Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

670px-Muppets_Most_Wanted_Official_TrailerDirected by James Bobin. Written by James Bobin, Nicholas Stoller. Based on Jim Henson’s Muppet characters. Musical score by Christophe Beck. Music and lyrics by Bret McKenzie. Photographed by Don Burgess. Edited by James Thomas. Production designed by Eve Stewart. Starring Ricky Gervais (Dominic Badguy), Ty Burrell (Jean Pierre Napoleon), Tina Fey (Nadya), Steve Whitmire (Kermit the Frog/Statler/Beaker/Rizzo the Rat), Eric Jacobson (Miss Piggy/Fozzie Bear/Sam the Eagle/Animal), Dave Goelz (Gonzo the Great/Dr. Bunsen Honeydew/Zoot/Beauregard/Waldorf), Bill Barretta (Pepe the Prawn/Rowlf the Dog/Dr. Teeth/Swedish Chef) David Rudman (Scooter/Janice), Matt Vogel (Constantine/Floyd Pepper/Sweetums/Lew Zealand), Peter Linz (Walter), many surprise cameos.

Early on in Muppets Most Wanted, the muppets that we know and love sing a production number containing a fugitive lyric about sequels not being quite as good as the first. They are not wrong to worry. While Muppets Most Wanted isn’t at all the worst the franchise has offered on the big screen, it does land straight in the middle of the pack. Don’t get me wrong: this is a sly and jolly comedy, packed with funny jokes and neat surprises. But it is lacking some of that ineffable Muppet magic.

The muppets were dormant for a while, but you may recall they leaped back into the mainstream in their 2011 revival. That movie featured Jason Segal and Amy Adams as a human couple trying to balance their romance while surrounded by muppet-hood. Those two are missing from Muppets Most Wanted, but we don’t miss them so much as we miss the baseline of sanity they brought to the proceedings. This one features three human stars (in addition to the requisite cameos), all comedians, all hamming it up, and they even get top billing: Ricky Gervais, Tiny Fey, Ty Burrell. These are splendidly funny people, and they’re very funny in the movie, but why hire them to steal every scene away from the muppets?

That’s the underlying problem with Muppets Most Wanted: it doesn’t give our heroes the weight they deserve. It doesn’t quite trust them. It devotes much of its length to a Kermit doppelgänger named Constantine, who is a master thief. The villain inevitably switches places with Kermit, and although Constantine’s attempt to impersonate the iconic frog are laughably inept, the remaining muppets are pretty slow on the uptake. For those of us that grew up with Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, etc., this development is frustrating, because it chains our favorite characters to what is essentially an idiot plot.

More idiots arrive. Gervais plays the muppets’ new manager, Dominic Badguy a con artist in league with Constantine. Badguy? “Bad-gee,” he protests. “It’s French.” Burrell appears as an actual Frenchman, an Interpol agent and Clouseau clone inevitably named Jean Pierre Napoleon. Fey is the lovely commandant of the Russian gulag that Constantine and Kermit find themselves in. Well done, all, but…what about the muppets themselves? The movie gives them short shrift, and while it goes through the motions of giving them a story to inhabit, it doesn’t connect the dots.

The genius of Jim Henson’s muppet characters is that despite being so obviously artificial, their personalities are so vivid and outsized. They have hopes and fears and dreams that we can relate to, and they play second fiddle to no one. That’s why in the old days they were allowed to share scenes with actors like Charles Durning, Orson Welles, Michael Caine, et al. Because they could. This movie doesn’t quite remember that. They’re pushed aside a little, and so are their personalities. They’re used here more as simple devices to advance plot points and jokes, with less heart than we would like. Lip service is paid to the gang taking Kermit for granted, but that thread disappears for too long…and so does Kermit, for that matter.

Still, there are big belly laughs in Muppets Most Wanted, and that is worth something. Some of the best jokes come from the lengthy Russian gulag sequence, which extends itself in ways you probably won’t see coming. Fey is clearly having a good time, using her considerable talents to create the most sweet-natured, innocently seductive Russian warden you could imagine. If they ever revive Rocky and Bulwinkle and need a new Natasha, they should give Fey a call.

The songs, once again by Flight of the Concords’ Bret McKenzie, are bouncy and colorful. They give Fey the very best number (“The Big House”), but all of them are clever and insanely catchy, with one in particular that recalls the very best of the Conchords. If none of them are as wonderful as Paul Williams’ “Rainbow Connection” from all the way back in the original Muppet Movie, it just goes to show that few can be. And how neat is it to go to a new movie musical, anyway?

A word about cameos. These have been a staple of the Muppet franchise since the very beginning, and so they come with the territory. But there are maybe too many cameos in Most Wanted, or perhaps more importantly some of them don’t quite pay their way. I think an actor should work for their cameo, not just present themselves and then depart. Can we all agree that simply getting someone to appear in your movie for a fraction of a second isn’t intrinsically funny? However, when a Russian gulag chorus line is made up of…well, I won’t spoil it. But trust me. It’s very funny.

I enjoyed myself at Muppets Most Wanted. It’s a fine entertainment. But it also feels made of disconnected bits, never pulling itself together to tell a compelling story. And it doesn’t quite master the balance of classic Muppet adventures, which occupy a space somewhere between The Wind and the Willows and Mel Brooks. I had a good time. But I didn’t get a great time, which is just as well, because you can’t always get that. Not even from the muppets. B-

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