be an important plot point later on," or to save time by gathering the rest of the Muppets "in a montage." The Muppets sends out wave after wave of puns, broad visual gags, self-referential asides and genuine warmth — and nearly every last bit of it works.
It might work best of all in the musical numbers, inspired both as catchy songwriting and as showcases for brilliant humor. The opening number on the Main Street of Smalltown combines sheer unapologetic exuberance with absurdist verses and a great visual punch line: Tex Richman gets a classic villain song in rap form, complete with follow-the-bouncing-ball on-screen lyrics.
And then there's the dramatic "Man or Muppet," in which Gary and Walter consider their respective life paths while duet-ing with their alter-egos — Walter's in human form (featuring one of many guest cameos), and Gary's in a Muppet form that looks disturbingly like Mitt Romney. Director James Bobin has lots of experience working with humor-filled tunes from his work on Flight of the Conchords, and finds the perfect pitch for every number.
When dealing with something like The Muppets, nostalgia certainly plays into one's response. But there's the nostalgia that comes from simply trotting out a bunch of characters and saying, "Hey, remember them?" and then there's showing such a deep respect for your source material that you allow another generation to fall in love with them for the exact same reason the previous generation did.