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Muppets' reunion is a witty delight
Film pays homage to iconic characters in fun, family-friendly tale
Jason Segel stars with Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog in "The Muppets."

The Muppets

Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy

Rating: PG, for some mild rude humor

Runtime: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Bottom line: A joyous escape and welcome comeback

There is nothing I didn't love about "The Muppets." No movie has made me laugh so much or lifted my spirits so high in years.

I have been a Muppets fan since I was a kid, so I expected to enjoy it. But I had no idea it would be good enough to compete for my best-of-the-year list.

The producers show a crystal clear understanding of who their audience is, because they are longtime members of that audience.

Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, best known for being part of the Judd Apatow crew, co-wrote and executive produced the movie. By all accounts, they are responsible for getting "The Muppets" made.

That's right. Two mid-30s guys known for their work on movies like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Get Him to the Greek" brought the Muppets back to the silver screen.

Defying expectations, they retained all the innocence, earnestness and old-school comic sensibilities that have always defined Jim Henson's greatest contribution to popular culture. This movie sets the tone of a campy 1930s musical from the outset and milks it for all the yuks and "awes" it can.

Segel stars as Gary, who lives in a small town snatched from Norman Rockwell's imagination. Gary's best friend in the whole world is his brother, who happens to be a puppet named Walter.

The opening sequence has great fun showing Gary and Walter growing up together. They never explain the fact that Walter is a puppet, but they do mine it for some hilarious gags.

Gary's sweetheart is a teacher named Mary (Amy Adams). Gary and Mary are going on a romantic trip to Los Angeles, but as always, Walter is going to tag along, which Mary reluctantly accepts. Gary feels he needs to take care of Walter, but Mary just wants some time alone with her beau.

With romantic tension established, these three gee-whiz kids ride a bus to L.A. Their first stop is a tour of the Muppet theater. The place is in a sad state of disrepair, because the Muppets haven't performed together in years. They are now a mostly forgotten relic of the past.

The studio visit initiates a fun metacommentary on the real status of the Muppets in popular culture. The Muppets haven't appeared in theatres since 1999's ho-hum "Muppets from Space." They've only been in a few little-seen TV movies since then.

In the movie, as in reality, the Muppets aren't famous any more.

Walter soon learns that the theater is in danger of being destroyed, too. He sneaks into a restricted area then has to hide when a few people enter the room. He overhears the evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) discussing his plan to buy the Muppet theater so he can demolish it and drill on the property.

Destroying the Muppet theater would be the literal and symbolic end of the Muppets. Walter, Gary, and Mary can't allow that to happen. They find Kermit and convince him that the Muppets must be saved.

How can they save the Muppets? Well, this is a musical, so they put on a show, of course!

They track down the rest of the Muppets one by one and reunite the troupe. They then stage a telethon in the old Muppet theater, hoping to raise $10 million to buy back the place from Richman and restore the Muppets' fame.

The movie succeeds by combining classic Muppet comedy, an old fashioned story and nostalgia with ironic wit and a contemporary cast. It's all tongue-in-cheek and self-aware cheese.

Segel, Stoller, and the cast obviously grew up with the Muppets and wanted to revive the franchise without losing what was special about it to begin with. That's exactly what they've done.

I saw this with my wife and son, and it went beyond a movie screening. It felt like we were passing on something timeless and precious. You should, too.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.