Muppets Most Wanted
2014 • 112 minutes • Walt Disney Pictures
Do the Muppets really work on the silver screen if they’re playing themselves?
As a child of the nineties, I was introduced to the Muppets as a very unique group of day players in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and the short-lived Muppets Tonight. Even The Muppets Movie, which sets out to tell the troupe’s origin story, is a surreal, meta wonderland. The fourth wall has always taken a well-received beating from the Muppets, from Rizzo’s shock that someone would die in a kid’s movie in Muppet Treasure Island (Gonzo reassures him that it’s literature) to the script being used as a plot device in The Muppet Movie to the very existence of Statler and Waldorf, who can considered the forerunners of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew.
When the action is about the Muppets playing other characters or different versions of themselves, it can be sublime. But when it’s about the Muppets’ lives and tries to balance resolving and leaving open their usual and necessarily unresolved character beats (Piggy and Kermit’s relationship is always on the edge of a knife, Scooter is always frazzled, Sam is always disapproving and stoic), it can fall flat. Case in point: Muppets Most Wanted.
I quite enjoyed The Muppets, due to the goodwill engendered by Jason Segel’s clear adoration for the material and Bret McKenzie’s downright cute compositions. (The eighties references helped, despite the fact that the Muppets’ heyday included the seventies.) Despite its resolution occurring in its end credits, The Muppets managed to make being about the Muppets’ lives work by focusing on getting the troupe back together from various, disparate lifestyles: Rolf emerging from retirement, Gonzo gleefully abandoning his conservative plumbing business to get back to show business, and Miss Piggy reconsidering her plush position as the plus-size editor of Vogue Paris. Plus, their reunion was secondary to the emotional journey of Walter, the new Muppet on the block suffering from an identity crisis.
But Muppets Most Wanted opens with everyone, more or less, in a solid place. While the fans have dried up since The Muppets (stand-ins for Segel and Amy Adams appear briefly before vanishing, leaving us to wonder about the emotional toll this will take on always insecure Walter), the gang is back together and ready to work. This is complicated when their manager turns out to be the second-in-command of Constantine, a criminal mastermind who looks exactly like Kermit—so much so that he has them switch places so he can steal the crown jewels.
The result is an incredibly slight film, the kind that runs through your fingers. I was looking forward to Captain Cinema’s disappointed thoughts on the film, but it was so unmemorable that, just a year later, she couldn’t even remember her complaints. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Muppets Most Wanted—well, I don’t see why Nadya had to be in love with Kermit, as Piggy’s jealousy can be aroused by people breathing on Kermit—but there’s nothing inherently right about it either. It reminds me very specifically of The Muppets Take Manhattan, my least favorite Muppet movie. (I mean, I haven’t seen The Great Muppet Caper, but Diana Rigg is in that, so it’s already streets ahead.) There are cute moments, but there’s just nothing much to hold onto.
There are bright spots, however. Bret McKenzie’s compositions remain as sweetly weird as ever, and his Flight of the Conchords bandmate Jemaine Clement appears as a prisoner at Constantine’s gulag. (He is just one of many—delightfully, so many stars were enchanted by the idea of even cameoing in a Muppet movie that James McAvoy and Russell Tovey appear as delivery men.) Sam the Eagle, mercifully, gets to play CIA agent against Ty Burrell’s deliriously hilarious Clouseau parody of an Interpol agent, in the film’s best scenes. Their efforts to one-up each other are hilarious, as are the sheer variety of French stereotypes they play on. But perhaps the best part is that some of their jokes involve the kind of visual comedy you don’t see much of these days. It’s the kind of humor that relies on the visual medium instead of just the script, as outlined on Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting.
It’s the kind of stuff that I wish was coming out of the Muppets these days—some kind of comedy that is uniquely theirs. A return to a television format would do the trick, I think, but anything will do as long as the Muppets get to make more of an impact.
I rented this film on iTunes.