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Bygone Days, Be Gone

What do you do to revive a dying franchise that dates its glory days back to the 1980s? If you’re the Muppets, you throw a Hail Mary pass in the form of a movie – about a Hail Mary pass to revive the franchise. And make sure to include plenty of references to your glory days and the 1980s. The latest installment from the legendary puppetry workshop that Jim Henson built, though by now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Disney brand, is a wan, humorless attempt to make the Muppets a household name for a new generation. Simply titled “The Muppets,” the movie begins with Walter, a puppet-who-does-not-know-he’s-a-Muppet (voiced by Peter Linz), growing up in a human household with his brother Gary (Jason Segel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller). Watching reruns of the old Muppets TV show, Walter instantly identifies with them, especially with Kermit the Frog. Soon, and somewhat to the dismay of Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) who has been promised a more romantic getaway, the three are on their way to Hollywood for a vacation and a tour of the Muppet studios. But the studios are shuttered and cobwebbed, and worse, have fallen into the hands of an evil oil baron, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, playing for maximum evil effect). An oil baron with a stereotypical name, you ask? Don’t. Only Walter can save the day, by convincing Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and his merry band of Muppet misfits including Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobson), Gonzo (Dave Goelz), the Swedish Chef (Bill Barretta), and of course the ever-amorous Miss Piggy (Jacobson again) to reunite for one last go-round of the Muppet Show. Not Adams, reprising her Disney-inspired, dewey-eyed “Enchanted” turn, complete with musical numbers; not the bland Segel; not Fozzie’s fart shoes; not adorable Rashida Jones as the TV producer; not Piggy’s googly-eyes and Cooper’s weirdness; not even the selection, abduction, really, of Jack Black to be the show’s celebrity host; none of this raises, even slightly, “The Muppets” above a self-pitying exercise in nostalgia. Apparently the Muppet marketers know when they’re losing market share. Hence the nostalgia bath, best exemplified by Kermit’s solo song and long walk through a portrait gallery of past triumphs, including guest hosts like Rich Little and Julie Andrews. True, adults at the movie might emit a wistful sigh at hearing Kermit and Piggy sing “Rainbow Connection” and seeing them fall in love all over again. And children younger than 5 might relate to the gentle message of being true to one’s self. For everyone in between, though, “The Muppets” offers little in the way of sustained interest. (I have this on good authority from the 9- and 12-year-old critics who accompanied me.) Maybe this time the Muppets, like Michael Jordan in his prime, will stay retired for good. Better that than risk tarnishing their legacy any further. “The Muppets” is rated G. It is playing at The Movie­house in Millerton and elsewhere in wide release.

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