'The Muppets'

"In case you couldn't tell, this is a happy movie."

***1/2 (out of four)

“Life’s a happy song, when there’s someone by my side to sing along.”

That heartwarming chorus has been replaying in my head since I saw “The Muppets,” whose magic doesn’t fade either. Star/co-writer Jason Segel has bottled joy and turned it into a movie, wrapping his arms around both Muppet memories and the beloved characters themselves. He dares to tell them that even in a cynical, ironic, disconnected world, “There is always a place for you here.”

How nice it feels to be back in the land of simple pleasures, where (puppet) tongues are heart-shaped and villains are transparent outcasts in a loving society. Of course, in the world of “The Muppets,” TV has changed. One of the most popular programs is “Punch Teacher,” which is exactly what it sounds like. So a network exec (Rashida Jones) takes a big chance when she agrees to give the old gang one more shot.

The Muppets need it desperately: If they don’t raise $10 million pronto, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), an oil magnate with a name that could only belong to someone dastardly, will demolish the former Muppet studios so he can drill on the land.

The whole mission kicks off thanks to Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), who tags along with his brother Gary (Segel) and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on their trip from Smalltown, U.S.A. to Los Angeles—solely because diehard Muppet fan Walter wants to visit the place where the hits were made.

Their journey, during which Walter must learn to see himself on the same level as his heroes and Gary must stop taking his lovely better half for granted, blends youth and adulthood with delightful, infectious ease. “Muppets” overcompensates its tradition of celebrity appearances—which take the usual “Muppet” movie attitude of “We know this is a movie” too far—and keeps Gary and Mary’s subplot on the sidelines too long.

Meanwhile, the original songs vastly exceed the familiar pop tunes. Though I do prefer Cee Lo’s “[Bleep] You” when hummed by chickens over the version sung by Gwyneth Paltrow.

Plenty of movies center on the desire to stay youthful and need to grow up, but “The Muppets” plays that tune with an exuberant innocence that family flicks have mostly lost. Before Kermit rounds up the crew to save their former house, Gonzo’s working as a plumbing executive. At first he resists the reunion offer but then reconsiders, admitting that he’s been wearing his fun-loving costume under his suit for years. That’s part of getting older for everyone, Muppet or human; the hilarious, genuinely uplifting “Muppets” provides hope that, even when suppressed, enthusiastic optimism lives on, just waiting for a chance to sing again.

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais