MUPPETS MOST WANTED
Director: James Bobin
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, the voices of Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz
MPAA Rating: (for some mild action)
Running Time: 1:52
Release Date: 3/21/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 20, 2014
"We're doing a sequel," sing the Muppets at the beginning of their new adventure, and soon after, they're also quite eager to point out that "Everybody knows the sequel is never quite as good." It's a funny and oftentimes true observation (Also true, as the mad scientist Bunsen Honeydew points out in the song, is that this is not just the sequel to The Muppets but also the seventh sequel for the Muppets), but it's also a prophetic one. Muppets Most Wanted is, indeed, not quite as good as its predecessor, which didn't recapture the magic of Jim Henson's felt creations but did understand it, making a successful facsimile.
The magic, of course, is not only in the way the Muppets come across as actual living beings instead of lifeless lumps of stitched cloth but also in their dedication to comic anarchy. Fans of "The Muppet Show" know it well: the sketches featuring references to popular culture and musical numbers and self-referential jokes and absurdist bits of humor, presented in the style of a vaudeville show with celebrity guest stars showing up to do their part (primarily to be famous and in on the joke). If there's one thing that's anathema to anarchists of any kind, it's order.
In the case of the Muppets, that order comes in the inherent structure of plot. Every Muppet movie can be whittled down to a battle between the characters' comic sensibility and the need for some kind of structure. The Muppets don't need to—and, really, shouldn't—be tamed, but there are necessities of dramatic form that must be fulfilled (Even the opening song admits that, as the crew takes pitches for possible stories for their newest movie, including the Swedish Chef suggesting—quite amusingly—something in the mold of a Bergman-esque examination of man's existential crisis). Imagine a feature-length version of a Muppets variety show. It could work, but more than likely, the format would wear thin stretched out that far.
The respective success of each Muppet movie is in how well it balances the two needs. It's a tough act, and if this movie isn't quite as good as its predecessor, the reason is because it doesn't quite get the act right.
The story starts immediately after the end of the last movie, complete with a "The End" at the beginning (and doubles standing in for the human stars). Over the course of the opening number, a mysterious man played by Ricky Gervais sneaks on set to suggest that the Muppets next story should involve a world tour. The man is Dominic Badguy—a surname he insists is French and has no reflection upon his character—who wants to manage the tour. Kermit (voice of Steve Whitmire) is not convinced, but the rest of troupe overrides the frog's suspicions.
Of course, Kermit is right, and Dominic is the number two man of Constantine (voice of Matt Vogel), the "world's most dangerous frog." He looks exactly like Kermit, save for a mole on one cheek and a constant sneer in which we can sense the puppeteer's hand contorting, and the Eastern-European accent should be a dead giveaway ("High-low," "Cure-met" greets the other "Mappets," including "Fonzie" and "Zongo"). That's also part of the Muppet charm, no? It's how we simultaneously believe the characters are as real as they can be and appreciate just how effortlessly the people working the marionette-puppets create that illusion. We start to anticipate the big, seemingly impossible moments of this illusion, and the movie gives us a doozy with Constantine performing a tap dance on multiple levels of a fire escape before finally hoofing on top of Gervais' head.
The plot has Constantine taking Kermit's place, sending the beloved frog to a gulag in Siberia—run by Nadya (Tina Fey)—to serve out Constantine's sentence with prisoners the likes of Ray Liotta as Big Papa, Jemaine Clement as the Prison King, and Danny Trejo (The identity of his character is one of the movie's best throwaway jokes). Constantine and Dominic set up the world tour with locales adjacent to places where they can steal items necessary to rob the Crown Jewels, and Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell), a European stereotype from Interpol, and Sam the Eagle (voice of Eric Jacobson), a hardworking CIA agent, try to track down the perpetrators.
There's a lot of plot here, and for the movie's occasional jokes criticizing the previous movie (a newcomer taking the spotlight from other, established characters), at least it knew that the characters are funny enough on their own without the deck of the story loaded to provide an assortment of situations for them. The gulag scenes, for example, run out of ideas quickly and put Kermit so far out of his element that he comes across as an afterthought. Constantine is a fine replacement for the purposes of humor (He's a one-joke character, but it's a good joke), but the movie's heart is locked away on the tundra.Most of the creative team from The Muppets, including director James Bobin and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (who co-wrote this screenplay with Bobin), has returned, so it's a bit strange to see how Muppets Most Wanted strays from what worked so well previously. It's still quite funny at times (One cameo, featuring an actor dancing his namesake, is gold), but it's not quite right, either.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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