Clever 'Muppets' arrive refreshed, and funny, from the 1970s

11:02 PM, Nov 22, 2011   |    comments
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Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

It's a pleasure to welcome back Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of the lovable Muppet crew.

More fresh than retro, The Muppets bursts with charm and cheeky humor.

Blending self-deprecating comic asides with high-spirited showmanship, the movie captures the essence of Jim Henson's classic 1970s TV show and 1979's The Muppet Movie.

Amid clever quips, writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller pay warm tribute to Henson's genius. Director James Bobin, a veteran of edgier comic fare like HBO's Flight of the Conchords and Da Ali G Show, embraces the innocent upbeat style of the show conceived by Henson, who died in 1990.

There's enough nostalgia for those who grew up on the gang, and sufficient goofy amusement for children who are being introduced to the colorful puppets.

The movie also inducts a new Muppet into the mix: Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), the beloved brother of man-child Gary (Segel). Amy Adams is perfectly cast as Gary's bubbly girlfriend, Mary.

When Gary, Mary and Walter take a vacation from their small town to Hollywood, they make a stop at the rundown Muppet Studios. There, they learn of a dastardly plot being hatched by a ruthless millionaire (Chris Cooper) to raze the site and drill for oil.

Shaken, they set out to find the Muppets, coax them out of retirement and convince them to stage a show to raise money to buy the place back.

First stop: Kermit the Frog. The leggy green guy rattles around his mansion, wondering why people don't care about The Muppets anymore. (The top-rated TV show in this universe is one where students punch their teachers.)

Kermit has never gotten over his love for Piggy, who has become the editor of a Parisian fashion magazine (she sports Vogue editor Anna Wintour's hairstyle and has Emily Blunt as her secretary, a làThe Devil Wears Prada).

Gary, Mary and Walter rocket around finding Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and the rest of the gang in a playful segment that mocks film conventions and the oft-used shorthand of montages.

Segel and Stoller stock the movie with cute celebrity cameos, including Neil Patrick Harris and Lady Gaga. The action is nimbly paced, with an energetic score that mixes signature tunes with new material, like the theme song Life's a Happy Song.

The cast - plushy felt or flesh and bone - is winningly cheery, but never in a schmaltzy way.

Despite self-aware jokes about the gang's waning relevance, the filmmakers point to the value of the Muppets' good-natured idealism over cynicism. Cue The Rainbow Connection, which remains as sweet a tune as ever.

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