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Jokes about how out-of-date the Muppets are date to at least 1996, when Lisa Simpson asked Homer, "Dad, what's a Muppet?" (His response: "Well, it's not quite a mop and it's not quite a puppet ...".) For anyone familiar with Jim Henson's cast of foam-and-fur puppets (date of origin: 1954) it's a bizarre conceit even to ask: the Muppets were staples on "Sesame Street" (since 1969) and "The Muppet Show" (b. 1976, d. 1981) and "Fraggle Rock" ('83 to '87) and then as pint-sized animations on "Jim Henson's Muppet Babies" ('84-'91) and, in the last TV show to include the word "Muppets" in its title, the short-lived "Muppets Tonight," which drew down in 1998. There were eight movies from 1979 to 2005 to remind the world of Muppetdom, but no theatrical releases since the 1999 flop "Muppets in Space." Their one-time ubiquity is no more. The average 15-year-old might be inexcusably ignorant in myriad ways, but by now you can't blame the poor thing for wondering what a Muppet is.
The sense of general Muppetlessness is a central conceit of "The Muppets," a reboot title if ever there was one. In it, a boy named Walter grows up in Smalltown, U.S.A., feeling a bit different — kinda short, reedy and made with some kind of supple foam. You could probably diagnose him with Muppetism upon sight, but he just becomes a hardcore Muppet fanboy without ever understanding why. When his brother Gary (Jason Segel, who also splits a writing credit) invites Walter to join him and his girlfriend of 10 years Mary (Amy Adams) on a trip to the Muppets' old studio, Walter is elated. Then in L.A. he finds the studio in a state of decrepitude (not unlike the franchise) and learns that an oil baron named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is buying the studio in order to raze it and drill. A loophole in the contract means the Muppets can halt the sale if they can scrounge up a cool 10 million bucks, so Walter seeks out Muppet ringleader Kermit the Frog, whose only solution to raising that kind of fliff is to put on a show.
But it turns out these "Muppets" Muppets are as rusty as the real-life Muppets. They haven't performed together for years, and as Kermit tries to get the gang back together he finds the talents of Fozzie the Bear being wasted in a Reno casino fronting a tribute act called the Moopets, while Gonzo is indulging his inner plumbing executive and Animal is in some kind of new age retreat to wean him away from drumming. The Muppets were always comfortably meta enterprise, happy to kick down the fourth wall if it meant even a chance at a chuckle, but "The Muppets" is self-aware even by their standards. This movie about the Muppets' comeback show to help save them from obscurity and ruin is that very comeback show! And it's pretty funny! Every size and shape of joke gets tossed in; if you balk at Fozzie's cornball vaudeville, no matter, as a Gonzo pratfall or Chris Cooper rap is moments away. The camp is high, and it's everywhere.
Director James Bobin, in his first feature film, taps the absurdist musical spirit of his "Flight of the Conchords" to slip song into even the smallest crannies of the plot, and it's in these numbers that the nostalgia rides highest. When Smalltown's good citizens jump into choreographed lines as mail carriers and milkmen and florists, the Muppets' vision of America is realized: quaint yet garish, earnest yet sly, unabashedly silly. If this was all you knew of the Muppets, you'd have to wonder where they've been all these years.