Muppets Most Wanted
As the cast of characters make clear right from the off, this is the eighth time that the iconic puppets have made it onto the big screen, so they could never be criticised of not having the legs for it: the movie business that is. The 2011 version, brought to life largely by an enthusiastic and gung-ho Jason Segal, who was acting and writing, could be seen as a sort of soft re-boot for this cast of characters, but it wasn’t clear whether this franchise had the energy to keep going past the initial burst of nostalgia, something that was a huge selling point if everyone – bar the kids – are being honest with themselves. Absent Segal but with James Bobin still at the directorial helm, the Muppets give it one more shot, with their opening number – “We’re Doing A Sequel” – providing a suitable rallying cry. I like the Muppets. I like musical comedies. But did I like Muppets Most Wanted?
In the aftermath of The Muppets, Kermit and company are approached by tour manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who encourages them to take their act on a trip across a succession of European capitals. But (astonishingly) Badguy has other motives, being the lackey of Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog, and a dead ringer for Kermit, who is hunted by the likes of Interpol’s Jean-Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell). After a successful switcharoo, Kermit winds up in a Siberian gulag run by an overly-obsessed fan (Tina Fey) while Constantine takes over the Muppet troop, using them as cover for his diabolical scheme to steal the Crown Jewels of Britain.
More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.
There is only so much you can say about the plot of a Muppets movie, which will never be the main focus of such an endeavour. They’re usually so threadbare – unless adapting existing source material like A Christmas Carol – that they could be given numbers instead of titles. The group has problems with their show, they go to different locations, the guest cameos overwhelm, some feelings are hurt, some lessons are learned and the status quo is restored by the end. It’s simple and it’s what the Muppets know how to do.
So common are these elements that the Muppets now actually comment on it in the course of their newest adventure, asking things like “Didn’t we do this in the last one?” or “Everyone knows the sequel’s never quite as good”, as if such lantern hanging will excuse the repetition. A lot has changed since the Muppets first came to the big screen, and even since their last outing. They can’t rely solely on the same kind of jokes and plots interminably.
But of course it doesn’t really matter because the Muppets have never been a vessel for amazing plotlines or subtle themes. They’re a comedic outlet of immense quality and nearly all of that comes from unconnected zingers, parodies, visual yucks and the aforementioned celebrity cameos (some of them anyway). And Muppets Most Wanted has that in spades, being as funny and quotable as its previous incarnation, if not reaching the heights of the very best offerings. The Interpol and CIA agents little buddy-cop angle, the talent show in the Gulag, the national lampooning of Germany, Spain, Ireland and Britain, that stuff all works and works consistently. But so much of it is just unconnected jokes and sketches, with little attachment to the plot.
The actual plot, such as it is, actually gets fairly tiresome at moments. It’s a bit too focused on the antagonist duo of Constantine and Badguy, Tiny Fey’s gulag officer and Ty Burrell’s inspector, over the actual Muppet’s. The criminal duo in particular take up an awful lot of screentime all on their own, with this madcap National Treasure-esque search for a way to steal the Crown Jewels, and I never felt too interested in their little rivalry or Badguy’s desire to be a master criminal of his own. These characters are as obvious caricatures as any of the Muppets, and do entertain at times, but I didn’t really come into the theatre to see them prance around and sing as much as anything made of felt. If you want to try and give a Muppets movie a plot, then the actual Muppets have to be involved to a greater extent. All of these human-based sub-plots get their endings, all bad guys (or Badguy’s) get their comeuppance. But it just wasn’t that compelling.
It is the stuff with the Muppets that is far better, including lots on the Kermit/Miss Piggy romance (which was sort of absent three years ago). Some might not appreciate the kind of evolution their attempted wedding represents, but I enjoyed it immensely, as it showed a certain understanding of the nature of weddings after long-term relationships and how people approach such things. They don’t sacrifice on the humour of such a sub-plot and the whole thing has a decent resolution as well, albeit one that, as previously indicated, reinforces the status quo.
I also welcome less of an emphasis on the rather one-dimensional Walter, the star of The Muppets, who I always found fairly dull in comparison to the rest. Walter’s just another Muppet here, and he gets his chance to hog the spotlight for a brief section, but only with Fozzie and Monster. The Muppets have a large enough cast of characters that they’re fairly overloaded at this point – something they also reference in the course of the movie – so they don’t need to introduce new ones.
The existing Muppets all get their chance, just about every one of them getting some scene or some moment to show off what they can do, even if it’s just another crazy Gonzo skit (this time involving stampeding bulls) or the band’s elongated solo performance. That’s all you really need from a Muppet movie for it to be a success. It should be a kind of a sketch show with an overarching plot, with the sketches in question taking the form of whatever set-pieces keep that plot moving along, something that The Muppets was able to do a bit better in my opinion. Here, the plot weighs everything down a bit too much.
The surrounds have changed, new characters have cropped up, but the Muppets are still the Muppets. They are the kind of thing that appeals to the sense of nostalgia for adults and is bound to entertain the younger crowd to some degree (I can’t really comment on that). The comedy troupe that entertained us in our younger and middling years still exists, and while the hints of staleness are certainly present, the powerful sense of nostalgia is still enough to stop it from being a ruinous detriment. Much like The Lego Movie, Muppets Most Wanted is investing a lot of hope for its success (and desire for the audience to overlook flaws) in that nostalgia. It’s nice to see such an act continue to be successful decades after its beginning, and it’s good that they are still able to make you laugh.
In terms of female characters, well I suppose there is only two worth talking about. Tina Fey’s Nadya is funny enough, her strange romantic obsession with Kermit adding enough of a disturbing element to her character to really make her stand out, but she is just a caricature at the end of the day. More worth looking at is Miss Piggy herself, this most strange of female icons. Her desire to get married to Kermit is nothing new, but I liked the arc that sub-plot took here, from this single-minded obsession to an acceptance that such a ceremony is not entirely necessary.
At the end of the day, it’s the Muppets. The plot doesn’t require that much analysis, and it’s only occasionally deeper than a puddle. And, for this particular cast of characters, that is as it should be. The problem is that there appears to have been some attempts to make it seem deeper with the focus on the villains, and that stuff falls flat, mostly. The Muppets was a bit more endearing when it came to its story, even if it was a very well-worn one.
Acting wise, you can’t really fault any of the Muppet performers, who have been voicing these characters for a long time and in a variety of appearances. They’re as good as they’ve ever been, from Animal to Walter, full of all the life and energy that you’ve to expect from Steve Whitman, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barreta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz and Louise Gold.
The human cast all acceptable work, without ever really being anything spectacular. Gervais, Burrell and Fey are all accomplished comedic talents with years upon years of experience, so the kind of basic enough humour that the Muppets require is something that they can all easily provide. I’ve never been a huge fan of Gervais’ typical persona, this brow-beaten lackey type, but it works a bit here in a very pure comedic setting where he can really embrace it fully. I preferred Burrell a lot more, but that might be down more to the ridiculous accent he was allowed to put on (and the fact that I much prefer Modern Family to The Office I suppose). Fey was decent too, but her character was basically a cartoon. They all have memorable singing voices as well, with the songs tailored to their limits, especially in Burrell’s case.
The only other thing to note on the acting front is the boatload of celebrity cameos. Most of them are the standard Muppets fare, a few shots and a quick joke – Usher the usher for example – but then there are just plenty of them that serve no purpose at all other than to point at a well known actor/actress playing a tiny role. Take James McAvoy, who turns up in a single shot as a package delivery man. He hands off his package and that’s it. He’s just an extra. There’s no point in such casting because nothing is done with it. And he’s just one example of many. It’s a waste of talent and time.
Muppets Most Wanted has a great look visually, willing to head into darker and grimmer vistas than in 2011 along with the brighter climes. Berlin, Madrid, Dublin and London, along with the Siberian Gulag, all look great and provide a suitable backdrop, with the Muppet’s themselves as good as they have ever been envisioned. The visual gags all pretty much work, not least Napoleon’s tiny car. The camerawork is competent with any real frills, notwithstanding a few great long shots of things like the Irish coast or the surrounds of Berlin’s museums or a creepy trip into one of Germany’s darker suburbs.
The musical numbers are the usual show tune spectaculars they have always been with the Muppets, most notably the opening and the closing. The difference between Hollywood and Siberia is stark, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be visually interesting, something that Muppets Most Wanted embraces.
The script bubbles over with the sort of warm humour and nailed on parody that have marked every instalment of the Muppet’s franchise. My own favourites include a brief a satire of The Seventh Seal, right and the beginning, the repeated, but still wonderful, jibes of Waldorf and Statler, and the mini-buddy cop sub-plot of Jean-Pierre and Sam Eagle, with their recurring rivalry over the size of their respective badges and the various European foibles that Napoleon’s job includes: long lunch hours, weeks of paid holidays and waiting for lights on a board to illuminate. As I said before, the strengths are in the quick jab and the fast joke, the commentary on the present situation rather than anything more elongated.
But this being the Muppets, musically is where things have to be done right, and I’m glad to say that it mostly is. There isn’t really any chance of another unlikely Oscar nomination such as “Man Or Muppet?” enjoyed, but the tunes that are present are funny and toe-tappingly enjoyable, such as the early duet of Constantine and Gervais, the Interrogation Song which had a lovely violin accompaniment, Miss Piggy’s “Something So Right” with a surprise guest appearance and the finale “Together Again”, which might not be “The Rainbow Connection” but provides the right kind of note for the ending. The show-tune aspect of the entire thing is well-executed when it is done, but all too often the plot just sort of buts in – we actually see precious little of the actual “Muppet Show” skits that the group are famous for.
Theme wise, Muppets Most Wanted only has a few things to talk about, but those things are not inconsiderable. The main one would appear to be worth, seen primarily through the characters of Kermit and Dominic. Kermit finds himself dumped inside a gulag. He expects his friends to come rescue him, but no one turns up. He thus has to evaluate just how much he is actually worth to the troupe, as both its leader and another cog in the machine. He seems close to accepting his fate, but it’s clear that his role in the Muppets is too important for his absence to be missed forever.
Dominic meanwhile is the competent thief who sees his good work demeaned by someone higher on the food chain than him. He’s willing to wait for his chance, but it still grates that “he’s working for an amphibian”. He defines his worth in a much more negative way than Kermit does of course, but like Kermit he does stand up for his worth by the end. The final message in that regard then seems to be that we should not define our worth by the thoughts and expectations of others, but by the measure of our talents and esteem.
Then there is a theme of union and marriage. Miss Piggy wants to finally formalise her relationship with Kermit, and attaches a great deal of importance to such a thing, to the extent that she’s willing to overlook Constantine’s obvious subterfuge to the extent that she does. But, like Kermit and Dominic’s examinations of their worth to other people, Piggy comes to the realisation that such a union is merely superficial and unnecessary, a fact made doubly so by the discovery that Kermit never proposed to her at all – it is still a Muppets movie after all. As long as you’re with the one that you love, everything else is so much blather.
Ultimately, Muppets Most Wanted gives you most of what you want from a Muppets movie. It’s funny, it has lots of great musical numbers, the celebrity cameos abound and you’ll be able to indulge that nostalgic want liberally. But it’s plot is fairly weak, the main human cast takes up a bit too much of the focus and you might just get the sense by the end that the Muppet’s are running out of things to say or do, at least enough to make them unique from other competitors. I suppose that there is enough here to justify the continuation of the franchise on the big screen and probably enough to signal another in 2016 or after. But if they didn’t have that nostalgic appeal to such a wide audience, you wonder if this would be the state of affairs. Recommended though, if you want some laughs and some traditional entertainment.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).