Nov. 30, 2011 10:57

The Muppets are in marvelous form and Arthur Christmas is a holiday treat

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Watching The Muppets ( ) is like spending time with old friends. Not only is it a smashing big-screen comeback for the title characters, but it bids fair to be the best Muppet movie ever.

The gang’s all here — Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, Statler & Waldorf, Sam Eagle, Scooter, etc. — and it’s a pleasure being reacquainted with them.

The catalyst for this Muppets reunion is Walter, a die-hard Muppets fan (understandable, as he’s a Muppet himself) who accompanies his brother Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to Los Angeles to celebrate Gary and Mary’s 10th anniversary.

While touring the decrepit Muppet studios on a bargain-basement Hollywood tour (presented by the priceless Alan Arkin), Walter inadvertently overhears Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), an aptly-named and appropriately oily oil tycoon, discuss his plans for demolishing the studio to drill.

With the help of Gary and Mary, whose plans for a romantic getaway are somewhat compromised (much to Mary’s quietly simmering consternation), Walter sets about rounding up the “old” Muppets to save the studio — and the Muppet empire — by raising $10 million, and what better way to do that than host a network telethon?

Segel and Adams never try to upstage their Muppet co-stars — an impossible task, in any case — and bring an exuberant, innocent charm to their exuberant, innocent characters. Both also handle the film’s musical numbers with a snappy panache and enthusiasm. If some of the musical numbers seem slightly extraneous, the film makes fun of that, too. Besides, Cooper’s unexpected rap number is among the film’s highlights — one of many. Just the idea of a hip-hop Chris Cooper is funny.

Executive producers Segel and Nicholas Stoller also penned the film’s screenplay, which evinces a great love for Muppet lore and a fabulously funny self-referential streak, while also retaining the gentle spirit and charm imbued in the Muppets by original creator Jim Henson, a true genius who died too young (has it really been 20 years?).

Henson’s Muppets are in good hands, pardon the pun.

The film’s human contingent also includes Rashida Jones, Zach Galifianakis, Neil Patrick Harris, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, Dave Grohl, Emily Blunt and real-life husband John Krasinski, Sarah Silverman, Ken Jeong, Judd Hirsch, Mickey Rooney and Jack Black, one of the few (human) performers able to give the Muppets a run for their money. As the network demands that a celebrity host the telethon, the Muppets kidnap Black and have him participate unwillingly in their sketches while he’s tied to a chair.

In addition to being one of the best comedies of the season — and the entire year, for that matter — The Muppets is warm, wacky, funny and, it being the Muppets, inherently fuzzy. An utter delight for all ages.

Arthur Christmas ( ), a charming bit of Christmas cheer from Sony Pictures Animation and Aardman Animators (of “Wallace &

Gromit” and Chicken Run renown), is a pleasing big-screen diversion this holiday season.

James McAvoy voices the title character, the eager younger son of Santa Claus (voiced by Jim Broadbent in doddering mode), who lives in the shadow of macho older brother Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie). Steve’s all set to assume the “Santa” mantle when their father retires, having managed to make the annual Christmas delivery a mammoth hightech operation peopled by elf commandos and mission controllers at the North Pole. (The film tweaks the notion of an overblown Christmas while also reveling in the visual splendor.)

When one gift is overlooked and undelivered on Christmas Eve, it’s Arthur who rides — in the vintage sleigh, pulled by reindeer — to the rescue, as he races against the clock to deliver it properly. In doing so, however, his clumsy efforts nearly bring about the end of Christmas altogether.

The screenplay, by Peter Baynham and director Sarah Smith, jests with the Santa Claus legend in a pleasant and irreverent — but never inoffensive — way, with some hilarious non-sequiturs and sight gags along the way, as befits the Aardman tradition. Voicing his displeasure about how expansive and commercialized Christmas has become, Arthur’s granddad, “GrandSanta” (voiced by Bill Nighy, thereby being automatically funny) — who accompanies Arthur on his trek — boasts that he once took care of Christmas Eve with only six reindeer “and one drunken elf”... although he lost the elf over Lake Geneva.

Also providing voiceovers are Imelda Staunton (as Santa’s dutiful and devoted wife), Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Michael Palin, Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack and Ashley Jensen, who voices the puckish, punkish elf stowaway Bryony.

Arthur Christmas doesn’t lay on any messages too thick and hardly needs to. The sibling rivalry between Arthur and Steve will be laid to rest by film’s end, and the entire Claus (or “Christmas”) clan recognizes the importance of familial trust. Christmas is saved and there’s a happy ending for all concerned. Just as it should be.

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