Muppets Most Wanted finds what fans are looking for

by Jasper Yeo / Film Columnist • March 26, 2014

Kermit the Frog
Kermit the Frog

Muppets Most Wanted is a movie that is all the better when compared to its predecessor. 2011’s simply-titled The Muppets had a lot to prove, bringing the beloved felt characters back to the big screen. Human stars Jason Segel and Amy Adams did a fine job investing the movie with optimism and fun, while Flight of the Conchords alumni James Bobin and Bret Mackenzie supplied their respective directing and songwriting chops. However, this time around, only Bobin and Mackenzie returned.

This seems very conspicuous, as Muppets Most Wanted begins with “THE END” of the previous film lingering in the air, as the Muppets announce, “We’re doing a sequel” in song, adding, “everybody knows it’s not as good as the first.” Well, that’s debatable. Muppets Most Wanted is a good film precisely for having nothing left to prove. With the heavy lifting of the first out of the way, it can settle on being fun.

The plot finds Kermit (Steve Whitmire’s voice and hand) and the Muppets back where they work best: languishing in obscurity. To rebound, they embark on a European tour led by the innocuously-named manager Dominic Badguy, portrayed by Ricky Gervais. Of course, this is all a cover for escaped master criminal/frog Constantine (voiced by Matt Vogel) to forcibly swap places with Kermit (they look alike, you see) to plan a massive heist while the Muppets’ world tour serves as a distraction. In the place of his double, Kermit is hauled off to a Siberian Gulag run by a tuneful Commissar Nadya (Tina Fey).

Sound familiar? It’s a common mix-up plot that dominates family movies. Mistaken identity and the ensuing caper antics have provided basic framework from A Man Called Flintstone to Cars 2, but the cast of Muppets have the wit to keep things fresh. Requisite cameos and jokes calling on everything from the Marx Brothers to Ingmar Bergman (Bork-borkman?) round out the movie.

The heist plot especially calls to mind 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper, which followed another get-the-gang together feature, the original 1979 Muppet Movie.  In fact, the self-referential vibe of the “We’re Doing a Sequel” number echoes Caper’s “Hey a Movie!” Winking at the audience is a legacy of Jim Henson that years and Disney’s ownership have not diminished.

The gift of Mackenzie’s Kiwi songwriting wit allows the songs to both move the story along, and call attention to their function in a musical film, adding humor to the inherent absurdity of expressing specific emotions in verse. For example, an overblown emotional song will rapidly intensify, crowding the frame with superimposed characters. Overall, the music is more consistent and funnier this time around, though there is no grand equivalent of 2011’s “Life’s a Happy Song.” However, it won’t matter much when Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle put on a song-and-dance interrogation scene.

As for newer elements of the formula, Segel’s Muppet brother Walter, introduced in the previous movie, reappears. This is for the best, since Segel and Adams’ plotline in The Muppets fell into conventional live-action comedy beats that took up time “at the expense of other longtime Muppets”—Most Wanted’s cheeky words, not mine. Now the movie can be a Muppet piece first and foremost, and not a Jason Segel movie.

As Kermit teaches the gulag inmates song and dance, Walter fills the designated ‘straight man’ role among the oddball cast. This is appropriate, as Whitmire’s Kermit seldom captures the right mix of mania and exasperation as Henson’s portrayal did. Much like Mickey Mouse, the burden of being the face of a brand has caused the character to sand off some interesting rough edges. On the plus side, this makes the doppelganger act of Constantine particularly funny, as he must imitate an imitation.

In all, this is a case where the ambition (and sometimes mawkishness) of the previous movie is traded for cleverly done traditional humor. However, the genius of the Muppets is that for them, “tradition” means irreverence, affability, and self-deprecation. The old coots Statler and Waldorf will always be in the balcony just in case people start to appreciate this puppet show too much.