These have been dark and difficult times, Kermit the Frog. With 15 years since the last semi-commercially successful Muppet feature (“Muppet Treasure Island”) and appearances limited to a handful of blink-and-you-miss-it TV specials, the Muppets had nearly evaporated from cultural relevancy. Entire generations have never been swooned by the banjo-plucking of the amphibian with the angelic voice and associate Fozzie Bear’s catchphrase “waka waka” with Shakira’s World Cup anthem (or confuse it with the Atlanta rapper).
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But the Rainbow Connection has been restored with the release of “The Muppets,” willed to life by Jason Segel (TV’s “How I Met Your Mother”) and continuing Disney’s venerable tradition of handing the creative reigns to filmmakers who are passionate about the material they’re bringing to screen. Segel is quite the ardent Muppet aficionado, and as co-writer, executive producer and star, he pours every drop of his adoration for the Jim Henson creations into this movie. And it all pays off — Segel’s exuberance seeps into every second of “The Muppets,” carving a delicious family film that proves Kermit and his felt crew still got it going on.
The key to the Muppets’ storied success had always been their remarkable ability to shift between humor aimed at kids and adults without trepidation. The involvement of Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller — whose last script was the raunch-tastic “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” — may have raised eyebrows, but the duo nails the balance. For every gag about “fart shoes” and electrocuted puppets that will have tykes soiling their Pull-Ups with laughter, there’s sharp self-reflexive humor, carefully positioned Muppets references and a flurry of delightful celebrity cameos for everyone else. If you’re the type of adult who thinks fart shoes are hilarious — and you’re not alone — then get ready to snicker until the credits roll.
As for the sweetly silly musical numbers — the enchantment of elaborately choreographed singing and dancing transcends age and maturity. Under the direction of James Bobin, who wrote the book on staging songs that rapidly flicker between introspective and irreverent with TV’s “Flight of the Conchords,” the musical numbers give the film a shot in the arm whenever the plot stagnates.
And the swampy narrative is where the warts of “The Muppets” become evident. Though the film has a neat beginning, following the trip of Gary (Segel), Mary (Amy Adams, “The Fighter”) and Gary’s brother Walter (a puppet) to visit the now-ramshackle Muppet Studio — the home of Walter’s idols — it quickly falls into a let’s-get-the-band-back-together-and-put-on-a-big-show “Blues Brothers” ripoff. It’s lazy storytelling, even by kid’s standards, and further hampered by lame subplots (see: Animal recovering from his “drum” addiction).
But these imperfections are glossed over by the joyfully spirited cast. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Swedish Chef, Beaker, Sam Eagle and the rest are at the top of their games. And they’re accompanied by Segel, who’s clearly having the time of his life, the everlastingly lovely Amy Adams (belting out her soprano for the first time since “Enchanted”) and the cadre of cameos too cool to be spoiled. Yet Hollywood’s resident scene-stealer, Chris Cooper (“The Company Men”) pilfers another motion picture, playing an evil Texas oilman with enough ham to cause a state of emergency in a synagogue (the dude raps, for God’s sake).
The plot might be croaky, but the audience’s enjoyment of this film is testament to the allure of the Muppets: The nostalgia and wit of the characters will always transcend narrative shortcomings. With the might of the Mouse House marketing machine behind them, the Electric Mayhem Bus should keep rolling on to great things.