Review: "Muppets Most Wanted"

In November of 2011, new life was injected into a struggling Muppets franchise that had fallen on forgettable times for the treasured cast. Simply titled “The Muppets,” Jason Segel was featured as principal actor and co-writer, alongside his “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “The Five-Year Engagement” director Nicholas Stoller and “Flight of the Conchords” co-creator James Bobin. The trio created a memorable romp that was overwhelmingly praised by fans and the general public.

Most importantly however, the film made money. So Disney promptly ordered a sequel and less than three years later here we are. Acting quickly to remove any doubt as to where the motivation lie for another film, the eighth in the series (with all entries being equal), the Muppets speak directly to the fact that millions are on the table for the taking with their opening number “We’re Doing a Sequel.” This ragtag collection of iconic puppets are no strangers to delightfully honest tongue-in-cheek material, and the tone is immediately set with that song for what amounts to an hour and fifty-two minutes of the same humor we’ve all come to know and love. Not to say that they’re couldn’t have been room for more. Because even with the usual array of star-studded cameos and an especially potent human cast, the aimless plot falls flat more often than it should, leaving us to only wonder about the remaining potential that was surely left on the cutting room floor.

There will be two camps of critics, with one being more pleased than the other. One group, those who loved the 2011 film and will be satisfied with just about anything similar and the other being those who, again, loved the 2011 film but longed for an ever better, more polished final product the second time around. Those in the latter camp will be dissatisfied. Personally, I’d firmly position myself with one foot in each…while slowly furrowing my brow and coming to grips with the fact that this deserved to be better. It should have been better. But it wasn’t.

The story picks up immediately where its predecessor left off, with Kermit being forced to brainstorm ideas for a sequel with the help of some of his friends. Each silly idea is discarded until French talent tour manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) subtly whispers in the talented frog’s ear that the Muppets should capitalize on the momentum of their recent success with a worldwide tour. Once the fourth wall has been put back together and the story can assume a linear format, this proposition is propelled into place by Badguy’s own set of mysterious motives and a gaggle of Muppets eager to tour the world. The final decision rests in Kermit’s hands and while reluctant at first, he eventually gives in to the requests of his friends.

It isn’t long before an amphibian who bears a striking resemblance to Kermit successfully breaks out of his holding cell in a desolate Siberian prison. Constantine, the aforementioned antagonist, is not only one of the world’s most dangerous criminals, but he is in cahoots with Badguy. The two, while very clear on their respective roles within the operation, are bent on stealing at trio of priceless artifacts from some of Europe’s most popular cities. That’s about where the similarities stop between this film and “The Muppets.” We’ve swiftly changed direction from a harmless, noble attempt at restoring the group’s long-forgotten California theater to a hapless heist flick starring an uninspired new character as the movie’s less-than-intimidating villain. If it would have been possible to remain completely ignorant of this new film’s silly plot, it would be an especially jarring shift in direction less than three years later. But then again, haven’t the Muppets taught us to expect the unexpected? To roll with the punches without blinking so as not to miss any split-second celebrity cameo or visual puns—longtime fans will have to agree. All the stops were pulled out to keep our attention and while what we see on screen before the credits roll wasn’t quite as nostalgic or charming as the first, it manages to, at the very least, keep things fresh enough to make this latest turn worth watching.

Meanwhile, Kermit and Constantine switch places to the knowledge of no one. Constantine assumes the role of Muppet Show director and character corral-er, while Kermit is forced to enter a sentence of stone cold confinement at the hands of Nadya (Tina Fey). Some of the film’s funniest scenes consist of Constantine’s woefully-horrid attempts at imitating Kermit’s signature vocal traits, as well as flat out mishearing some of the lyrics to his most popular song. (Many hours later now and I still can’t restrain a smile at the mention of “the lovers, the dreamers and cheese.”)

Kermit, on the other hand, is good little prisoner who’s potential is recognized immediately. In turn, he’s asked to coordinate the prison’s own group of clumsy, untalented and degenerate denizens for the annual talent show. They’re all rather gruff and hardened men, but take to the competition with remarkable intrigue and it doesn’t take long for Kermit to realize that his new job isn’t a whole lot different from his last. Sure, the living conditions aren’t quite as glamorous, but maybe it could work out if his old friend’s don’t ever notice he’s gone.

With one city at a time, the Muppets are zipping through Europe while Dominic and Constantine continue their villainous efforts in secrecy. They are however, being slowly trailed however by a duo of police professionals. Sam Eagle, the blue-faced Muppet who moonlights as a CIA agent, is assigned with Juan Pierre Napolean (Ty Burrell), a French Interpol inspector whom is a walking stereotype for all lazy and entitled French citizens. They’re both great and immensely enjoyable when on-screen together. No disrespect to Kermit and Piggy; but there wasn’t a more promising and perpetually pleasing pair to share the spotlight. Burrell especially who, given the fact that he was a back-up choice by Disney for the role that was first occupied by Christoph Waltz, performed admirably in what stands as his most successful feature film turn to date. Which, I’ll say again that Burrell was great, but to think of the copious amounts of potential that existed for Waltz as this character is enough to put me in an hour-long fantastical daydream—all the “Inglorious Basterds” parallels that would have written themselves?!?! Alas…it wasn’t meant to be.

After several scenes spent doing little more than meandering, the two stories merge into one at the most opportune (and important) of times. The ride getting there was perhaps a minute or two longer than it should have been, but never strayed from its goal of providing laughs while fitting in as many celebrity cameos as possible. To list even a handful of the names here would be stupid (and shame on you any site that does…not named iMDB and Wikipedia of course). Part of the fun of any Muppets movie is putting a familiar name to an even more familiar face and seeing what sort of treatment they get onscreen. Some are more hilariously-unexpected than others, but for a simple staple of the Muppet franchise, this latest film leaves very few cameo stones left unturned.

The best part of the movie is the music. There’s no debate there. The soundtrack has already received critical acclaim, not to mention a total of 120 four- and five-star reviews on iTunes. While Miss Piggy’s “Something So Right” falls short of matching the emotional power ballad that was “Man or Muppet,” the rest of the tunes are endlessly catchy, brilliantly written and upbeat enough to warrant perpetual playback of the soundtrack in its entirety. (I may or may have not already gotten started with that)

I tried in earnest not to be a little disappointed upon leaving the theater, which isn’t to say at all that I regretted the choice of movie that afternoon. The soundtrack is pre-loaded into the car and the DVD will be here in a few months for another viewing but as my feet scuffled along the sidewalk that afternoon I couldn’t help but continue to wait for the charm to set in. For the overwhelming good feeling that something great had been restored to the public consciousness. There will almost certainly be another sequel, but by that time just how far will the appeal have diminished? What Segel and Stoller and Bobin accomplished a few years ago was a little unprecedented. Keeping that same momentum going forward is going to be difficult, perhaps even more difficult than they had originally envisioned.

It seems all too fitting that the Muppets poked a little too much fun at themselves in the opening musical number when whispering that “everybody know the sequel’s never as good.” How I wish they could have been wrong.

Comment 1
Syranda Raffoul's picture

I enjoyed this sequel, but I went into it looking for exactly what I got - absurdity, whimsy and feel good escapism. I would definitely agree that the 2011 film was better over all, but I think that for the most part audiences are going to get what they came for here. It was exactly what it said on the tin, and exactly what they said it would be in the opening number. Like you said, there will probably be another one in a few years and I don't know if they can still cash in on the charm that got them through this instalment. To keep momentum going they will have to find a new approach, but I think that the creators have proved themselves self aware enough to know that. If they do another one, I hope it's a pure genre film in the spirit of Muppet Treasure Island.