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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Delightful The Muppets goes beyond nostalgia
Deeply felt
Endlessly entertaining.
Endlessly entertaining.

Hard as it is to pick one scene that captures everything delightful about the endlessly entertaining The Muppets, let me go with this one: During the climactic live Muppet Show revival at the end, Camilla - beloved chicken of Gonzo the Great - and several poultry friends perform a version of a certain recent, ubiquitous Cee Lo Green hit. The tune is sung entirely in "buck buck" noises, without subtitles - not just for a moment to establish the gag, but in full chorus-verse-chorus. And the longer it goes, the funnier it gets.

Maybe you have to love everything the Muppets were in their late-1970s heyday to appreciate why that's a quintessentially Muppet-tastic moment. First, it's musical, capturing the let-us-entertain-you variety vibe that carried The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie. Second, it's equal parts silly and subversive. Co-writer/star Jason Segel has proclaimed his abiding affection for the characters, and The Muppets is the proof. He not only "gets" them, but he knows how to recapture what made them great.

Segel and writing partner Nicholas Stoller find their surrogate in Walter (performed by Peter Linz), the Muppets' biggest fan - and also, though he seems completely unaware of it, a Muppet himself. When he and his devoted brother, Gary (Segel), take a trip to California with Gary's longtime girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), they learn that ruthless developer Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is planning to tear down the old Muppet Theater. Scant days remain to raise $10 million to save the place, which means it's time to find a now-retired Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and try to reunite the fuzzy crew for a benefit show.

The resulting plot is a mix of the road-trip flavor of the first Muppet Movie, Andy Hardy "let's put on a show" musicals and the "we're putting the band back together" premise of The Blues Brothers. It's a setup that allows for plenty of free-flowing humor. For 97 minutes, The Muppets sends out wave after wave of puns, broad visual gags, self-referential asides and genuine warmth. Nearly every last bit of it works, especially the musical numbers, which are inspired both as catchy songwriting and as showcases for brilliant humor.

When you're dealing with something like The Muppets, it's hard not to ponder how much nostalgia plays into one's response. But there's the nostalgia that comes from simply trotting out a bunch of characters and saying, "Hey, remember them?," and then there's showing a deep respect for the source material. As Kermit suggests near the end of The Muppets, maybe you don't need to have everybody love you, as long as one person does. Jason Segel loved the Muppets enough to give them a showcase that's a clucking masterpiece.

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