In this market, you guys are no longer relevant," Rashida Jones' TV executive bluntly explains to a bunch of puppets hoping to make their showbiz comeback, but the veteran entertainers endeavor to prove her wrong in The Muppets. The first big-screen outing for the colorful crew since 1999's Muppets From Space and since Disney acquired the franchise from the Jim Henson estate in 2004, this perfectly enjoyable family comedy is disarmingly up-front about its raison d'etre -- to reboot the Muppets for a new generation of moppets. In this it should succeed, while also entertaining old fans inclined to a bit of childhood nostalgia.
A comic actor more identified with raunchy humor, Jason Segel has had a major hand in breathing new life into these 1970s-to-'90s cultural mainstays, co-writing, co-executive producing and starring in this zippy feature that is about nothing more or less than the effort to bring the long-dispersed Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal and all of the others together again. It does so with good cheer, a frank acknowledgment of changing mores and a wink at its squeaky-clean silliness.
In fact, the most clueless characters are not the Muppets, who have moved on to other pursuits with varying degrees of success, but the two would-be grown-ups, Gary (Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams), naive goody-goodies who have been together for nearly 10 years and live in Smalltown, USA. The stumbling blocks to matrimony are Gary's thoroughgoing immaturity and his relationship with his brother Walter, a Muppet who has always dreamed of jumping into the TV set to join his puppet brethren. The two guys and a girl settle on the next best thing: a trip to Los Angeles to visit the Muppet Studios.
Alas, the facility (in the movie's world, located in a dilapidated rendition of Disney's Hollywood Boulevard flagship El Capitan Theatre) has shuttered. But sneaking into Kermit's old office, Walter learns that evil real estate tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) will seize control of the whole operation unless $10 million can be raised to retain Muppet ownership.
So when in doubt or need, what do show folk do? Put on a show, of course. Finding Kermit in, of all places, Bel-Air, the intrepid group then traverses half the planet tracking down the other key players for a fund-raising performance. On one end of the spectrum, they find Fozzie Bear entertaining at a barrel-bottom lounge in Reno, Nev.; by contrast, Miss Piggy now reigns over a top fashion magazine in Paris.
Things bog down when the neglected Mary pouts over Gary's preference for the Muppets' company, though this does result in his pretty funny mock-introspective song bearing the essential refrain, "Am I a man or a Muppet?"
While the answer to that question remains unclear because of the immutable rag-doll nature of Segel's leading man, the actual cloth creatures rise to the occasion splendidly, kidnapping an unbilled Jack Black to be their unwilling star headliner and putting on a show of which Mickey Rooney himself (who makes a quick cameo early on) could be proud. For that matter, a good many others (Zach Galifianakis, Selena Gomez, Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman) also support the cause by showing their faces for a moment or two.
While the script he wrote with Nicholas Stoller nicely serves its purpose, Segel does neither himself nor his co-star Adams any favors with the infantile characters they portray. The normally wonderful Adams has never been so ill-served by a movie role since her big breakthrough in Disney's own Enchanted in 2007. Literally taking a backseat to Muppets during the road trip, she's the ultimate tag-along, never allowed to assert herself.
Still, a breezy, keen-to-please attitude prevails, and director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords, Da Ali G Show) moves things along with good cheer. At one point, when the search for stray critters begins to wear down, one asks, "May I suggest we save time and pick up the rest of the Muppets in a montage?" It's duly done.