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March 22, 2014

A Totally Spoilery Review of Muppets Most Wanted

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , , — Ryan Roe @ 7:48 am

Have you seen Muppets Most Wanted yet?  Of course you have.  You’ve probably seen it twice by now!  So you don’t have to worry about reading this review, in which I don’t make any attempt to be vague or hide spoilers.  But if for some (lame) reason you haven’t seen the movie yet, maybe you should start with our not-very-spoilery review.

Muppets Most Wanted Kermit Fozzie Animal Walter Siberia
One of the common complaints about 2011’s The Muppets was that the basic premise didn’t make sense.  The story started with the Muppets having disbanded years ago, apparently soon after The Muppets Take Manhattan.  But why would the Muppets ever break up?  They’re a team!  And anyway, what about all the productions that were made in the 1990s and 2000s?  Were they trying to tell us Muppets Tonight and It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and Studio DC never happened?  Well, it’s okay if Studio DC never happened.  But what about everything else?

Within its first 15 seconds or so, Muppets Most Wanted addresses that concern in a striking but Muppet-appropriate way: The Muppets was just a movie!  And now it’s over, as we see when the new film literally begins with the ending of the last one.  The Muppets take a minute to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done, but then they ask themselves: What’s next?

That’s the same question we’ve been asking for 28 months.  The last movie was carefully designed to reintroduce the characters to the world and persuade everyone that they’re still relevant in a heart-warming, uplifting way.  And it worked!  So what would be the raison d’être for the next Muppet movie?

Here’s the answer: The purpose of Muppets Most Wanted is to be super-entertaining from start to finish, and it succeeds like crazy.

mmwtrailerYes, as Kermit and the gang tell us in the opening number, “It’s the Muppets again, with The Muppets… Again!”  Except it’s not, because they changed the title of the movie after the song had been written and the musical number had been filmed.  But who cares, because it’s time for another movie!  And in this movie, unlike the last one, there’s no time for the Muppets to stand around feeling sorry for themselves, because they have a whole big action-action-adventure-musical-comedy-caper to do.

The telethon to save the theater in The Muppets was a great device, because it allowed the characters to do Muppets Show-style variety sequences while also telling a story.  For this one, returning writers Nick Stoller and James Bobin came up with the perfect concept to keep that going, with the Muppets going abroad for a European tour.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s also kind of brilliant.  For one thing, we get to see regional variations on The Muppet Show with acts like guest star Christoph Waltz waltzing with Sweetums in Germany, and Miss Piggy singing “Macarena” in Spain (There’s also that Spanish version of the theme song, which is muy divertido).  You could do an entire movie consisting of nothing but the Muppets doing songs and sketches inspired by different cultures, but the European tour concept also provides the movie’s bad guys with the means to accomplish their sneaky scheme, which involves stealing works of art from museums that just happen to be located next to theaters.  Which requires them to infiltrate the Muppets.  Which they do by replacing Kermit with his doppelganger Constantine while Dominic serves as the group’s tour manager, booking them into the venues that serve the scheme.

Hey, this Muppet movie has an actual plot!

constantineAnd speaking of Constantine, that evil frog is one of the best things about the film.  This is the first time a Muppet movie has had a Muppet as the main villain, and he’s suitably sinister while also being hilarious.  He’s evil, but he’s overconfident, which leads to great gags like his mispronunciations of Kermit’s friends’ names, and his struggle with stage fright. Sorry, I mean vertigo.

Constantine is just as much fun to watch as any of the good-guy Muppets, which has led some fans to speculate about whether he’ll stick around as part of the ensemble after this movie.  I dismissed this notion at first, because what else could they possibly do with an evil frog whose primary characteristic is that he looks just like the other frog?  But he has so much personality, and Matt Vogel performs him so brilliantly, that I really wouldn’t mind if he popped up again somewhere down the road.

Oh, and he can dance!  This movie has a ton of great shots where we can see the puppets’ entire bodies, thanks to the seamless combination of excellent puppetry and puppeteer-erasing technology, and Constantine’s choreography in his duet with Ricky Gervais is sure to leave a lot of kids in the audience convinced that he’s a real dancing frog.

Another frequent fan gripe (We gripe because we love!) about The Muppets was the percentage of its run time devoted to Jason Segel and Amy Adams.  Who wants to watch people do people stuff in a Muppet movie?  This time around, Stoller and Bobin never let the human co-stars threaten to take over, as the Muppets are decidedly positioned as the stars of the movie.  Which makes a lot of sense, considering it has their name in the title.

MUPPETS MOST WANTEDTy Burrell, doing a completely authentic and accurate French accent as Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon, is appealingly goofy and works well with Sam the Eagle.  (Sam, by the way, was part of the Muppet troupe in the last movie but now he’s a CIA agent.  No explanation is given for this, which is exactly as it should be.)  Tina Fey, doing a completely authentic and accurate Russian accent as Siberian gulag warden Nadya, manages to be stern and charming at the same time, and also proves that she’s a pretty good singer.  Ricky Gervais, doing a passable British accent as the double-crossing tour manager Dominic Badguy, quells any fan fears that he might try to upstage the Muppets or take over the movie.  He knows his place — there’s even a song about it!

There are also a lot of cameos.  I mean, a LOT of cameos.  It seems like the filmmakers threw in as diverse a selection of stars as they possibly could to reach everyone in the audience.  Not a fan of Chloe Grace Moretz?  Here, have Stanley Tucci!  Too young and culturally unrefined to know who Tony Bennett is?  Here, have a kid from the Disney Channel!    I almost want to complain that there are too many cameos, but if every famous person in Hollywood wants to work with the Muppets, well, that’s a pretty great problem to have.

The Muppets seemed a little trepidatious about its musical numbers. “Let’s Talk About Me” was truncated in the film, and “Me Party” had that weird sparkly border on the screen.  It was like the movie was saying, “Oh, this isn’t really a musical.  We’re just kiddin’ around!”  But this time they go for it without any reservations, and Bret McKenzie outdoes himself with the songs.  Most of them just sound more like they belong in a big Hollywood musical than the ones from the last film, especially “We’re Doing a Sequel.”  And “Something So Right.”  And “The Big House.”  And all of them.  The most clever is “The Interrogation Song,” which feels like going on a carnival ride with Ty Burrell and the Muppets, and the absolute best is “I Can Give You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu).” That’s the disco number Constantine performs to woo Piggy, and it’s so good that you can see why she falls for his ruse.

MUPPETS MOST WANTEDAs effective as Constantine is as a villain and a comedy character, his presence means Kermit has to be separated from the gang for a long stretch of the movie, as he takes Constantine’s place in the Siberian gulag.  But what a gulag!  The other prisoners are a combination of human actors (Jemaine Clement and Ray Liotta) and Muppets, more than one of whom you’ll recognize from Muppet Treasure Island.  The gulag story leads up to Kermit directing the surprisingly theatrical inmates in a variety show of their own, which results in some of the biggest laughs of the movie (although we never get to see Danny Trejo as Fozzie like the trailers promised us).

As Kermit’s time in the gulag wears on, he suspects that his friends may never notice he’s gone, and his feelings of abandonment provide part of the emotional core of the movie.  And yeah, for any of this to happen we have to accept the idea that, for several days, none of the Muppets notices that Kermit has suddenly developed a Russian accent.  I wonder if Stoller and Bobin debated which Muppets would be the first to notice that something was awry with the frog.  The trio they ended up with works because Walter, Fozzie, and Animal each have a completely different relationship with Kermit, but they all share the same loyalty to him.

The rest of the emotional stuff comes from the Kermit and Piggy dynamic.  This movie doesn’t attempt to explore the relationship quite as deeply as The Muppets did, but it still proves once again that romantic complications between a frog and a pig can be just as compelling as any between a human and a human.  It’s also intriguing to see Piggy reconsidering what attracts her to Kermit when he abruptly changes his mind about marriage.  Eric Jacobson does some of his best work ever as Piggy, especially in the song “Something So Right.”  That song is also when the movie dares to answer the question of what Kermit and Piggy’s offspring would look like, which pays off with another huge laugh.

And then there’s all the stuff that’s like a real action-adventure movie!  With the jewel heists and the leaping onto moving trains and the thrilling rooftop helicopter stunt.  There’s just so much good stuff in Muppets Most Wanted even beyond the jokes and musical numbers.

640px-MMW-IcedUpMuppetsIt’s too bad about that finale, though.  My least favorite part of The Muppets (other than fart shoes) was the “Rainbow Connection” number.  It felt more manipulative than sincere, relying on the audience’s goodwill toward a classic Muppet song to force a touching moment.  And now they do it again with Muppets Most Wanted‘s “Together Again” finale, recycling another old song that they know the fans already like, instead of writing a new one.  Or why not do a variation on the opening number (“We just did a sequel…”)?

It doesn’t help things any that the focus of the number is a pretty bad visual effect.  The gulag wall is covered with Muppets and returning cameo celebrities, and it’s achieved in the least convincing way I can imagine.  I can’t blame P. Diddy for not wanting to be hung on a wall for a few hours, but it’s so obvious that all the humans were filmed lying down on a green screen that it distracts from the whole everything.

But you know what?  That’s really my only problem with the film. Otherwise, Muppets Most Wanted is totally the Muppet movie I wanted.  The songs, the story, the pacing, the characterizations, the performances and the emphasis on Muppets are all even better than they were in The Muppets. It’s not as nostalgic or sentimental as that one, but it doesn’t try to be, and it doesn’t need to be.  It’s just a good time at the movies with our pals the Muppets.

And it’s definitely better than in Divergent.  I hear that thing doesn’t even have talking pigs in it.

Other things:

-When Kermit is putting together the gulag talent show, Danny Trejo has a line where he says, “I’m a triple threat: Singer, dancer, and murderer!”  What did you think of that?  I laughed out loud, but I’ve already heard a few suggestions that it was a little too dark for a Muppet movie. Hey, at least a Muppet didn’t say it.

-Okay, so Constantine was planning on blowing up the whole Tower of London with the bomb hidden in Piggy’s ring, right?  And then Beaker’s bomb-attracting vest attracts it, and Beaker goes flying into the river, where the bomb explodes and Beaker emerges safely on the surface.  Not that I think Beaker’s death would make a good climax for the movie, but if he’s so unscathed despite being so close to the bomb, doesn’t that mean it wasn’t a very good bomb?  It kind of undercuts the threat of Constantine, is all I’m saying.

-We always want to know which characters we’ll get to see in a new Muppet thing.  Will Link have lines?  Will Marvin Suggs show up?  Will I be able to spot my favorite monster?  As you might expect, Kermit and Piggy are at the center of the story, but all our friends are there too.  More Gonzo would have been nice, and it’s too bad (for us Muppet geeks) that Annie Sue doesn’t have a line, considering they recruited original Muppet Show puppeteer Louise Gold to work on the film.  But the movie is packed with Muppets, including a few that got left out of the last one.  Yes, I’m thinking specifically of Mildred.  And did you ever expect Bobby Benson’s babies to play a major role in a movie’s plot?

640px-MMW-BavarianElectricMayhem
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com



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