Effortlessly blending wised-up, self-reflexive humor with old-fashioned let’s-put-on-a-show pizzazz, “The Muppets” is an unexpected treat. Bright and perky, cheeky but never mean-spirited, the seventh Muppet-based theatrical feature finds Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and friends emerging from semi-retirement to reclaim the spotlight, just as Disney is banking (but not coasting) on the popularity of Jim Henson’s puppet creations to win back an adoring moviegoing public. Charming musical elements, a cluster of celebrity cameos and a thoroughgoing sense of creative resurgence engendered by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s smart script should ensure that happy outcome; hecklers will be few.
Joining this year’s “Winnie the Pooh” as an example of a beloved Disney-owned property renewing itself without sullying tradition, “The Muppets” is also the rare sequel conceived as a lovingly crafted tribute from one generation of comedic talent to another. After featuring a line of Henson puppets in their 2008 laffer “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Stoller and Segel pitched the concept of a fresh Muppet movie (the first in the 12 years since the flop of “Muppets From Space”), and Disney brought aboard British scribe-helmer James Bobin (“Flight of the Conchords,” “Da Ali G Show”) to direct from the duo’s screenplay.
Whatever one might have expected or feared from a group of funnymen known for their associations with Judd Apatow and Sacha Baron Cohen, the creative team has somehow produced not only a vintage piece of Muppetry, but one of the better screen musicals in recent memory. That much is clear from the sunny opening number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” a soft-shoe setpiece giddily headlined by Midwestern small-towner Gary (Segel) and his puppet pal, Walter, who has nursed a lifelong obsession with the Muppets.
Gary and Walter have been like brothers since childdhood, as seen in a growing-up montage that ends with the comical sight of the pint-sized puppet sharing a bedroom with the 6’4″ Segel. When Gary and Mary (Amy Adams), his extremely patient g.f. of 10 years, head to Los Angeles for a week’s vacation, Walter tags along, eager for the chance to visit Hollywood’s historic Muppet Studios. But the Muppets have long since disbanded, the studio lot has fallen into disrepair, and as Walter conveniently learns, the aptly named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is scheming to seize the property and drill for oil.
Commenting on every cliche along the way, Gary, Mary and Walter drop in on Kermit, then Fozzie Bear, then Gonzo and Animal and so on, setting plans in motion for a Muppets reunion telethon that will raise the dough needed to save their old home. The lone holdout is the ever-diva-like Miss Piggy, now a Paris fashion-mag editrix still nursing hurt feelings over Kermit’s perpetual lack of romantic initiative. Similarly, Mary increasingly resents that the Muppets are monopolizing her time with Gary, while Walter experiences stage fright at the prospect of performing with his idols for the first time.
From the cheery visual design (Rahel Afiley’s matching Gary-Walter costumes merit special mention) to the upbeat score and songs, which include three fresh tunes by music supervisor Bret McKenzie (of “Conchords” fame), every aspect of the production radiates a sheen of clean-scrubbed optimism. Yet the marvel of “The Muppets” is how often it manages to express the most predictably earnest, wide-eyed sentiments, only to turn around and give them an irreverent poke, without seeming in any way insincere.
If the we-know-we’re-in-a-movie winking goes a bit overboard, the pic fosters considerable goodwill by having much of it delivered by Segel and Adams. (When a seemingly dead-end plot twist causes Mary to squeal, “This is going to be a really short movie,” it helps to have an actress as wholesome yet self-aware as Adams selling the line.) With their features and bodies possessed of a positively Muppet-like elasticity, the thesps couldn’t be more in tune with the silly sensibility at play here, or more game for song-and-dance duty. Still, the strangest musical perf comes courtesy of Cooper, busting out a rap so surreally unmotivated that the bouncy-ball subtitles seem designed to facilitate viewer comprehension rather than to get anyone to actually sing along.
Roster of supporting thesps includes Rashida Jones, Emily Blunt, Sarah Silverman and Zach Galifianakis, while James Carville, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, Neil Patrick Harris and, most hilariously, an unbilled Jack Black all pop up briefly as themselves. But the human players never overpower the work of multitasking Muppeteers Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel and Peter Linz, whose endearing performances deserve no small credit for this enjoyable throwback.
Preceding the film in theaters is Pixar’s latest “Toy Story” short, “Small Fry,” which slyly sends up the fast-food industry with an amusing examination of toy abandonment issues.