Muppets Most Wanted – A Review

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I had by most standards a very happy childhood, but for some reason I don’t seem to remember very much of it. I have memories, of course, but most of them are just snippets and for a lot of things I’d be hard pressed to give you a lot of detail. I don’t remember having a favorite toy, for example, and of the things that I do recall pretty well, I’m not sure how many of those are actual memories of the experience and how many are simply prompted from a lifetime of hearing stories and looking through photographs. I have an excellent memory in general, but for whatever reason that didn’t seem to really kick into gear until I got a little older.

However, the things that I do really remember from growing up I remember very vividly. Even though these things happed almost three decades ago (eek!), it’s like they happened yesterday. For example, the moment that my parents told me that they were having another baby is permanently seared into my subconscious; that was a pretty seminal moment of my young life and is one of my favorite stories to tell (spoiler alert: I did not take the news well). Scattered among the mental snapshots of family vacations and birthday parties is one of the most defining moments of my youth: the first time I saw Kermit the Frog riding a bicycle in The Muppet Movie:

 

This blew my freaking mind.

Now, even at a young age I understood that the Muppets weren’t real and were in fact puppets controlled by humans. But seeing Kermit on a bicycle challenged everything that I knew; how were they pulling this off? Seeing my preconceived notions of the limitations of the Muppets and what they could do was a transformative experience. I already loved the Muppets, but this solidified the wonder and magic that I associated with them (it also probably helped solidify my fascination with movies as well). The Muppets could now do anything; even if I didn’t understand how it was happening, I knew that they would always find ways to surprise me. Even though I am well into my thirties, I consider myself an unabashed fan of all that Jim Henson created. When Muppet fan-boy Jason Segel decided to breathe some fresh life into the franchise in 2011 with The Muppets, I loved him all the more.

Muppets Most Wanted is the inevitable sequel to The Muppets and while it is a lot of fun, it just isn’t as good as its predecessor. I had a great time and laughed a lot, but this installment is not an instant Muppet classic. Like most sequels, it fails to totally live up to expectations. If you like the Muppets you will certainly like Muppets Most Wanted – even a less than perfect Muppet movie is pretty great – though it does have its minor faults.

Muppets Most Wanted picks up in the immediate aftermath of the events depicted in The Muppets – like literally in the seconds after the first movie ended. Unsure of what to do next, the Muppets are encouraged by their new acquaintance Dominic Badguy (Rickie Gervais) to go out on an international tour. What the Muppets don’t realize is that Dominic is in cahoots with international criminal mastermind (and Kermit doppelgänger) Constantine and that the tour is a cover for their crime spree. A case of mistaken identity results in Kermit being sent to a Siberian gulag (run by Tina Fey) and Constantine assimilating himself with the Muppet clan. An Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) and Sam the Eagle team up to try and crack the case. The film is something a mix of a prison break film and a heist movie, continuing the Muppet tradition of a lot of random celebrity cameos (Why is P Diddy gambling with the Muppets? It doesn’t really matter).

What struck me about Muppets Most Wanted is that I’m not really sure that it is aimed at children; the majority of the jokes and references in the film seem more directed at people like me who grew up with the Muppets. Our felt friends have always been something of a throwback, with their vaudevillian antics and love of puns, but the script for Muppets Most Wanted only seemed to exaggerate the issue. I’m not sure how many kids today would get references to A Chorus Line or know who the majority of the cameos in this film were. There were a lot of ethnic inspired jokes in the film; Fey’s Nadia speaks in an exaggerated and thick accent a la Natasha on Rocky and Bullwinkle and Burrell’s Frenchman Jean Pierre Napoleon is just a collection of jokes about the European work ethic. I don’t think that these stereotypes are malicious or harmful (though given current events, it might not be a good time to piss off Putin), but I do think that they will be lost on most people under the age of 25. I certainly giggled a lot at the movie, but I didn’t notice any of the children in the audience laughing. This may be a nostalgic film for adults that is only masquerading as a kid’s movie.

I also think that the film suffers a bit from the absence of Segel and his co-star Amy Adams. Their love story was a big part of the first movie and both actors brought a real sweetness to the overall film. While I thought Gervais, Fey and Burrell were good, there wasn’t the same level of joy coming from the human actors this time around. Gervais is playing the part of a villain and while Fey isn’t necessarily a bad guy, there isn’t a lot of warmth emanating from a woman that is running a prison in Siberia. Burrell really commits to his French farce, but that joke goes on a bit too long. Add in the fact that we spend a lot of time with Constantine and there aren’t really a lot of characters to root for in this movie (other than Kermit, obviously). The other Muppets don’t get a ton of screen time and are largely portrayed as selfish individuals that don’t even notice that “Kermit” is suddenly acting very out of character. For a Muppet movie, I think it could have done with a higher dosage of fun. This isn’t a dark movie, but there it could use a little oomph of likable characters.

The songs are once again written by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame and while there is nothing that quite captures the magic of “Man or Muppet” or “Life’s a Happy Song” the songs are definitely catchy. I particularly enjoyed Constantine’s rendition of “I’ll Get You What You Want,” which was still rattling around in my brain this morning after seeing the movie last night.

Some other thoughts:

  • For the first time ever, we get a glimpse at what Kermit and Miss Piggy’s prospective offspring would look like!
  • Maybe I’m just getting old, but the sound mixing of the film felt a little off; the music was so loud during some of the numbers that it was difficult to hear what the characters were singing or saying.
  • Some of the cameos are so quick that if you blink you will miss them – I was pretty sure that I saw Russell Tovey (Being Human (UK), Sherlock, Looking), but I had to look it up when I got home to be sure. The Wire looks at some of the quick cameos and where you may know some of those familiar faces from.
  • I was delighted that they incorporated The Muppet Show theme song into the movie (even if it was in Spanish) since we appropriated that tune for one of our sorority pledge songs back in college. One guess whose idea that was.
  • Seeing Danny Trejo and Ray Liotta do show tunes was immensely entertaining.
  • There are plenty of meta jokes in the film if you go in for that sort of thing (I do). As someone who never completely was on board with the addition of the new character of Walter from The Muppets, one meta joke in particular really made me laugh.
  • Do with this information what you will, but there were a group of teenage boys at my screening who may or may not have been under the influence and that found this movie absolutely hilarious. So Muppets Most Wanted may be right in a stoner’s wheelhouse.
  • This is unrelated to Muppets Most Wanted specifically, but this is the first time that I’ve been to the movies in over a month. That’s a lifetime for me!

Despite these quibbles, Muppets Most Wanted is a wacky and fun film that manages to mostly capture what is great about the Muppets and keep the proud tradition of Jim Henson alive. It may not hit the same heights that The Muppets was able to reach, but it was still chock full of the wordplay and silliness that make the Muppets an institution. I’ll be curious to see how kids react to this film as I think a lot of the jokes and references will go completely over their head. They’ll like the singing and dancing, of course, but I think they might be a little bored in parts. Even if this isn’t the best movie that the Muppets have done, it is still nice to have them back on the big screen.

Muppets Most Wanted opens nationwide today.

 

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