“Muppets Most Wanted” **** (out of 5)
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, and the voice talents of Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobsen, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, and Matt Vogel
Written by: James Bobin & Nicholas Stoller, based on original characters created by the Jim Henson Company
Directed by: James Bobin
I’m not much of a fan of most ‘musicals’, but somehow the late Jim Henson’s creations, even those of lesser quality, manage to draw my interest. There is a musical number in the 8th theatrical ‘Muppets’ film, performed by the villain, who channels his inner “Dos Equis” frog. In that moment, I realized how happy I was to be taking in real comedy from real comedic minds, recalling an era long gone from cinema. It’s smart yet preposterous, but not so goofy as to be not interesting. “Muppets Most Wanted” is basically pure enjoyment from beginning to end, brought to us from imaginative filmmakers- the type of film that continues to bring a grin to my face.
With Disney in control of the property, as well as the unexpected magic of the 2011 entry, there is an opportunity for justifiable pessimism about this sequel. The script recognizes that, and opens with a self-referential musical number about, well, sequels. It’s an ingenious, tone-setting transition piece that leads the audience to the same question the ‘Muppets’ crew has- what next? If you’ve seen “The Muppets (2011)”, you’ll remember that it took everything the gang had just to put on one show, let alone create a new identity and model for lasting success. In particular, the ever-neurotic Kermit worries that he will run out of ideas to keep this good thing going.
The movie has an answer for that, in the form of the best, if not most obvious name for a character in recent memory- Dominic Badguy (Gervais). Dominic is a promoter, and sells the Muppet crew on the idea that he has the means to grow their brand and tour the world. Kermit feels the pressure to hire him, but he’s suspicious- and he should be, for Dominic is the second in command to the world’s most dangerous criminal, Constantine the frog. He is the mirror image of our hero (which only works because of the film’s tone), so of course, he hatches a plan to escape a Russian Gulag, swap places with Kermit, befuddle the Muppet crew, and make off with England’s crown jewels. Now Constantine sounds nothing like Kermit, and has a distinguishing mole to boot, but the movie is able to explain itself out of this plot hole with ease and gut-busting humor.
Kermit, now imprisoned and recognized as the notorious Constantine, is forced to adapt to life in a Gulag, and a guard named Nadya (Fey). It doesn’t take long for the motley crew of prisoners to take to Kermit, nor does it take long for Nadya to become enamored. Before you know it, she is tasking the frog to direct a prison revue, much to the delight of the inmates. For reasons only this movie understands, the prisoners (among them Ray Liotta, Jemaine Clement, Tom Hiddleston, and Danny Trejo playing Danny Trejo) are super musical themselves, even busting out a little Boyz II Men for our delight.
Constantine’s poor impersonation of Kermit involves a slew of hilarious scenes in which he’s able to dupe most everyone (save for Animal and Walter) into thinking he’s helping them. Curiously, valuable items end up missing or broken in buildings adjacent to where the Muppets are performing. These coincidences catch the attention of Sam the Eagle and Jean-Pierre Napoleon (Burrell), two strong-willed buffoons of law enforcement officers who can’t stop comparing badge sizes. References to the French work ethic are hilariously alluded to as Burrell channels Inspector Clouseau while operating what has to be the world’s smallest working car.
This gloriously absurd tale does come to a head, for inevitably Kermit and Constantine must duel wits and webbed feet to ‘win’ Miss Piggy’s affections, if you can call them that. Up to that point, we’re treated to fantastic puns aplenty- specifically, jokes involving the Swedish Chef pondering existentialism (so ‘meta’ that it works), Beaker donning a bomb magnet suit, Gonzo attempting an on-stage running of the bulls, and a not-so-veiled dig on Celine Dion (who shows up to ape Michael Bolton’s satirical commercial work). There’s even a homage to the Marx Brothers’ classic “Duck Soup” scene, as Kermit must ‘mirror’ Constantine because the actual ‘mirror’ has popped out. Lest we forget, this is done with puppets. Really, what’s not to like here?
It’s easy to see how much the filmmakers, musicians, puppeteers, and actors care about this material, and how fond they are of the Muppet characters. This film has an energy, or a vibrancy, that even the last film can’t quite touch- it’s certainly funnier, and darned if it isn’t smarter. Even the musical numbers aren’t awkward or overbearing like Muppet songs can be. Credit for this goes directly to actor/songwriter/music supervisor/Conchord alum Bret McKenzie for bringing a strong music sensibility and a sly wit to this film, just as he did with the previous entry.
Sure, I’m more prone to enjoy pun humor, or satirical nonsense than say, an Adam Sandler romp, but “Muppets Most Wanted” stands affirmed as a fun film regardless of your comedic preferences. If there’s anything that didn’t work, I’d say that Tina Fey has been sharper, Ricky Gervais could have held back from being Ricky Gervais towards the end of the film (the lemur costume thing just didn’t work), and Christoph Waltz could have garnered more screen time. Those reasons alone cannot turn me against the film, for the Muppets are the stars here, and rightly so. It’s also possible that the script’s wit will be lost on younger moviegoers, who may not catch some of the references adults will assuredly enjoy. Also, I can’t fault the film for straying from too much straight-up physical, hyperactive humor, but that certainly has kid appeal, and it isn’t prevalent here.
The Muppets spent their last film pondering the need for, or relevance of, their comedy in today’s world. With a film such as this to bolster my opinion, I can boast that there is indeed a place for them- provided those with the kind of talent that made this are still interested in bringing out the best in the characters. I believe I’ll be grinning about this one for some time.