Muppets Most Wanted
Directed by: James Bobin
Written by: James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz
After Jason Segel did most of the heavy lifting to bring back The Muppets to the big screen back in 2011, he opted not to return for the inevitable sequel. Fortunately, his writing partner Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin both soldiered on without him, ensuring that there would at least be some form of creative continuity within the newly rebooted franchise. But would a new Muppet movie still work without that feeling of reverence and pure joy that Segel brought to the previous film?
The good news is that Muppets Most Wanted manages to stay true to the characters and the spirit of the original show. It maintains a zany sense of humour that alternates between high and low brow, while also delivering a healthy helping of musical numbers and celebrity cameos. The problem is that the plot never really picks up steam, whisking us away from location to location without ever reaching the potential of its premise. The movie plays with cliches, but at times it forgets that the Muppets were made to subvert them.
The story picks up just seconds after the conclusion of The Muppets, as production wraps and the camera pulls back to reveal a movie set. This quickly leads to a discussion among the Muppets about what they should do next. After the idea of a world tour is proposed, they soon find themselves negotiating a deal with tour manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Unfortunately for the Muppets, Badguy is true to his name and proves to be working with an evil criminal mastermind named Constantine. Together, they hatch a plan to spring Constantine from prison and frame Kermit, who conveniently happens to look exactly like him. The Muppets tour then provides the cover necessary to help them carry out a series of heists across Europe.
One of the primary complaints about the last Muppet movie was that the human characters stole the focus away from the Muppets themselves and that the new Muppet character Walter had far too much screen time. You’d think that wouldn’t be a problem this time around, but sadly, it is still a bit of an issue. Although it is a good thing that they don’t have to assemble the Muppets all over again, the human actors continue to hog most of the spotlight along with the new villain, Constantine. Walter is still hanging around as well (along with ’80s Robot, although he doesn’t actually have any lines) and seems to exist only to serve a purpose as the one selfless Muppet who doesn’t overlook Kermit’s strange behaviour.
Granted, the Muppets line-up has grown so much over the years that it’s nearly impossible to juggle all of the Muppets in the first place. But at least the previous film gave most of the main characters their own chance to shine. It’s a bad sign when a character like Gonzo seems almost entirely absent in the film (especially considering that he remains the only Muppet still performed by his original puppeteer). To their credit, Bobin and Stoller at least poke fun at the fact that some of the characters are getting the shaft, and Muppets Most Wanted is at its best when it is throwing out meta, self-aware jokes.
The opening song, “We’re Doing a Sequel”, is a pretty good example of this, and in fact, the musical sequences (once again written by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame) continue to be a highlight of the rebooted Muppets. The funky ’80s love song “I’ll Get You What You Want” sung by Constantine to Miss Piggy is pretty hilarious and some of the song-and-dance sequences at the Russian gulag prison are also solid. It doesn’t hurt that McKenzie’s Flight of the Conchords partner Jemaine Clement appears in the film as one of the prisoners alongside slightly more predictable folks like Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo. Still, at times it almost feels like there are too many songs, which hurts the pacing a bit.
Tina Fey performs much better than expected in some of the musical numbers and her Russian accent is actually pretty good, while Ricky Gervais is mostly forgettable (although he can’t resist at least one shameless David Brent reference). Surprisingly, I think I actually had the most fun with Ty Burrell (Modern Family) in his Inspector Clouseau-inspired detective role, paired up with C.I.A. agent Sam the Eagle. Most of the smaller celebrity cameos are hit and miss, but one of my favourites involves Usher. No, seriously.
The biggest failure of the movie is that The Muppet Show itself is relegated to a few brief sequences happening in the background while other things are going on. This is another lesson they could have learned from the last movie, which only truly found its footing once they were all on stage together. In this case, I actually felt kind of embarrassed for the celebrity guest stars who turn up at each stop of the tour to perform the briefest and lamest of sketches (ie. Christoph Waltz, Salma Hayek, and Saoirse Ronan). I get that this is part of the joke (especially when the Muppets are allowed to run wild with all of the bad ideas that Kermit would normally keep in check) but without Kermit around there is no straight man for all of the madness.
Overall, Muppets Most Wanted is still a decent Muppets flick, maybe even a little better than expected, and it does a lot of things right. Sure, some of the emotional beats feel forced and the plot gets a bit tiresome, but there are also some clever moments and solid laughs to be had as well. I’m still interested in seeing another Muppet movie from this creative team… assuming that next time they can let the Muppets be the stars of their own show again. — Sean