Review: Muppets Most Wanted
PLOT: After the success of their comeback, the Muppets decide to go on a world tour with their variety show. Little do they know, their representation, named Dominic Badguy, is working alongside an international criminal who has his sights set on robbing the Royal Crown Jewels. And said criminal happens to look exactly like Kermit the Frog.
REVIEW: I know I'm not alone in thinking the first MUPPETS movie (the first of the new Muppets movies, that is) was a disappointment, but I'm hard pressed to find someone who will actually admit it. Pleasant and good-natured, yes, and a welcome return to the forefront of pop culture for the fuzzy group of eccentrics, but it just didn't connect for me as much more than a nostalgia trip. But that was okay, because I assumed it was just a case of getting the kinks worked out, a prelude to a new series of memorable Muppet adventures. With MUPPETS MOST WANTED, it seems as though while they're still working out those kinks a bit, they're on their way to getting it just right.
What's nice this time around is that the focus really is on the Muppets, the ones we love - Kermit, Ms. Piggy, Fozzie, etc. - and not the humans; I'll be blunt in saying I was thoroughly underwhelmed with how much time the first one spent on Jason Segal and Amy Adams' characters, but perhaps that was a necessary way of generating interest from a modern crowd. Here, director James Bobin and his co-writer Nicholas Stoller rightly focus on the variety show/comedy hour aspect of The Muppets, while implementing various heist/spy/mistaken identity movie subplots that work well enough to string a very loose narrative along. It's still not a perfect machine, but MUPPETS MOST WANTED is cheerful and sweet enough to knock away some of your doubts about the troupe's big screen comeback, even if it never quite hits it out of the park. (It's also too long, almost two hours!)
The plot, such as it is, involves the world tour the gang embarks upon almost immediately after the first movie ends. Helped by a talent agent named Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), the Muppets' stops include Germany, Ireland and London - which everyone is excited about except Kermit, who feels they need to hone their act more before taking it on the road. Kermit needn't worry, however, because he's not in the plans anyway; Dominic is actually a bad guy, an accomplice to a feared international criminal named Constantine who just happens to look like Kermit (except for a mole on his cheek). Dominic and Constantine's plans include thieving priceless pieces of art throughout Europe, ultimately leading them to the crown jewels in the Tower of London. After Constantine replaces Kermit, the put-upon frog finds himself captured by Russian police and thrown into a Siberian gulag.
The Muppets on the whole barely notice the difference in Kermit, despite the fact that he now speaks with an odd accent and has a more sinister, carefree attitude. Some of the best bits in MOST WANTED involve Constantine's attempts to fit in, like his first introduction of The Muppet Show or when he spends time watching footage of Kermit to get his accent down. The interplay between Constantine and Dominic is amusing, especially when they sing a musical number called "I'm Number One," where the frog reminds Dominic of his lowly sidekick status. Intriguingly enough, I like Constantine quite a bit, and hope he's around for the next one. I was less forgiving to Walter, the new Muppet introduced in the first movie, who is back again here doing not much at all. (Seriously, what's the deal here? Do we need this guy around?)
Kermit's time in the gulag is also home to many amusing bits. The place is run with an iron fist by Nadya (Tina Fey) and populated by brutes and killers (among them Ray Liotta, Jemaine Clement and Danny Trejo, apparently playing himself!) Nadya, like most women, is charmed by Kermit and orders him to help in the prison's upcoming variety show, which will ultimately lead us to the delightful sight of Liotta, Trejo and Clement singing and dancing together. That alone is worth the price of admission, people. Of course, Kermit will use the performance to cover up an escape so he can rejoin his pals.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED is filled with weird asides and references, meta in-jokes and slapstick nonsense. In other words, just what you'd expect from a Muppets movie. The songs, written by Bret McKenzie (who won an Oscar for the first film), alternate between self-refrential ("They've Ordered a Sequel!") to touching ("Something So Right," as sung by Ms. Piggy and Celine Dion) to absurd ("The Big House" in which Fey and convicts describe the various horrors of the prison). Some of the humor will fly right over the little ones' heads, like the various jabs at Europe the movie surprisingly takes, but for the most part children can be counted on to enjoy to light-hearted and goofy tone the movie employs. There are practically dozens of cameos, naturally, which range from the obvious (Lady Gaga, Usher) to the completely random (Toby Jones, Til Schweiger). Most of these appearances are essentially blink-and-you'll-miss-them, and a lot of them will only register for the adults in the audience. (Unless your child is a big Hugh Bonneville fan.)
Indeed, the Muppets themselves are the main stars, although there are so damn many of them that it's inevitable that more than a few will be pushed to the sidelines. (I personally wanted more Beeker.) And yes, there's a spotlight on the as-ever strained romance between Piggy and Kermit, though that has to wait a bit until the end, since Piggy spends more time with Constantine here than she does with her true love. It's still a treat to watch the two interact, their courtship will never get old. Neither will The Muppets themselves.