• Review: “Muppets Most Wanted”

    The Jim Henson franchise is as alive as ever

    Being a lifelong fan of all things Henson, the big question on my mind this weekend was: can lightning strike twice?

    I’m referring, of course, to the surprise success of the 2011 “reboot” of The Muppets franchise, now owned by ABC/Disney (call it Muppets 2.0). The Muppets was such an overwhelming triumph both commercially and artistically that a sequel was ordered almost immediately…and we all know what usually happens when Hollywood studios are rushing to grab as many dollars as they can (which is most of the time): it often results in rushed, watered-down, half-arsed continuations of a franchise that are a shadow of the movies that spawned them.

    However, I’m pleased to say that’s mostly NOT the case here. I’ll admit to peaking at a few reviews of Muppets Most Wanted before heading into the theater this weekend, which is something I generally don’t like to do before watching a movie. I was slightly concerned about the mediocre reception that other reviewers have awarded the newest installment of Muppets 2.0 with. But I’m here to say that, for the most part, they’re wrong.

    Understand that Jason Segel was instrumental in the revival of The Muppets franchise three years ago, after years and years of poorly received and low-quality Henson theatrical productions, ranging from Muppet Treasure Island to Muppets In Space, both of which share almost nothing in common with classics like The Muppet Movie or The Great Muppet Caper, sans the cast of puppets. Segel is a longtime Henson aficionado, and also happens to have a passion for puppetry (as you may have noticed from his memorable role as a wannabe puppeteer in Judd Apatow’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall). After starring with Amy Adams in the 2011 film, Segel made his intentions clear that he would not continue working on the “rebooted”—man, we really need to stop using that term—franchise. He had a wonderful experience working on the first, but simply believed he had accomplished exactly what he had set out to do: bring The Muppets back into public consciousness after the property was virtually comatose. And you can’t argue with a $165 million take at the box office on a $45 million budget: The Muppets was a smash hit. Though I’m sure Walt Disney Pictures would have preferred that Segel stay on board, they had no problem moving ahead without him, as they were able to retain James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller, the director and writer (respectively) of the first flick, as well as Bret McKenzie (best known from HBO’s Flight of the Conchords), who, for the second time in a row, crafts some of the catchiest songs in Muppet history.

    So, what of the film itself? Sure, there’s a different feel to Muppets Most Wanted from the first movie. It even has an unintentionally prescient focus on Russia. But did we really want to see them make the same picture all over again? I’ve heard complaints that this installment takes a lot of the fun and optimism from the original/reboot and does away with it completely…but I couldn’t disagree more. The movie opens up mere seconds after the finale of the 2011 outing, with The Muppets at a loss for what to do next…which leads them into a tongue-in-cheek song-and-dance number about the difficulty of doing sequels, and the fact that they rarely live up to the original. It’s a wink and a nod to the audience intended to temper their expectations, and it completely succeeds. Some reviewers have called the “We’re Doing a Sequel” number a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I’d encourage you to ignore them. This movie is loveable, pleasant, and will have you smiling from ear to ear, whether you’ve decided to bring your kids along or not.

    Perhaps inspired in part by the original Muppet film sequel, The Great Muppet Caper (1981), the new film has an international focus, as a case of mistaken identity places our hero, Kermit the Frog, in a Siberian gulag, where he’s joined by the likes of Tina Fey as a gulag officer, as well as fellow prison inmates played by Ray Liotta, Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers’ “Loki”), and even Machete star Danny Trejo (who is hilariously referred to as…Danny Trejo). Meanwhile, The Muppets are completely unaware that their Kermit the Frog has been replaced by a doppelgänger named Constantine, the world’s most dangerous criminal. He looks almost exactly like Kermit in every way…except for a mole (which he paints green, so that none of the Muppet crew will be onto him). Along with Ricky Gervais (“Dominic Badguy”—pronounced “Badge-ee,” of course), Constantine leads The Muppets on a European tour, which turns out to actually be a front for his true criminal intentions. They’re hunted by an Inspecter Clouseau-inspired Ty Burrell as an Interpol agent, as well as Muppet favorite Sam the Eagle (naturally playing a CIA investigator).

    As with the 2011 film, Muppets Most Wanted contains a who’s-who of celebrity cameos, from Josh Groban to Frank Langella to Tony Bennett to Stanley Tucci to Celine Dion to…well, I can’t possibly list them all. And that’s not to mention the filmic references, from The Silence of the Lambs to The Spy Who Loved Me.

    Is the movie bigger than its predecessor? Sure. Does it spend a bit too much time with Constantine at the expense of some of our favorite Muppets? Perhaps. But is it a whole lot of fun? Absolutely. The classic humor of The Muppets remains firmly intact here, though Kermit does lose his temper with Miss Piggy in a sequence that has a bit of a strange tone. For the most part, if Muppets Most Wanted doesn’t improve on its predecessor, it does live up to the high bar that The Muppets set for the franchise.

    At this point, people in my age demographic (mid-30’s) who were raised on The Muppets have been willing to accept that many of the original voices and puppeteers have either moved on to other projects or have passed away in the decades since they first appeared. So, admittedly, the replacement Muppets are not perfect. Frank Oz, best known for portraying Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, retired from “Muppeteering” many years ago, in order to focus on his directing career. Given his deep friendship with Jim Henson, who could blame him? But before leaving, Frank hand-selected Eric Jacobsen to take over most of his well-known Muppets, and Jacobsen—a talented puppeteer who has a similar vocal tonality to Oz–has performed those characters full-time for the past 14 years. It may not be exactly the Fozzie you remember, but he’s about as close as we’re likely to get. None of the changes in performers are new ones, nor is the main Muppet cast any different here from the 2011 film, so it’s useless to point out any inconsistencies or uneven performances (though Kermit, portrayed by 54-year old Steve Whitmire—the original post-Henson Kermit–does sound slightly hoarse at times). What’s more notable is what hasn’t changed: hearing/seeing Dave Goelz still performing as The Great Gonzo after a whopping 40 years is a great anchor for the franchise, and it’s comforting. Gonzo doesn’t get as much screen time here as he has in the past, but recall that The Muppet Christmas Carol was a very Gonzo-centric affair (and possibly the last “best” Muppet movie before the current incarnation), along with the rather poor Muppets In Space being almost a Gonzo side-project. Muppets Most Wanted gives us just enough Gonzo to…well, wet our beaks, so to speak.

    So, is Muppets Most Wanted worth a trip to the theater? Definitely. It may not collect a surprise Oscar this time around (“Man or Muppet” from the previous film locked in a Best Original Song Academy Award), but it’s packed with enough humor, excitement, and references to Muppet flicks of days past to scratch your Henson nostalgia itch–the last 10 minutes of the film are clearly influenced by The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), complete with a twist on a Kermit/Miss Piggy wedding and a new version of a classic Muppet song. I would submit to you that reviewers who are convinced that the “charm” of the 2011 film is lost in this installment are taking the movie–and themselves–a bit too seriously. The charm is most certainly there (see Tina Fey’s musical number inside the gulag, for one), and I have to applaud the fact that Bobin and Stoller decided to take the sequel in such a different direction than the last film. When you think about it, making Muppets Most Wanted into a caper film is following the exact same formula that Jim Henson himself followed when he directed The Great Muppet Caper as the follow-up to the original 1979 The Muppet Movie. History may be repeating itself, and perhaps that’s just what The Muppets need in order to keep their legacy alive for generations to come.

    Matt Fox

    Senior Editor

    Fox has history in broadcasting that spans two decades. From his early days as an FM host and club DJ in the mid-90′s to his later experiences in political talk radio, he has always had a knack for combining topical news with his love for popular culture. Those experiences culminated in his position as executive producer for several radio shows featured in the TALKERS Heavy 100. Originally from New York, Fox has made the great pilgrimage down to sunny south Florida.

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