Sublime Silliness In "Muppets Most Wanted"

Halfway through “Muppets Most Wanted,” comedienne Tina Fey (“30 Rock”) peforms a doo-wop number about a Russian Gulag with backup vocals and dance moves courtesy of Ray Liotta (“Goodfellas”), Jemaine Clement (“Flight Of The Conchords”), and Danny Trejo (“Machete”). It’s the kind of absurdity that – combined with everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic frog and his band of oddball friends – only a “Muppets” film could summon. The picture doesn’t reach the gleeful heights of 2011’s “The Muppets,” but few could. No, “Most Wanted” knowingly pokes fun at its duties as a sequel – and the disappointment that usually comes with follow-ups – and the results are more than satisfactory.

Even more so than its predecessor, “Most Wanted” is heavily evocative of HBO’s delightful musical comedy show, “Flight Of The Conchords,” returning the creative team of James Bobin (writer-director) and Bret McKenzie (songwriter), while adding the aforementioned Clement in an acting role. Their involvement in “The Muppets” was substantial, but with human star and co-writer Jason Segel gone – who, along with Amy Adams, is certainly missed – it allows the talents of Bobin and company to take center stage. But never at the expense of the pic’s real stars.

Picking up where the previous film left off, Kermit the Frog (once again performed by Steve Whitmire) and company have just completed a successful Muppet Show revival in Los Angeles and reluctantly decide to take their show on the road. Their new tour manager, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), quickly steers them in the direction of Europe’s most prestigious venues. The Muppets don’t think anything of their new manager’s last name, nor do they notice when Kermit is kidnapped and replaced with his evil, obviously French doppelganger, Constantine.

The naivety of our heroes is played for laughs, of which there are many. But in an age of cynical, hardened protagonists, their innocence is vital. Not only is their sense of childlike wonder true to their roots as Jim Henson creations, but it breathes life into an otherwise paint-by-numbers narrative. Had Bobin and Stoller adapted these characters for today’s youth – as Disney reportedly wanted for the previous film – the knowingly derivative plot couldn’t have supported the weight of watered down versions of these characters.

But the cinematic voices of Bobin and Stoller are so perfectly in tune with the Muppets – warm, silly, and lightly anarchic – that the project coalesces, seemingly effortlessly. McKenzie’s songs, while not as effervescent as “Life’s A Happy Song” or the Oscar winning “Man Or Muppet,” definitely delight, generating a sense of momentum that most family films could only dream of. The variance of styles and lyrical acrobatics that McKenzie shows off here are indicative of his genetic musical gifts, ones that are only getting better with age.

The film is imperfect, though, its first awkward moment coming within minutes of liftoff. The first musical number is built around the movie’s working title, “The Muppets… Again!” And as soon as Kermit and company decide on that title for their sequel, the clumsy “Muppets Most Wanted” hits the screen. Additionally, Ty Burrell’s bumbling French Interpol agent, while wryly amusing, plays like a b-side to Steve Martin’s maligned portrayal of Jacques Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” remake and its sequel.

More troublesome still, most Muppets not named Kermit or Miss Piggy are given short shrift when it comes to screen time. More Statler and Waldorf, fewer pointless celebrity cameos would have been welcome. Even new Muppet, Walter, takes a backseat here, further weakening the film’s connection to its predecessor. Although the overlong running time (110 minutes) doesn’t feel it, there’s little reason to spend so much of it on a relatively uninteresting, human-centric narrative asides. Constantine watching the original “Muppet Movie” in order to imitate Kermit’s vocal cadence (and failing miserably) is an exception to the rule.

The biggest strike against “Muppets Most Wanted” is that it might be too dense, too old-fashioned to appeal to many younger viewers. That’s good news for adult Muppet fans, not necessarily good news for adult Muppet fans with children. It’s bright and colorful enough, occasionally manic, but much of the humor will go over the heads of kids, if not disinterest them altogether. Young ones are likely to get restless by the time the third act rolls around.

But the film works, and it signifies that 2011’s resurrection of the Muppets was no fluke. Aside from Pixar’s heyday – which is slyly referenced in the opening musical number – there hasn’t been a more quality series of family films in decades. This is a viable film franchise that can go in just about any direction imaginable. If Bobin and McKenzie aren’t long for the Muppet-verse, one can only hope that Disney finds replacements half as compatible with Jim Henson’s beloved creations.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: March 21, 2014
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: James Bobin
Screenwriter: James Bobin, Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey
MPAA Rating: PG (for some mild action)