More than ever, we need a world where a pig can be romantically linked to a frog. A world where no one finds it odd that Jason Segel's little brother is a puppet, and they share a room with twin beds as well as a taste for pastel leisure suits.
"The Muppets" marks a very welcome return for Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the rest of Jim Henson's creations after a 12-year big-screen absence. From start to finish, the movie is a healthy, dizzy dose of childlike bliss, the songs campy but catchy, the humor corny but clever, the cast - both human and Muppet - one of the most lovable gangs you'll ever spend time with at the pictures (another lovable gang, the "Toy Story" playthings, star in a short animated charmer that precedes "The Muppets").
Sure, the Muppets have long been a wholly owned subsidiary of big Hollywood, namely, the Walt Disney Co. But this is a gentle, loving rebirth, leaving intact the decency and goodness that have always been at the heart of the Muppets.
The movie's an exercise in innocent playfulness that largely side-steps show business as usual, in which studio family flicks are stuffed to the rafters with glib pop-culture references and a soundtrack of tunes by flavor-of-the-month young idols. The Muppets are a world of their own - you love or leave them on their terms - and the filmmakers hold faithful to that whimsical little realm.
The result is refreshing on every level, a piece of nostalgia so old it's new again, and a breather from Hollywood's 3-D digital onslaught in favor of fur and fuzz.
Lifelong "Muppets" fan Segel, who co-wrote the movie with his "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" director Nicholas Stoller, stars as Gary, a small-town guy who heads with girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) for a dream trip to Hollywood. Tagging along is Gary's brother Walter, an endearing little puppet who's the world's biggest fan of all things Muppet.
Walter's heartbroken to find that the Muppets' studio in Hollywood has fallen into disrepair, while Kermit, his gal Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the others have long since parted company. Overhearing an evil oil man (Chris Cooper) who schemes to raze the studio and drill for petroleum, Walter enlists Gary and Mary to reunite the Muppets for a telethon to raise cash to buy the place back.
In his big-screen debut, director James Bobin ("Flight of the Conchords") establishes a nimble pace from the start and maintains it right through the closing credits. The story gleefully dashes from song-and-dance numbers to hilarious montages to the sort of precious asides that are a staple of the Muppets, among them plenty of self-aware winks and tweaks at Hollywood convention.
The movie loads up on another Muppet strength, the celebrity cameo (we won't name names, though). Some of the surprise guests add good laughs; others seem to be there because they had a hole in their schedule or were pals with the filmmakers. The overall celebrity-guest quotient winds up disappointing. After such a long time in mothballs, the Muppets deserve a better turnout of top stars to welcome them back.
Wide-eyed with obvious reverence for the Muppets, Segel and particularly Adams deliver nicely on some of the movie's original songs, which are cute little toe-tappers. And it's worth the cost of a ticket just to see Academy Award winner Cooper - usually playing men so restrained they look ready to burst from internal pressure - cut loose with his own dastardly rap number.
Classic Muppets tunes also are woven in, and for anyone who grew up on "The Muppet Show," it's a thrill - yes, thrill - to see those floppy puppets dance about and sing their theme song.
The filmmakers play the "80s flashback card heavily with well-chosen songs from the era and wisecracks about how dated the Muppets are. That's good grist for parents but potentially a self-fulfilling prophecy for children who wouldn't be able to tell the Muppets from the movie's amusing tribute band the Moopets.
The plot parallels the real-world state of the Muppets - relics testing the waters to see if anyone will watch, if anyone still cares. That could be a genuine problem for the movie. Will kids who didn't grow up on Kermit and Piggy want to see it, no matter how much Muppet-era parents hope their children might love these characters the way they did?
Some parental guidance: if the kiddies are reluctant, tell them about the "Toy Story" short that plays first. No harm in letting today's No. 1 gang of fictional family stars shill for some deserving predecessors.
"The Muppets," a Disney release, is rated PG for some mild rude humor. Running time: 110 minutes, including "Toy Story" short. Three stars out of four.