By Simon Miraudo
April 1, 2014
In 2011, Jim Henson’s long-retired felt friends The Muppets were welcomed back to the big screen warmly by kids and kids-at-heart alike. In 2014, The Muppets’ inevitable sequel is met with all the anticipation of a forgotten appointment: “Oh, was that today?” There are a few possible reasons Muppets Most Wanted received such a muted reaction ahead of its release (ultimately translating to a dull box office tally in the United States). Perhaps it was the reminder that a parade of awful Muppet sequels was exactly what killed the franchise in the first place. Perhaps it was the perceived watering-down of the prestige “movie” status following the exit of Jason Segel and Amy Adams, and their replacement with ‘famous from TV!’ talent Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and Ty Burrell. Or maybe it’s simply that nostalgia can only be tapped for critical and commercial gain when those doing the fond remembering have had time to miss what’s being sold. Kermit, Miss Piggy, and company are, so to speak, part of the furniture once more.
It’s true that, without the sense of rediscovery, Muppets Most Wanted lacks much of what made The Muppets feel so special, joyful, eventful. Yet, in a lot of ways, Muppets Most Wanted is the better picture. It’s not burdened with the unenviable task of having to spend much of its running time reuniting the fallen-out puppets, isn’t beholden to reprising ‘The Rainbow Connection’, and, most significantly, (thanks to the slightly-less-stellar human cast), puts its titular creatures back in the center of proceedings. There are also some new songs courtesy of Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, even more earwormy than his last batch. His late-seventies sensibility is a perfect fit, and his musical numbers make the movie worthwhile alone. That could be read as a dismissal of everything else on display. Please don’t read it that way.
Director James Bobin (of the Conchords TV show) also returns, working from a script he penned with Nicholas Stoller. They don’t bother much with making excuses for their latest venture, its entire existence shrugged away in jaunty opening jingle ‘We’re Doing A Sequel’. With the Muppets internationally famous again, they are encouraged by sinister British manager Dominic Badguy (Gervais) to take their undercooked variety show on the road. Their world tour gets off to an inauspicious start when criminal masterfrog and prison escapee Constantine (Matt Vogel) fools the authorities into arresting his doppelgänger, Kermit. Constantine, barely masking his Eastern European accent, installs himself as leader of the easily-fooled Muppets, enacting elaborate heists while his troupe is busy on stage in Berlin, Madrid, and London. Meanwhile, the real Kermit suffers in a Siberian prison run by Fey’s warden Nadya and occupied by Danny Trejo. The most appealing and playful of the human cast, Fey is gifted the Carole Bayer Sager-esque musical number ‘The Big House’, a major highlight. Muppets Most Wanted is handily the funniest film ever set at a Russian gulag.
The catchiest track, however, belongs to Constantine, who woos Miss Piggy with the Hall & Oates soundalike slow-jam ‘I’ll Get You What You Want’. She spends much of Muppets Most Wanted trying to get Kermit/Constantine to acquiesce and marry her already. (No mention is made of her former career as editor of French Vogue.) I have to say I was weirdly concerned with the way in which Bobin and Stoller so happily reduced the fiercely independent Piggy to a wouldbe bridezilla. That said, her Marlene Dietrich-inspired outfits are pretty remarkable and she does get to perform the show-stopping ‘Something So Right’ with Celine Dion. That has to count for something.
Listing the remaining cameos would be wasteful, so the only other human star I’ll mention is Burrell as an outrageous French Interpol officer, not so much paying homage to Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau as he is Steve Martin’s. The low-key Gervais isn’t nearly as mischievous; funny, kind of, just not ‘Muppet funny’. Muppets Most Wanted, mercifully, is ‘Muppet funny’; goofy and shameless and irresistible because of it. (The running joke is that the kind of humour favoured by the Muppets themselves – puns, explosions, chickens – is largely despised by their audience, Statler and Waldorf included. Still, they do find space for a smart Seventh Seal gag…)
Bobin’s staging is a little flat, as it was in the predecessor, though his direction comes to life in the peppy music videos littered throughout. The increased presence of previously underserved supporting players Scooter, Sam Eagle, Rizzo the Rat, and the rest was certainly appreciated. They’re all performed wonderfully by Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, and David Rudman; Whitmire and Jacobson being better mimics of iconic puppeteers Henson and Frank Oz than Constantine is of Kermit. The Muppets may not be as wanted as they once were – even just three years ago – but there’s still some dumb laughs and sweet tales of friendship to be found in this ragtag group of old-fashioned show-puppets.
Muppets Most Wanted arrives in VIC/QLD cinemas April 3, 2014. It arrives in ACT/NSW/SA/WA/TAS/NT cinemas April 10, 2014.