The Muppets - Kermit, Rowlf, Amy Adams and Jason Sege and Walter
Mary (Amy Adams), boyfriend Gary (Jason Segel), Kermit the Frog and Gary's very little brother Walter convince Rowlf the Dog to help them save the Muppets' historic theater © 2011 Disney

The Muppets seem to have taken a detour into Pee-Wee Herman’s zany universe for this offbeat new adventure, a curious example of a franchise going forward into the past. That’s not a bad thing, though. It turns out that putting a little extra irony in the characters’ diet actually makes them stronger.

In the humorously post-modern Muppets reality concocted by writers Jason Segel (who also stars) and Nicholas Stoller, members of the original troupe have gone their separate ways. Their former Hollywood studio is now a dilapidated shell of its former glory, and a villainous oilman named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) wants to turn the property into a drilling site.

Segel plays the sweet-natured Gary, whose (very) little brother Walter not only is fanatical about all things Muppet but doesn’t seem to realize he is a Muppet himself. An example of the movie’s child-like absurdity is the fact that nobody finds it unusual that Gary is human but Walter very obviously is not.

The Muppets - Chris Cooper and bad Muppets
The villainous Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) and his two hench-Muppets are up to no good © 2011 Disney

Gary and his apple-pie wholesome girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) from Smalltown USA take Walter with them to Los Angeles so he can tour the Muppets studio, which turns out to be a disappointment. When they discover Richman’s evil scheme, they try getting all of the Muppets back together for a fundraiser that will let them hold onto their legacy.

The trio first enlists Kermit, now living in a Bel-Air mansion as a semi-recluse. Then they “travel by map” — a visual gag in which their movie-magic progress on a map puts them wherever they want to be — and round up the rest. Fozzie Bear is in Reno performing with a tribute act called the Moopets, Gonzo is a Midwest plumbing magnate and Miss Piggy is the plus-size fashion editor of Paris Vogue.

Full of clever songs, cheesy gags and goofy heart, the movie also includes hip celebrity cameos by the likes of Sarah Silverman, Emily Blunt and Zach Galifianakis. Jack Black appears as a very agitated version of himself, and Rashida Jones is an all-business TV exec convinced to air a Muppets telethon to save their studio.

Three standout musical numbers are a surprisingly decent rap by Cooper called “Let’s Talk About Me,” a witty Disney-disco number by Adams and Miss Piggy called “Me Party,” and a big-finale cast-of-hundreds “Life’s a Happy Song” production number on Hollywood Boulevard. And for sheer weirdness, it’s hard to beat a barbershop quartet of Muppets singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” during the mostly musical fundraising extravaganza.

There are only a few times when the movie strays too far from the kind of kid-friendly (and parent-friendly) cornball silliness that has defined the Muppets since their 1970s TV beginnings. There’s something wrong about hearing Fozzie Bear twice use the term “fart shoes” to describe whoopee cushions on his feet, and a supposed-to-be-funny scene in which he is electrocuted on a security fence may give tiny tots night terrors. Then again, pre-schoolers these days probably are playing Call of Duty with dad on the sofa every night. Never mind.

This is technically the ninth movie featuring the Muppets, when made-for-TV installments are included, and it’s definitely a lot of fun. As an extra bonus, a short CGI cartoon featuring Woody, Buzz and their new owner Bonnie from Toy Story 3 precedes the movie.

[Rating: 3.5 stars]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.