When The Muppet Show had its heyday, I was a big fan — which might puzzle a few people who know how old I am, since I was in high school for almost the entirety of its first-run span.  My friends and I were in the theater group, and we loved the snarky asides, the breaking of the fourth wall, and the gentle, playful digs at the theater as well as at pretense in general.  At some level, though, I’m sure we also loved the connection to our quickly-departing childhoods, made easier by the genuinely high quality of the supposedly shoestring production values, plus the never-ending string of celebrities who willingly played along with the joke.

It’s been more than a decade since the Muppets last made their mark on American audiences, and their last outing (Muppets in Space) didn’t leave too many people yearning for their return.  Fortunately, Judd Apatow regular Jason Segel was one of those few, and he co-wrote and co-exec-produced The Muppets, which debuted this weekend.  The film brings back everything that made the old series wonderful and presents it to a new generation of Muppet fans … and a couple of older generations as well.

The plot is a mix of reboot and sequel.  The Muppets have long since gone their separate ways, so when brothers Gary (Segel) and Walter (a Muppet voiced by Peter Linz) travel to Los Angeles with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to see their studio, it’s a wreck that’s about to be seized by ruthless billionaire Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who wants to destroy it to drill for oil.  The only thing that will save it will be for the Muppets to get back together and put on a telethon to raise the $10 million needed to keep the studio.  If they don’t, as Mary says, “It’s going to be a short movie.”  The Muppets set out on a road trip to get their group back together, fix the theater, and raise the money to protect it and their own names, as the rival Moopets look to take their place with Richman’s help.

Needless to say, the film plays with these cliches even as it uses them, and none of it gets taken too seriously.  Cooper is unexpectedly hilarious as the eeevil Richman, mostly by playing it so straight that the schtick is made all the more obvious.  The songs are both sweet and funny, and the early musical numbers get treated irreverently.  Segel and Adams make a great pair on screen, both being especially earnest in their roles, allowing the Muppets themselves to provide most of the jokey asides.  Just as with the earlier, classic Muppets incarnations, the film is filled with all-star cameo appearances, including a rather substantial one from Jack Black as himself.  Kids will mostly miss the inside humor of these appearances, but the adults will love them.

We saw the film last night with three generations of our extended family.  All three loved the film; the Little Admiral at nine years of age proclaimed, “I didn’t like the movie — I LOVED it!”  Her three-year-old little sister was so engrossed in the movie that she stood for most of the film, staring at the screen, even after being tired out by a Thanksgiving Day that didn’t include her usual nap.  A few of us from the older generation sang quietly along with “The Rainbow Connection,” and the First Mate almost did a genuine spit-take after taking a swig of water right before one punch line dropped.  I would highly recommend The Muppets as a family viewing experience this weekend, or any other weekend.