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Jason Wallis It’s time to play the music ... it’s time to light the lights ...

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, December 2, 2011 8:01 am

How quickly things can change. Just a week ago, I was so desperate for a movie to review that I actually sat and watched “The Twilight Saga — Breaking Dawn: Part 1” for two hours. (I’ve broken bones, suffered through mono, gotten tattooed and had a wisdom tooth wrenched out of my head without Novocain, but honestly, all pale in comparison to the sheer unpleasantness of the “Twilight” experience.)

Now, just a few days later, I’m overwhelmed with screening choices thanks to Hollywood studios’ insistence on holding all potentially worthwhile releases for the awards-season blitz we call December. There’s no way I’ll be able to get to all the notable titles, but I shall make an effort to look at as many as possible by doubling up on my reviews for the next several weeks.

Next week, I intend to catch up with Martin Scorsese’s highly acclaimed family film “Hugo” and share some brief thoughts on “My Week with Marilyn,” now playing in limited release. After that it’s the sophisticated espionage thriller “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” paired with David Gordon Greene’s “The Sitter,” followed by “Young Adult” and “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” (in all likelihood, I’ll be sitting out “Sherlock Holmes: Games of Shadows”.) Next up are David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” with Spielberg’s “War Horse” and the 9/11 exploitation drama “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” capping off the holiday movie season.

The schedule is subject to revision (I’ll have to fit “The Descendants” in somewhere, at the very least), but it looks like a good preliminary plan to me. For now, though, let’s keep things simple with a short look at “The Muppets,” which isn’t so much a traditional film as it is an unabashedly sentimental exercise in nostalgia that anyone aged 25 to 40 simply won’t be able to resist.

Jim Henson’s Muppets, for a time, redefined the concept of family entertainment. By taking the long-neglected Vaudeville format and marrying it to the more modern “Saturday Night Live”-esque comic sensibilities of the late 1970s, Henson crated a truly unique vision that appealed to both kids and adults in a most revolutionary way. However, that was a different, simpler time. In an entertainment age dominated by elaborate CGI and 3D effects, not to mention the Internet, the Muppets slowly but surely lost their place in American pop culture. After all, how are low-tech puppets and Vaudevillian humor supposed to compete with the burgeoning influences of digital technology, or the typically adult sense of irony and cynicism that has made it way into virtually all family-oriented entertainment?

“The Muppets” marks the troupe’s first big-screen outing in 12 years (following the ill-conceived “Muppets from Space”), and takes a refreshingly postmodern look at the franchise, tackling head-on the perceived irrelevance of the Muppets in contemporary society. As the movie opens we are introduced to Walter, a puppet “born” to human parents in the late ’70s, when Muppet fever was sweeping the nation. Water and his human brother, Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the screenplay), are somewhat isolated in their ’50-inspired Smalltown, USA existence, and remain diehard Muppet fans through the decades even as the rest of the country forgets about them.

To celebrate the now-adult Gary’s 10-year anniversary with his fiancée, Mary (Amy Adams), the sunny trio head to L.A. to tour the now-dilapidated site of the former Muppet Studios. There, they unwittingly uncover a plot by oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to gain control of the studio and drill for the oil underneath. Naturally, this discovery leads to a Muppet reunion as the troupe must band together to save their former home. The solution, of course, is to hold a reunion telethon to raise the $10 million needed to buy back the theater.

As written by lifelong Muppets fan Segel, the film is pure nostalgia, embedded with a sense of genuine affection for memories past that simply cannot be faked. But rather than sticking with the tired formula of inserting the Muppets into an already familiar story (“A Christmas Carol,” “The Wizard of Oz,” etc.), or crafting another old-school road picture a la the original films, or trying the make the characters “bigger” than they are by thrusting them into a big-budget comeback extravaganza, the filmmakers are single-minded in their celebratory approach to the material, which is more in line with the spirit of the original TV show than any of the movies.

Walter makes for effective straight-man fodder as an unusually “normal” Muppet struggling to find his place in society, and Segel is just goofy and earnest enough to glean some gentle laughs. But the Muppets themselves remain the stars of the show (with beloved bit players like Janice, Bobo the Bear, Sam the Eagle and the Swedish Chef getting their due screen time), and their emotion-wrought reunion makes for more compelling drama than one will find in most “serious” films, provided you’re susceptible to the nonstop nostalgia. But even the uninitiated are likely to enjoy themselves, as Segel and company prove that the charm of the Muppets is universal and, indeed, timeless.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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