Walt Disney Pictures1. "The Muppets" is a roaring good time because of the inherent goodwill the Muppets themselves bring to the screen, not so much because of the movie itself ... but that's OK, because if you've got Muppets in your movie, the journey to mirth is pretty much already completed. To the credit of Jason Segel (the film's star, co-writer and clear creative kingpin; it's his obsessive love for the Muppets that shines through every scene), he knows who his stars are, and lets them do their thing. The movie never quite nails down a consistent tone -- it's postmodern madcap for the first 45 minutes, then shifts into something more traditional and less interesting as it goes along -- and there's a little part of me that wonders whether we needed Segel and his on-screen Muppet brother Walter at all. But then the Swedish Chef shows up and Gonzo jumps off a roof with some chickens and it all fades away. "The Muppets" is an undeniable gas.
2. Segel plays Gary, who grows up with Walter in "Smalltown" idolizing the Muppets but in a stage of arrested development himself, with his long-suffering girlfriend Mary (played as charmingly as ever by Amy Adams, though it might have been smarter to give her a more modern touch) waiting for him to let go of the Muppets and marry her. With an enjoyable, self-referential dance sequence to open the movie, Segel and director Jason Bobin set a fun, anything-goes tone that's an echo of "Flight of the Conchords," where Bobin made his name. (There's a hilarious moment when, at the end of a town-wide song-and-dance, when Gary, Mary and Walter leave, the whole citizenry collapses in relief; "They're gone!") The trio heads to take a tour of the dilapidated, abandoned Muppet Studios in Los Angeles, where they discover that an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper, having a grand old time) plans on destroying the building because there's oil underneath, of course. So they go meet Kermit, gather up the old gang and put together One Big Show to try to save the studio. If nothing else, Segel gets credit for ending his Muppet movie with One Big Show. It could be no other way.
3. It was a clear strategic decision for Segel and company to make the rest of the world, outside the Muppet universe, essentially Muppet-ized itself; this is not Kirk and Spock riding a bus with a mohawked guy blasting a boom box. This is a bit strange at times, though, when we're told the world has forgotten about the Muppets, that they're relics of an older, less cynical time. Really? This movie's going to be a huge hit; people still love the Muppets, to be certain. But the movie still has much fun with what the Muppets are up to these days. Fozzie is working a casino show in Reno with "the Moopets." Gonzo is a millionaire plumbing magnate. Animal is in an anger management class with Jack Black. Rowlf (my personal favorite Muppet) is just sleeping in a hammock. Most memorably, Miss Piggy is the plus-size editor of French Elle, complete with an assistant played by Emily Blunt, revising her very funny "The Devil Wears Prada" role. These scenes when the Muppets take over are so much fun that you start caring less about Gary, Mary and Walter. You just want the Muppets to just keep hanging around and doing crazy things. The main characters of the movie become a distraction, which makes one wonder why they're around in the first place. More Muppets.
4. Still, the Muppets miss Jim Henson. (As we all do.) The movie needs his touch, and when it tries to ape it -- like when Kermit reprises "Rainbow Connection" with Miss Piggy -- you can feel the absence of his ineffable magic. (Even though it's Kermit singing his most famous song, it feels like a cover.) The movie also is never drop dead funny; it's more about a sensibility, the genuine warmth of the Muppets. There's not even that much of the charm and high-wire act of Segel's puppet scenes in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," which were like the Muppets crossed with '70s-era Meat Loaf, with absolute, almost painful sincerity; the closest he comes is a charming "Am I A Man Or A Muppet?" duet with Walter late in the film. Walter's still a little bit of a problem. He's like a duller Scooter, really, and once he discovers his One True Muppet Talent, it feels superfluous and unimpressive. But then, once again, Animal shows up and starts hitting the drums like a maniac, and look there's Dr. Teeth and look there's Beaker and look there are so many Muppets.
5. Now that it's established that the Muppets are back, it's a relief we won't have to reintroduce them again. One of the more underrated Muppet movies is "A Muppet Christmas Carol," which plopped the Muppets right down in the traditional Dickens story and let them play off Michael Caine (Michael Caine!) as Scrooge. One of the great things about the Muppets is that they infuse every scene they're in with joy and chaotic lunacy; you don't necessarily need to make a movie about them, because whatever movie they're in is inherently about them, no matter what else is going on. Maybe the next film is Muppets Wizard of Oz or something, with a name brand star to play off, and a story to anchor the madness to. This is obviously a passion project for Segel, and every scene projects a "Holy cow, we're making a Muppet movie, I can't believe it!" cheerful vibe that's infectious. The movie loses its anarchic spirit halfway through, once it gets bogged down in the details of preparing the One Big Show, but that's OK: I'd get distracted by the Muppets, too. The Muppets never went away, and "The Muppets" is a celebration of that. It's time to play the music, and it's time to light the lights.