'The Muppets': Irresistible
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Correct me if I'm mistaken, but nobody doesn't like the Muppets. Right? Or at least those people silly enough to actually dislike the delightful fanciful creations of cloth and buttons and plastic aren't apt to go around loudly advertising that fact, lest they be taken for worse than post-modern-day scrooges. Everybody I know, everybody I want to know, is looking for that "Rainbow Connection," no?
This very fact of life is why I found one of the premises that motor this brand-spanking-new Muppet movie (the first Muppets theatrical film since 1999's "Muppets From Space") just a little hard to swallow. This film, by the way, is titled, with admirable concision, "The Muppets." The picture begins with Walter, the brother of lead human character Gary (puppet-loving comic actor Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the film), who bears certain Muppet-like characteristics himself: That is, he's made of cloth and buttons and plastic and is a little goofy-looking and is a puppet. You might think this would be the hard-to-swallow part, but no. After all, this is a Muppet movie.
In any event, Walter's lint-shedding status tends to alienate the poor fellow, even in the extremely wholesome environs of Smalltown, USA, where he and Gary live and where spontaneous elaborate song-and-dance numbers featuring the entire population seem just another part of daily life. When Gary brings his ultra-perky girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), on a trip to Los Angeles, Walter tags along too, in great anticipation of visiting the Muppets' studio and meeting, in Vladimir Nabokov's phrase, "beings akin to him." But once in Tinseltown, Gary and Mary and Walter discover the Muppets' studio abandoned, in disrepair, and about to be paved over by nefarious oil-hungry tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). So the trio set out to find the Muppets, get them back together and have them put on a show to raise money to save this important piece of Muppet history.
The trek for Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal, and what seem to be literally dozens of others is a lot of goofy globe-trotting fun, accompanied by snappy tunes, oodles of celebrity cameos and plenty of the inside, absurdist, but always incredibly good-natured humor that made "The Muppets Show" so irresistible. Once reunited, the group comes off the road to get the show on the air. And here's the hard-to-swallow part, or at least it was for me: The Muppets get turned down by all the major networks, and the one outlet willing to air their telethon is headed by an ultra-cynical exec (Rashida Jones) who only agrees to put them on because their "Punch Teacher" reality series is getting sued. Yes, it's true that we live in a cynical age of crassly marketed trash TV, but I still found the hostility expressed by Jones' character a little overdetermined; hell, I bet that even Snooki loves her some Kermit. (By the same token, I'm awfully glad that neither she, nor a Kardashian, was asked to make a cameo.) This is, admittedly, a very minor complaint, and I don't want to seem carping.
In any event, the brand of gentle send-ups perfected by Jim Henson and his gang is not something easy to recapture. But director James Bobin, like Segel and the rest of the wide-ranging cast, particularly the irrepressibly sweet Adams, who was made to co-star in Muppet movies (not that that's her sole talent, but you get what I'm saying), are enthusiastic and winning and clearly sincerely delighted to be part of the proceedings. Which definitely helps on those infrequent occasions when the writing goes a little flat (the joke with Jack Black and the leotard with the ping-pong balls on it doesn't quite make it) and the pace goes slightly slack (the parallel narratives of Gary and Walter achieving self-realization feel bogged-down when they ought to be snapping to the climax).
Commendable, too, that Segel (whose work in Judd Apatow-overseen comedies, like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," has spotlighted both his Rabelaisian side and penchant, or at least tolerance, for self-exposure) and company rein in any temptation to show off with jokes more knowing and vulgar than they need, or ought, to be; they hew close to the essential innocence informing the Muppets' silliness.
I haven't listed the participants in the multiple cameos, or given too many details on the jokes because, well, why should I spoil a potential smile you'll get by saying, "Hey, what's [that dude] doing here?" Which will happen more than once.
A new Pixar short, "Small Fry," a "Toy Story" tale in which Buzz Lightyear inadvertently finds himself sitting in on a Discarded Toys support group, precedes the feature proper. Shades of the classic Looney Tune "Birds Anonymous," and typically inventive and funny.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.