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How about a film about the existential conundrum of religious faith?

Movie

Muppets Most Wanted
(2014)

 

It’s a funny kind of a way to express one’s love for a property and its characters: spending a disproportionate amount of time on wholly new ones. True, a series shouldn’t stay still, or rest on its laurels, but if the innovation lacks any of the flair and that made it so good in the first place it would be better not to bother. Acknowledging this, as Muppets Most Wanted sort of does several times, can only do so much to affirm the self-referential wit for which the series is famous; it’s only clever to say you’re crappy if you’re actually not. This seventh (theatrical) sequel undoubtedly has its moments, but in many respects,  it perpetuates the problems of its predecessor rather than remedying them.

Writer-director James Bobin (and co-writer Nicholas Stoller) they immediately face up to the task in hand with the We’re Doing a Sequel song (“It looks like they’ve ordered a sequel, and everybody knows that the sequel’s not quite as good”). But the essential starting point in counteracting this would have been to get rid of Walter, introduced via the last picture’s banal conceit of a character that wanted to join the Muppets. Bobin and Stoller probably didn’t want to admit they got it wrong, so again this dullest of felt fellows eats up screen time that should have been reserved for the many more vibrant players in the Muppet-verse. And again, at one point they very nearly acknowledge that they spent a whole movie getting him to join up, “Maybe even at the expense of other long-standing beloved Muppets”, as Rizzo opines (exit scene right with Robin).

That Walter is ever-present suggests bloody-mindedness on the parts of Bobin and Stoller, however. The plot they come up with this time isn’t necessarily so bad, except we’ve already had The Great Mupper Caper; criminals hijack the Muppet European Tour in order to perpetrate a series of heists. This fosters a brace of cameos and different destinations. Unfortunately, both new characters (human and muppet) fail to capture the lunacy of the series at its best.

Ricky Gervais is perhaps the most irritating comedy actor on the planet, so his smug mug nuzzling up to the Muppets is off-putting in the extreme. He plays tour manager Dominic Badguy, lackey of arch criminal Constantine. The latter, a ringer for Kermit (aside from a prominent mole), escapes from a Siberian gulag and swaps places with the green Muppet. Who finds it’s not easy being incarcerated.  It might have been a better bet to go with the Swedish Chef’s suggestion for the sequel (“How about a film about the existential conundrum of religious faith?”)

Much play is made of how no one notices Kermit’s replacement, despite a completely incongruous accent, and such obvious repetitions are Muppet bread-and-butter. But the evil frog fizzles as a character so his interaction with the other Muppets is a one-joke affair that isn’t especially amusing. Kermit fares better in the gulag, with a game Tina Fey as the warden besotted with him and a selection of amusing inmates. There’s Danny Trejo (as Danny Trejo, which given that he really has been inside is particularly on-the-nose) singing (Bret McKenzie’s songs are yet again one of the highlights, although the best track is a cover of Working in a Coal Mine, and fellow Conchord Jermaine Clement perfectly fits into the Muppet world as the Prison King) and Ray Liotta delivery some classic Liotta deadpan.

By far the superior subplot, which hits the nail on the head in offering up Muppet-human interplay at its best, is Sam the Eagle’s CIA agent teaming up Ty Burrell’s Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon. Burrell brings just the right measure of comedic excess (with an appropriately outrageous accent) while stuffy Sam is the straight muppet. Travelling around in a very tiny car, and indulging running through a series of French stereotypes (Napoleon’s lunch hour lasts six hours) there’s an irresistible balance between not such great sense (“The comedian bear is the Lemur! That is brilliant!”) and sheer idiocy (“The comedian bear is planning on stealing the Tower of London!”)

Cameos include Tom Hiddleston as The Great Escapo, Celine Dion duetting with Miss Piggy, Christopher Waltz as himself, Usher as an usher (“What kind of an usher are you?”) and Zach Galifianakis as a wedding guest (“Well, this is the best Muppet wedding ever!”). There are also some fine gags along the way; Fozzie posing as a bear skin rug, Kermit and Constantine doing the Groucho Marx mirror routine, babies stealing the crown jewels (“Who would suspect babies of stealing the crown jewels. Look at their sweet faces!”), flamingos singing the Macarena, and Fozzie’s response to the news that Badguy has been bribing journalists to write great reviews (“Oh, why didn’t we ever think of that?”)

Rowlf: (Reading the German sign) Die Muppets?
WaldorfI can’t believe the reviews are out so early.
StatlerMaybe that’s the suggestion box.

Muppet movies are never easy to pull off; their magic is best engineered in TV sketch format, or playing off a recognisable story (Christmas Carol and Treasure Island both work reasonably well). Statler and Waldorf barely get a look in, the same with Gonzo. There’s also an unconvincing moral about cuddly values (“We’re a family”). Muppets Most Wanted is well shot, I’ll give it that, but it’s a “That’ll do” affair, much the way Fierce Creatures wasn’t a worthy re-assemblage of the Wanda team. The new characters are duff (they would have been better off featuring ‘80s Robot prominently instead of Walter, if they had to bring back a new character, but he’s consigned to extra status) and the plot is determinedly unadventurous.

Most Wanted made less than half as much money as its predecessor, which in part suggests The Muppets itself wasn’t up to scratch (nostalgia sold tickets as much as anything) but it’s also indicative of word of mouth. I can’t lay all the blame Gervais, although he’s a blight on any motion picture; Stoller and Bobin’s contributions are persistently patchy. If the rest of the picture were as inspired as the Sam/Burrell scenes, though, this would have been top tier Muppet moviedom.

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