It seems strange to think that a movie actually needed to be made to re-introduce the Muppets to a new generation of kids. For those of us who did grow up with Henson’s creation, it often feels like the Muppets should just be one of those things that you are born with an instinctual knowledge of. You know – “fire is bad, the Muppets are good.” But I guess it makes sense. Although acquiring the Muppets in 2004 was an obvious coup for Disney (in terms of merchandising money alone), the company has never seemed quite sure what to do with them, and in recent years they have been relegated to forgettable TV movies and a number of excellent YouTube videos.

As awesome as those videos were, Muppets fans knew they deserved a bigger stage for their antics. And so I have to say “thank Henson” for Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, two life-long fans who made their love of Henson-like puppetering known in their hit comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and then proceeded to propose this new film to Disney. From the evidence on-hand, Segel and Stoller – along with director James Bobin (best known for Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Conchords) – were the perfect guys to bring the Muppets back to the big time, delivering a film that returns the Muppets to a modern world while never losing sight of what made them so great in the first place.

Jason Segel stars as Gary, a regular guy from Smalltown, USA. Gary, somewhat inexplicably, has a Muppet brother named Walter; the two are best of friends and spend their formative years obsessed with The Muppet Show, dreaming of one day meeting their idols. Years later, when Gary is set to take his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to LA for their tenth anniversary, he decides to bring Walter along (to the annoyance of Mary), in order that his brother can finally visit the hallowed Muppet Theater.

Once there, though, the three find the theater in complete disarray, having not been used or maintained for years. Even worse, Walter overhears Statler and Waldorf selling the theater to an evil oil baron named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who plans to tear the building down and drill for oil. Thankfully, and in a nice callback to the original The Muppet Movie, it turns out there is a clause in Kermit’s “Standard Rich and Famous” contract that states that if the Muppets can raise $10 million by a certain date, they can re-buy the theater for themselves. Unfortunately, the Muppets haven’t performed together or even spoken to each other in years.

This sets Walter, Gary and Mary on a quest to find and reunite the Muppets, convincing them to put on a Muppets Show-style telethon to raise the money. Seeing the Muppets get back together during the middle part of the movie is a lot of fun (I especially loved when Fozzie suggested saving time by getting the rest of the gang in a montage), but the real treat of the film is the final act’s telethon, which closely resembles the original series and makes a pretty good argument for bringing The Muppet Show back to the airwaves (at times it feels like this is the film’s main modus operandi, even more so than restoring them to big-screen glory).

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy this film. While it’s maybe not as good as the first few original Muppets movies, it’s certainly worthy of standing beside them. For existing fans, it’s a nostalgic blast featuring many moving and hilarious moments that will remind you of some of your favorite Muppets memories. But the good news is the movie never allows the nostalgia to completely take over (which can be the kiss of death for a movie like this), instead peppering those moments throughout a story that is really all about re-introducing the Muppets. This will obviously be the first Muppets movie many children will see, and they will never feel lost or confused by any of the old references.

I know there has been some concern about the Jason Segel and Amy Adams element, and whether the movie was going to focus too much on its two human leads. I’m happy to report that is certainly not an issue. If anything, I’d almost argue that the movie could have used a little more of them, as the idea of Mary feeling threatened by Gary and Walter’s relationship is sort of forgotten about for a long chunk in the middle (indeed, Mary is initially surprisingly on-board with the whole “spending our entire vacation helping the Muppets” concept, only later becoming aggravated when Gary can’t find an adequate balance between spending time with her or the gang). But their story is cute and both actors are incredibly charming in their roles. It never feels like they are here to steal screen-time from the Muppets.

Nor is that the case with the new Muppet, Walter, who technically is the real star of the story. This was always a larger concern for me than Segel and Adams, as focusing the film on a brand-new Muppet created without any input from Jim Henson seemed a risky proposition. But Walter is a fantastic addition to the Muppet crew, and the tale of him trying to find his place in a human-dominated world is undeniably moving. Wherever the Muppets go from here, I hope Disney is smart enough to keep Walter around as a member. I think he earns his spots in this one.

Meanwhile, the movie also makes great use of two other Muppet traditions – cameos and musical numbers. The songs this time are written and supervised by Flight of the Conchords member Bret McKenzie. This could have been another potential stumble; as much as I love the Conchords, their style of humor doesn’t really feel appropriate for the Muppets. But the good news is the songs avoid Conchords-esque humor and are instead just rather traditional musical-type numbers, infused with as much heart as the rest of the movie. If their biggest problem is that none of them are as memorable as “The Rainbow Connection,” well, don’t worry, because that song comes back for a show-stealing performance near the end, proving it is just as powerful today as when Kermit first sang it back in 1979.

The cameos are a lot of fun, as well. Apparently a large number of cameos – including Danny Trejo, Ricky Gervais and Anne Hathaway, among others – ended up on the cutting room (which at least insinuates a potentially awesome special edition DVD), but the ones that made the cut are a blast (Zack Galifianakis as “Hobo Joe,” FTW!). In fact, Jack Black’s extended cameo is one of the funniest things he’s done in a long time. And while his role is a bit too large to really call a cameo, I still have to single out Chris Cooper’s rap number, which might just be my favorite scene in the whole movie because…well…because it’s Chris Cooper rapping.

All in all, The Muppets is exactly the movie it needed to be. It avoids what I’m sure might have been a temptation of some Disney execs to try to “modernize” the Muppets (indeed, this very idea is brilliantly mocked within the movie by “The Moopets,” harsh and edgy versions of the classic gang), instead going back to all the things that made us fall in love with them in the first place. Like the best family films, it entertains while also teaching valuable lessons (here about forgiveness and finding your place in the world). It’s funny, sweet and touching, and further evidence that no matter what the current entertainment landscape is like, Henson’s creations will always have a place.

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