Movie review: A triumphant return for “The Muppets”

[Update: I wrote this review on 11/5, but I’m bumping this back to the top of the blog now that the film has been released.]

Walter quit growing at about three feet tall. He’s a covered in fur. He has a funny voice.

His brother Gary (a wide-eyed Jason Segel) is clearly human and keeps growing, but — like his fuzzy brother — remains emotionally stuck in childhood. Perhaps a trip to Los Angeles with his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) will be the occasion that propels him into adulthood?

But Gary wants to take along Walter (beautifully voiced by Peter Linz), who is obsessed with Jim Henson’s Muppets — a relic of his childhood. The Muppets delights even before Gary, Mary, and Walter get out of Smalltown. Some wonderfully comic absurdities (Mary teaches auto repair in an ordinary classroom), the film’s ironic self-consciousness and a huge musical number in the street combine for some stellar moments.

The Disney film, nimbly directed by James Bobin (The Flight of the Conchords) and written by Segel and Nicholas Stoller, doesn’t always maintain the delightful pace of that opening sequence, but I suspect old and new Muppets fans will find the movie touching and exhilarating.

Once in L.A., Gary, Mary, and Walter find the crumbling old Muppets studio and theatre — with autographed photos of Jim Henson and TV guest stars still on the walls. It’s here that a rapt Walter overhears billionaire Tex Richman — nothing subtle in that name — as he details his plans to tear down the studio and drill for oil. Chris Cooper’s Richman is wild, bitter, a bit-over-the-top — and a pretty good rapper.

So our tourist trio track down Kermit, living in relaxed, isolated luxury in Bel Air. Steve Whitmire’s Kermit captures everything that many of us loved years — even decades — ago. He’s weary but excitable, realistic but always hopeful. He knows the Muppets days are over, but he’s willing to take on a harebrained scheme to assemble all his old friends for a telethon to raise enough money to prevent Richman from getting the land.

The Muppets perks up as the characters go on the road again — from Reno to Paris. There’s a hilarious sequence of montages and of “traveling by map.” Soon, the Muppets are together again, but does anyone care after all these years?

The Muppets is a comeback story, told with song, dance, wit, and puppetry. It’s a story of friends who become family. It’s a story of finding our true callings.

The Muppets has cameos or small parts for a panoply of familiar faces, including Mickey Rooney, Neil Patrick Harris, Whoopi Goldberg ,Foo Fighters’ David Grohl, James Carville, and a more-than-a-little reluctant Jack Black. They bring even more life to an already warm and funny film.

Small Fry, a delightful short featuring characters from Toy Story, is being shown along with The Muppets.

The Savannah Film Festival had the good fortune to show The Muppets last night. The surprise screening was the first public showing ever for the film, which will be released on November 23rd in the U.S. and Canada.