"You have wocka'd your last wocka bear!"
When 2011's The Muppets hit theaters, fans lined up on two sides of the film. One side saw the film for what it was, a loving reboot of a franchise that had been doomed to a series of lackluster films, made by people with genuine affection for Jim Henson's most beloved creations. The other, more cynical side, chose to view the film as an affront to the characters and seemed unable to comprehend the fact that virtually all of the original Muppeteers have moved on to other things. In short, The Muppets will never be The Muppets again, and they would rather live in a world where nothing new or interesting can be done with these characters. But such is fandom, and the more rabid a fan base, the more dissenters there are in the ranks.
Since the film was a hit, even by the most modest of standards, a sequel was all but guaranteed to happen. With The Muppets director James Bobin back at the helm, and all of that film's creators except Jason Segel involved, Muppets Most Wanted seemed like a can't miss proposition. So was it just that, or did it fall victim to sequel-itis? Read on to find out…
Picking up quite literally where the last film left off, Muppets Most Wanted opens with the musical number "We're Doing a Sequel," which skewers the very notion of follow-up films, and instantaneously lets you know that you're back in good hands. The globe-trotting sequel plot that worked so well for the very best of the original Muppet films, The Great Muppet Caper, is rolled out once more, and works like gangbusters. A criminal mastermind frog named Constantine who looks an awful lot like Kermit the Frog, except that he bares a mole above his lip, has just escaped from a Siberian gulag. Constantine's partner in crime, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) has just managed to convince The Muppets to hire him as their new tour director, and manages to win over the entire team, except for Kermit, via a plan to tour Europe and bring the Europeans a taste of Muppet fever.
At their first stop in Berlin, Constantine manages to switch places with Kermit, who is captured and brought to the Siberian gulag, run by Nadya (Tina Fey). Kermit's pleas that he's not an evil mastermind fall on deaf ears, as his old crew continues their tour that just so happens to be taking tour dates near highly secure vaults and museums, as Constantine and Dominic's plan is to use The Muppets as a distraction to steal the crown jewels of England. Their plan to frame The Muppets is also going swimmingly as an Interpol agent named Jean-Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) has teamed up with CIA operative Sam the Eagle, and their hunch is that these lovable characters are behind the numerous thefts occurring along their tour stops.
Where The Muppets succeeded the most was in appealing to as broad an audience as possible, and making the film very family friendly, much like the original Muppet Movie was back in 1979. And much like The Great Muppet Caper was a more adult-friendly film, with a complex plot and jokes aimed squarely over the heads of the under-ten set, so too does Muppets Most Wanted skew older and ever-so-slightly more cynical. While children will still love the film, as my girls most assuredly did, they'll also be bewildered by a lot of the humor that the adults in the audience will be laughing at uproariously. Muppets Most Wanted is a much, much funnier film than The Muppets, but I would hesitate to call it a better film. Gone is the childlike sense of wonder that the first film had, and it's been replaced by rougher edges and more dense character development. Those statements sound absurd, but where that first film was intended to get a new generation of kids hooked on The Muppets, this film is designed to be beloved by the adults who grew up with them, many of whom are now parents, aunts, or uncles themselves.
It's a double-edged sword, to be sure, but one can't help but admire the gusto with which the filmmakers have decided to go whole hog after something that may not appeal to kids at all. No child in the world is going to laugh at a line like "Citizen Kane only got four jamón serranos," or comprehend the extended tribute to the opening of A Chorus Line, but they'll see and hear the peals of laughter coming from the adults and be swept up into the world that The Muppets, when they're at their best, have always inhabited. That razor thin line between cynicism and "awe shucks" charm makes them an enduring institution, and their fans will be ecstatic that 99% of this film rests right on that line. Were I to have any complaint at all, it's that I think the joke about The Muppets being washed-up and forgotten was played out well into the reboot, and continuing to beat that dead horse is getting a bit old, especially for the diehards. We know The Muppets aren't as cool as they used to be, but we certainly don't need to be reminded about it ad-nauseum in these films. If there is a third film, and I pray there will be, please leave these jokes where they belong, in the trash bin.
Steve Whitmire is not Jim Henson and Eric Jacobsen is not Frank Oz, but these two men embody their spirits so well that Kermit & Piggy feel as fresh and inspired as they were thirty years ago. They understand that pure mimicry would be an insult to these characters, and that infusing them with their own personalities and honoring the work of their creators is more meaningful and substantial than the thousands of people who can sound exactly like Henson or Oz. It's also beyond fantastic to still have Dave Goelz bringing life to Gonzo and the other characters he performs.
Gervais, Fey, and Burrell are all terrific too, making the most of their roles, playing to their strengths, and selling their characters in a way you'd expect from such seasoned comedic professionals. And of course the cameos are all great, though some are downright odd (P. Diddy, for example), and the three big names playing gulag prisoners are by far the most surprising stand-outs. There's also a particularly funny bit featuring Christoph Waltz, who was originally cast in Burrell's role, that made me cackle, and a return appearance from Hobo Joe (Zach Galifianakis) whom everybody always forgets about.
The musical numbers, featuring a mix of popular songs and new creations from Oscar-winning songwriter Bret McKenzie, are also phenomenal. "We're Doing a Sequel," "The Big House," and especially "I'll Give it to You," are terrific, and the wordplay in "Interrogation Song" is beyond brilliant. That the finale features one of the most beloved songs in Muppet history is just the icing on the cake. The Muppets have always been vaudeville performers at heart, so it's no surprise that the musical numbers are the highlight of the film.
While Muppets Most Wanted will likely not be as successful as its predecessor, it feels oddly poetic that it's doomed to be under appreciated. It's a dense film, with a ton going on in every frame, and it's as funny, if not funnier, than most comedies that have been released in the last several years. Time will be incredibly kind to the film, and it will likely be touted as a favorite by fans for years to come. Nitpickers will find tons of nits to pick, but as the saying goes, "haters gonna hate." This is a terrific film that will delight true blue fans and hopefully continue to cultivate a crop of new fans. You really couldn't hope for a more perfect Muppet movie, and this one delivers in spades.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]