There are two prominent types of nostalgia. The first is the annoying pontification from on high, the "don't you remember BEING A KID?" method. We've seen this from any number of films in the past few years, (*Cough, Where the Wild Things Are) played out with all the subtlety of a smash and grab robbery. The second type of nostalgia, the preferred type, is when a film delivers in the same manner you fondly remember, but adds a little something new, a wrinkle or two, allowing you to authentically reconnect with the material. Avenue two is The Muppets, a very enjoyable time at the movies.
The opening of The Muppets doesn't portend the movie it will eventually become. It's very Jason Segel-heavy, and he's joined by his girlfriend Amy Adams, plus a friend named Walter who looks a heck of a lot like a muppet his own self. At the outset, as an audience, you can't help but think "Who is this Jason Segel, and what has he done with my Kermy?" This is a valid reaction, the same involuntary twitch you'd get from a flu shot, but this technique turns out to be quite clever. Somehow Segel realized that just throwing the Muppets back in our faces without context wouldn't be as effective, thus the slow build allows us to appreciate Gonzo, Animal, Fozzie, and company all the more. Plus, the film realizes we're living in a post-Muppet world, and isn't that sad and astonishing? The Muppets certainly think it is, though they go about evangelizing in their normal self-deprecating manner.
The vehicle constructed for the transference of Muppet-related jokes is as follows: Segel and Adams head to Los Angeles for an anniversary. They aren't engaged, but Adams is hoping this special occasion will do just the trick. Segel (and it's at this point I should probably note his name in the film is "Gary") brings Walter along because he doesn't want him to feel left out, and also because Walter is a huge Muppets fan who really wants to see the famous Hollywood studio. Unfortunately, when they finally arrive in Los Angeles they are disheartened to learn the Muppet facilities are a shell of their former grandeur, and further disillusioned to find that a tycoon (Chris Cooper) has his sights set on the very land that used to host The Muppet Show. As per normal, he's in it for the oil. Gary and Walter must step up! But can they get the Muppets back together in time? There's your story, with a side of PG dramatic tension thrown in for good measure.
Kermit is the first Muppet to meet Gary, Mary (Amy Adams), and Walter, and he's cajoled into getting the gang back together. It's at this juncture that the film begins to gain speed, as in-jokes and the repeated breaking of the fourth wall lead to maximum hilarity. Make no mistake, these are your father's Muppets, but they are keenly aware that the world has largely passed them by. Cameos from throughout the celeb-o-sphere continually pop up, and the uniquely counter-culture Muppet humor shines right on through. The brand of comedy The Muppets offers isn't built from the newly minted awkward realism of Ricky Gervais, or of the old-school anger and fury of the late, great Bill Hicks. It's something kinder, gentler, and more broad -- willfully detached from ego but still earnestly comical.
The whole enterprise plays as an extended and souped-up Muppet Show episode, though it's impossible to tell if this will capture younger audience's imagination. Most of the laughs from the film seem to come from a place where you know and are invested in the characters. It would be a sad commentary if the film that sardonically giggled "time has passed the Muppets by!" turned out to be a facilitator of just that phenomenon. But that's a conversation for a different time and place; for now you can rest easy -- if you have previously loved the Muppets, you will likely currently love The Muppets. It's been over a decade, but it's remained the same, we are all Kermit, we are all Miss Piggy, standing on stage in front of a giant spotlight, hoping and praying we'll find love and adoration one last time.