Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Muppets Most Wanted": But Not Quite The Movie I Wanted

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I love The Muppets.  Jim Henson’s lovably unbelievable creations were a joy both in my childhood and my adult life.  Their over-the-top antics and tortuously gratuitous celebrity cameos work precisely because of the unreality of the Muppet experience.  After all, we have to suspend our disbelief enough to personify characters that are clearly made of nothing more than felt and plastic, yet are more real in their cinematic universe than anyone else.  And that’s precisely why I loved 2011’s The Muppets so much as a revival of the seemingly-dead franchise.  Essentially, that was a fan-made film that made us remember exactly why the Muppets were so much fun, and it was carried along with some fantastic music and some very silly writing.  So I had high hopes for the continuation, Muppets Most Wanted.  And those hopes were… not quite satisfied.

Don’t get me wrong, Muppets Most Wanted is still a good, funny movie.  However, when drawing the inevitable comparison to its predecessor, it assuredly comes up short.  The opening number of the movie is called “We’re Doing a Sequel,” and there’s a line that sums up my feelings about this film quite nicely: “We’re doing a sequel.  That’s what we do in Hollywood.  And everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good.”  See, The Muppets was a nostalgic trip that played off the Muppets’ strengths for nonsense and whimsy.  While those factors are still present in Most Wanted, they’re played down for a more coherent plot that is reminiscent of the Muppets’ less fantastical theatrical outings.

A criminal mastermind named Constantine has broken out of the Russian gulag, and he seeks to become the world’s greatest thief by stealing the royal crown jewels.  Conveniently, Constantine looks just like Kermit the Frog, so with the assistance of the Muppets’ new manager Damien Badguy (played by a surprisingly not-obnoxious Ricky Gervais), Constantine replaces Kermit in the Muppets and leads the group on a European tour to gather artifacts he needs to hack the crown jewels’ security system.  Meanwhile, Kermit is shipped off to the Gulag, where he struggles with the realization that no one realizes he’s missing.

While this set-up does work well for some mistaken identity and mirror-image gags, the writing doesn’t venture too far out of that safe territory.  There’s some great stuff with Sam the Eagle and Ty Burrell acting as competing cops in trying to catch Constantine, and there is the occasional bit of self-referential meta-humor that will keep Muppet fanatics satisfied, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.  Even the musical numbers, with the exception of “We’re Doing a Sequel,” feel phoned in and uninspired, which is a shame coming from Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords), who did so well writing songs for the previous installment.

However, these criticisms come more from a feeling of disappointment than from dislike for the film.  This is still the Muppets, and they’re still just as silly as ever.  I just saw the potential that this franchise had to move in new directions from 2011’s brilliant revival, but instead I see the Muppets spinning their wheels, unable to venture beyond a comfortable, no-risk regurgitation of old whimsy.  Muppets Most Wanted may not have been the film I wanted it to be, but it’s still worth seeing, and I can only hope that the next Muppet adventure doesn’t continue this downward trajectory.

Have a favorite Muppet movie or episode?  Let me know in the comments below!

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