Movie review: “Muppets Most Wanted” (2014)

muppets

(reads German marquee) “Die Muppets?”

“I can’t believe the reviews are out this early!”

“Or maybe it’s the suggestion box!” (both laugh)

The second part in a film trilogy is traditionally the one most open to possibility. Its almost sole purpose is to take already established characters and relationships and deepen them, threaten them, or otherwise shake them up. The introductions and all of the boring place-setting business are already over, and now the real fun can begin. Muppets Most Wanted, the middle act in what I must imagine its Disney overlords already see as a makeshift trilogy meant to evoke its fondly remembered early ‘80s forebear, wears this sentiment on its felt sleeve, stumbling only occasionally before finding its true stride, at which point it stops merely desperately wanting to entertain and actually begins succeeding. It’s still a pretty bumpy ride, but on the whole this is a sequel that well outperforms expectations, in large part because it embraces wholeheartedly the ridiculousness and sense of fun its well-meaning, still entertaining predecessor spent so much time gingerly stepping over and around. 2011’s The Muppets was overly invested in re-establishing the relevance of its titular menagerie, to a degree that it spilled over into a need to almost justify the existence of the movie itself. One can practically picture the rowdy crowd at the old Muppet Theater yelling, “Why don’t you get things started?” and these filmmakers taking it personally. For all its flaws, Muppets Most Wanted loves and embraces the Muppet legacy, and is all the better for it.

The Muppets, of course, were an ever present and indispensable fact of childhood for yours truly, as well as, I’d imagine, for a majority of other children whose respective hoods fell a decade north or south of my own. At the same time Jim Henson’s workshop was supplying colorful characters to Sesame Street, it was also teaching that audience’s older siblings (and reminding some of their parents) about the enduring and fundamental joys of friendship, daydreaming, bursting into song, and telling cheesy jokes on The Muppet Show, a sort of updated free-wheeling Vaudeville-style revue populated by odd animals, anthropomorphized objects, and not quite humans of every description alongside generally game, occasionally exasperated, actual human guest stars. A peerless purveyor of gentle comic anarchy, the Muppets’ namesake ran for 5 seasons from the late ‘70s into the early ‘80s, by which time Henson’s creations had become iconic, spawning an industry that would eventually reach into almost all forms of media and touch every corner of pop culture.

Jim Henson’s death in 1990 signaled a sad, definitive change in seasons and fortunes for the Muppets that had been encroaching for years. The 1980s had seen the Jim Henson Company dabble in all sorts of Muppet-fueled film work, including high fantasy like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth (plus the notable creation of a certain green, vertically challenged Jedi master), TV shows for both young (Fraggle Rock) and older (The Storyteller) and a loosely connected original trilogy of beloved Muppet films, happily free of side trips to Treasure Island, outer space or one of any number of other destinations accessible, one assumes, from Las Vegas. The Company did excellent work in some less glamorous arenas as its film series slowed to a trickle before being acquired, as U.S. law now stipulates all potentially profitable film properties must be, by The Walt Disney Company in 2004. Despite bearing the prominent fingerprints of its uber-corporate step parents, Muppets Most Wanted does its level best to approximate the happy chaos of both the original Muppet Show and 1982’s The Great Muppet Caper, my personal favorite Muppet offering and clearly the film Wanted is meant to emulate.

So explicit, in fact, are the high level similarities between the two films in plot and setting (the Muppets run afoul of a band of notorious European jewel thieves) that I initially thought, with sinking spirits, that the new film must almost certainly be a remake. Beneath the broad strokes, however, a creative filmmaking brain trust largely retained from the 2011 outing is doing some solid, defiant work. Director James Bobin and Songwriter/Musical Director Bret McKenzie were, of course, two of the three creators of HBO’s legendary Flight of the Conchords series (the third, Jemaine Clement, here appears here as the alpha inmate of a Russian gulag, introduced wearing a Burger King-style crown made of repurposed sporks), and their affection for the Muppets and the brand of whimsical lunacy they trafficked in at their height is both evident here and allowed to fully flower. Fresh on the heels of the first movie, whose storybook ending it promptly deflates with self-deprecating shots of how the legion of paid red carpet extras shuffled home after the cameras stopped rolling, Most Wanted finds our crew plotting its next move. Energized by their successes, these Muppets are suffering from a surplus of ideas and a total lack of direction.

Into the breach steps shady talent agent Dominic Badguy (no, that’s not how it’s pronounced), played by Ricky Gervais with smooth talking self-assurance. He convinces the gang to take “The Muppet Show” on a European tour of historic and beautiful performance halls that happen to be conveniently located next door to art galleries, banks and other points of nefarious interest. Badguy helps arrange the escape from a wintry Russian gulag of Kermit the Frog’s doppelganger, the mole-bedecked, self-possessed and broadly villainous Constantine, known as “The World’s Most Dangerous Frog”, and the substitution behind bars of a shell-shocked Kermit for his evil twin. From there, the movie follows three roughly parallel tracks: Constantine and Badguy use the traveling “Muppet Show” with all its onstage cacophony and periodic explosions as cover to break into and rob the adjacent buildings; Kermit adjusts to gulag life and the imperious presence of stern but tender warden Tina Fey, later assuming (and throwing himself into) directorial duties for its annual musical revue; C.I.A. Muppet Sam the Eagle and officious Interpol agent Ty Burrell, life-sized walking caricatures of American jingoism and French peculiarity and disaffection respectively, work the crime scenes and eventually connect the string of robberies to the Muppets’ caravan. It’s an omnidirectional struggle of goofy futility, and only the least incompetent will triumph.

The early moments of Muppets Most Wanted do not exactly bode well. Residual anxiety is in the air. The jokes strain at cleverness. The song “We’re Doing a Sequel” is a fairly transparent cousin to The Great Muppet Caper’s wonderful opener “Hey, a Movie!” that grates rather than ingratiates. But then a surprising thing happens: the movie, somehow, just gets better, kinda, then it keeps doing so. Leave aside the desperate first 10 minutes and the messy last 15 minutes, and Muppets Most Wanted is pretty terrific entertainment. Part of that is attributable to the songs, which are arresting and come in rapid fire succession for the movie’s first half (Constantine and Gervais do a charming, role-defining duet, and the gulag courtyard explodes into a full-on Broadway chorus line, containing Clement, Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo, playing, the credits later inform us, himself), and climaxing with the infectious, delightful “Interrogation Song”. In it, Burrell and Sam give Muppet after Muppet the third degree only to counterproductively release them each at the precise moment they should be pressing further, apparently content in the knowledge that singing an awesome song is its own reward, and surely beats detective work any day. McKenzie’s “Man or Muppet?” won the 2011 Best Song Oscar. I hope “Interrogation Song” gets that kind of consideration, although it’s doubtful, because the Academy so rarely rewards purely irreverent fun.

In the end, that sort of mindset explains perfectly why Muppets Most Wanted works (for me) for so much of its runtime. In harkening back to the shamelessly corny, borderline anarchic spirit of The Muppet Show and the early movies, which all subsequent Muppets properties have made pretentious noise about aping only to wind up playing it safe in the end, Muppets Most Wanted both pushes and finds itself. Almost all the characters get a shining moment or two of the type that was likely trimmed down or cut out of the 2011 film. Kermit and Piggy seem like an actual couple here. Fozzie produces pathos. Animal reveals depth. Guest stars abound. It’s a Muppet movie, for better and worse. Not everything works, and the Muppets in 2014 probably just aren’t capable of what they were when I was a kid. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t still applaud the unveiling of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s magnetic bomb-retrieval suit (patent surely pending), worn/piloted by his faithful, perpetually terrified lab assistant Beaker, or enjoy seeing a concept like Gonzo’s Indoor Running of the Bulls brought to fruition. I realize that I haven’t even mentioned Walter, the annoying “new” audience surrogate Muppet who was ostensibly the main character of the 2011 film. I don’t have to. Walter’s still there, just more useful now, less needy, less distracting. I kind of like him. Muppets Most Wanted does not suffer in the least from its predecessor’s identity crisis. The movie knows exactly who and what it is, and would rather throw everything at the wall than leave anything back. I loved it for that spirit.

“Muppets Most Wanted” (2014) 3/4 stars

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