Muppets Most Wanted

Look, I don’t want to not recommend anything that involves the Muppets.

Jim Henson’s creations are uniformly delightful, and, on principle, they merit our attention and adoration. Not every vehicle they’ve carried has deserved their particular brand of cracked whimsy (a few straight-to-TV movies come to mind), but there is something so reassuring about Kermit’s continuing influence on our culture after 59 years that it seems like a truth universally acknowledged that the world is a happier, somewhat brighter place when he and his Muppet gang are on their game.

I don’t think 2011’s The Muppets – which, under the stewardship of co-writer and star Jason Segal, revitalized the franchise after years in the YouTube wilderness – was a perfect or even great film, but it was a great reintroduction to what makes the Muppets great, and its greatest accomplishment seemed to be that it promised many more years of big, cameo-laden musical numbers like the insanely catchy “Life’s a Happy Song” and of inspired variety show inanity like the world’s worst barbershop quartet singing (and meeping) “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was a self-referential love letter directly addressed to people who loved the Muppets unconditionally and had waited patiently for a resurgence, made by people who loved the Muppets unconditionally and had waited patiently for a resurgence, featuring a new Muppet, Walter, who had (within the film’s narrative) loved the Muppets unconditionally and had waited patiently for a resurgence.

A sequel to The Muppets didn’t just seem inevitable when people fell in love with Segal’s renewed, twenty-first century vision of Jim Henson’s beloved showbiz weirdos… it seemed like the point! Yes, as a culture, we’re wary of franchising, especially where Disney is involved. (The trailer for Planes: Fire and Rescue, which played before Muppets Most Wanted, was probably the most disheartening thing I’ve seen in a long time.) But when it comes to Muppets, we’ve always waited for the next episode; like James Bond, the Muppets are flexible and situational, bending to suit the times, the host, the plot of whatever piece of classic literature they are asked to act out. No one cries foul when more Muppets are involved. So why is this Muppets sequel (in fact the seventh sequel to the original Muppets film, as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew rightly points out) so apologetic about its own existence?

While “We’re Doing a Sequel” is a brilliant piece of melodic (every time the chorus soars up to that “Do it all again,” I smile) and lyrical invention featuring a great bridge where various characters suggest “half-decent” plots, all of which would have been improvements on the one we actually get, it sure as hell is a disheartening way to begin a movie pretty much nobody went into with a gruff Statler/Waldorf demeanor. But maybe that’s how the team behind the film felt making it (pretty much everyone’s back behind the camera with the notable exception of Segal, which could either be a huge reason why Muppets Most Wanted fails or have no bearing on anything, it’s tough to tell), because while the 2011 film felt like a love letter to the fans who just wanted to see Kermit come back, the 2014 remix feels more like a kiss-off to fans who only want to see Jim Henson’s version of Kermit come back.

The whole film revolves around the ongoing gag that no one seems to recognize that good ol’ Kermit’s voice is different (after he is replaced by a nefarious Russian (ish…) frog, Constantine), an obvious play on constant complaints that the new Muppet puppeteers don’t sound enough like the classic puppeteers. (For the record, to this particular viewer’s/listener’s ears, Steve Whitmere’s Kermit sounds just fine, though Fozzie sounded off last film, and Piggy has her off moments this go-round. That said, it’s nowhere enough of an issue that I’d ever even come close to registering it as a complaint against this generation of puppeteers since the old puppeteers are retired or dead!) This subtext is made literal by a scene in which Constantine watches old Muppet Show episodes and attempts to imitate Jim Henson’s tenor, utterly failing while everyone around him continues to remain oblivious. It’s a rather inside baseball-type thing to build the plot of your movie around, and to kids and non-Muppets-obsessives, it must just seem like an evil Kermit doppelganger and his more competent human sidekick have hijacked half of a Muppet film, which would be fine if either character were even tolerably interesting.

Constantine is a baffling amalgam of every Eurotrash villain stereotype the writers can muster (indicative of a bigger problem in a film that traffics in silly European accents and stereotypes courtesy of Ty Burrell and Tina Fey, with the only funny one involving the Swedish Chef sitting down for a game of chess opposite Death), and on top of this, his characterization is downright schizophrenic; before he joins forces with his Number Two, Dominic Badguy (played by Ricky Gervais in middle management “I can’t believe I have to work with this guy” mode), Constantine is such a competent ninja badass he ceases to be a puppet and instead becomes a disappointing CGI whir (there’s no “gee wiz!” moment to seeing all of a puppet anymore since it’s so clear there’s no craftsmanship involved, just CGI); after he frames Kermit and takes his place, it becomes evident that Badguy is the brains behind the operation and Constantine is just about the worst criminal one could possibly imagine. The film seems to be setting up a moment of redemption or conquest for Badguy, and botches the hand-off by instead dressing Gervias up like a lemur. You may say this seems like nitpicking for a Muppet movie – Muppet movies are given to paper-thin characterization and enough celeb cameos to make you head explode – but I parry by asserting that this is all Characterization 101, and it really ends up damaging the movie that these guys are insufferable since, when asking who the actual protagonist of this movie is, considering its plot involves two criminals pulling a heist, two investigators-at-odds trying to catch them, the crew of the Muppet Show being duped by them, and Kermit stranded in an amusing subplot in a Russian gulag, the answer is nominally the utterly ridiculous bad guys. Oops.

How did this end up being the plot of a Muppet film on which so much was riding (when Kermit sings that the Muppets are back by “popular demand,” I cringed knowing how poorly the film had performed)? When Muppets Most Wanted picks up seconds after the “Life’s a Happy Song” reprise that wrapped the last film (complete with deliriously awful stand-ins for the absent backs of Amy Adams and Segal) and the characters all look around befuddled wondering “What now?”, an answer that should seem pretty obvious (go do Muppety things, as we all hope you will until the end of time, you kooky pieces of felt!) becomes deliriously complicated in a matter of ten minutes. While Muppets Most Wanted is caught up in a complex heist plot with multiple animal-themed criminals, it loses sight of what makes the Muppets, and Kermit in particular, so special –their overwhelming optimism. In pulling the wool over their eyes while Kermit mopes in Siberia, the film tears apart what works about the group dynamic, and I am not complimenting it when I say it ends in the same fashion as just about every Glee episode that questions Will Schuster’s continued importance – everyone apologizes to the choir director and tells him he’s important, but the implication is he is important because he keeps everyone on task, cutting their whimsy and chaos and making everything presentable. What this film forgets (and what Glee forgot about its director long ago) is that the real winning aspect of Kermit is that he is overwhelmingly melancholy and more than a little neurotic while still maintaining an unwavering optimism. That sense of optimism in the face of overwhelming odds is completely absent from Muppets Most Wanted, which is too bad, because the movie finds time for three separate MacGuffins, and a wedding ring that’s a bomb, as well as a helicopter fight… Even the movie can’t help but make fun of its own tendency to over-exposit, ignore gaping plot holes, and blow up action set-pieces to absurd proportions, but self-reflexivity is not a gift in itself. In other words, saying you have a bad plot doesn’t mean you don’t have one.

I’m tired of ragging on this movie. The first half is near abominable, but the film really turns it around as Kermit meets a suitably wacky gang of misfits at the gulag (though it’s sad that I wanted to see him stick with Tim Robbins, Tina Fey, Jermaine Clement, Tom Hiddleston, Danny Trejo [playing himself, hilariously enough] and Josh Groban’s buttery voice rather than go back to Gonzo and Pepe), and I found some moments I really enjoyed. Some cameos in the film are fun and inspired (Stanley Tucci as a cheerful prison guard), others seem like a bit of a waste (Chloe Grace Moretz as a Russian papergirl), but it’s still fun to see who pops up.

And then there’s the music. Absolutely, far and away, the best reason to watch Muppets Most Wanted is to see what director James Bobin does with Bret McKenzie’s brilliant musical numbers. As the film prepares to leap into song, the script comes alive and the screen is stuffed with visual wit (Constantine holding a tub of Vaseline with which he’s smudged the edges of the camera lens before his “sexy number” is the best gag in the film and one of the greatest fourth wall gags of all time, something that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Airplane!). This energy that’s shot through the musical aspects of Muppets Most Wanted, which might actually have the better overall score of McKenzie’s two efforts, makes listening to the soundtrack and remembering only the parts of the movie that involve Miss Piggy’s black-and-white duet with Celine Dion and Tina Fey’s outstanding doo-wop tour of the gulag a much more pleasant experience than it should be; it eliminates almost everything in the film that is dully expository or cruelly self-reflexive and hits on just about every moment in the film that is inventive and fun. In years to come, as I play songs like “Something So Right” and “The Big House” and “I’ll Get You Want You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)” and come to think of them as ancillary Flight of the Conchords tracks featuring Kermit, I will likely remember this film fondly. But if I ever find myself watching the entire film again, I’m certain all my disdain for the adventures of Constantine will come rushing back. I sure hope Constantine didn’t steal the Muppets chances at further success out from under them; consider the roll McKenzie is on writing songs for them, that would truly be the biggest heist of all.