Review: Muppets Most Wanted
Kids? Leave the room. I need to talk to your parents for a second.
Are they gone? Good.
Look, we all know that The Muppets aren’t real, right? They’re pieces of fuzzy cloth with hands shoved inside them. They’re one of the few childhood fantasies that we have allowed to perpetuate into the modern era, like Santa Claus, or retirement. They make our children feel better. Hell, they make us feel better. But it is vitally important that we remember that the only reason we give a damn about The Muppets is because Jim Henson and those who now continue his legacy have treated them like real living beings, with real personalities and real souls. If we want this lie to continue, we have to pretend that we’re not lying about it, and so we have to do at least a little better than Muppets Most Wanted.
Muppets Most Wanted is not the worst Muppets movie. Muppets Most Wanted isn’t even a bad Muppets movie. But it is a step in the wrong direction. The previous film, The Muppets, was accused of fanboy idolatry but at the very least it was honest about its affections. It was made by people who loved The Muppets, and it was a film very much about those Muppets: their history, their future, their relationships and their gentle, reassuring ethos that every problem can be solved by putting on a show.
But there’s another kind of Muppet movie: the repertory Muppet movie. These stories don’t really matter to The Muppets themselves, and instead settle for plopping Jim Henson’s creations into absurd situations or literary adaptations because, in theory, it’s slightly funnier that way. The events of Muppet Treasure Island aren’t important to The Muppets; they’re just putting on a show. The Great Muppet Caper is a self-aware screwball comedy homage that, without The Muppets playing the all the leading roles, would have been about on par with At Long Last Love. The filmmakers were doing their best to approximate a specific comedic style, but made no effort to craft believable characters in the process.
Sometimes these repertory movies work, but only when The Muppets seem invested in the material. The Muppet Christmas Carol has oodles of heart because the story warrants their involvement and actually makes demands of them as performers. But a film like Muppets Most Wanted does not. It places The Muppets in silly situations with contrived dangers, and although the jokes are for the most part very funny, there’s no soul to it. It’s the exact sort of cash-in sequel that the Muppets make fun of themselves for being a part of in the opening musical number.
The plot revolves around an evil Kermit lookalike name Constantine who takes Kermit’s place as the director of The Muppet Show with the help of their new agent Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Kermit gets shipped off to a Siberian gulag in Constantine’s place, but none of The Muppets notice his absence because Constantine – despite his outrageous Russian accent – gives them everything they want. He lets Gonzo do his most dangerous stunts, he lets Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem indulge in hour-long drum solos, and he even agrees to marry Miss Piggy after years of waffling on the part of her real paramour. Constantine and Badguy are just using The Muppets’ European tour as a cover for their crimewave, and of course Kermit has to escape the clutches of his amorous captor Nadya (Tina Fey) before Constantine marries Miss Piggy and steals the Crown Jewels.
Director James Bobin and his co-writer Nicholas Stoller riddle Muppets Most Wanted with clever jokes about Constantine’s terrible Kermit impressions and the buddy cop duo on his tail, played by Sam Eagle and Ty Burrell, but the jokes and the plot never use The Muppets as a starting point. Kermit and Miss Piggy’s relationship is just an excuse for a suspenseful climactic “will they or won’t they” wedding, and Kermit’s relationship with the rest of The Muppets is strained for no other reason than the plot suddenly demands it. Poor Constantine is bestowed with a great character trait – a master criminal with stage fright – but the joke goes nowhere, and is swiftly forgotten after an initial disastrous performance.
Who The Muppets are, and what they are about, is insignificant to Muppets Most Wanted. After the enormous effort director James Bobin took to make these characters matter again in The Muppets, after years of slumming in exactly this kind of trifle (far less funny though they were), this can only be seen as a step backwards for both the characters and the franchise. So little care is taken to preserve the integrity of The Muppets that even though the opening number concludes with an explanation about why this film will is titled Muppets Again, it transitions immediately to the only recently-changed title Muppets Most Wanted.
After one successful comeback, The Muppets have already fallen prey to the meaningless cash-in mentality that made it necessary to comeback in the first place. Humor, no matter how funny, has won out over the beloved creations and all the efforts made to make them feel real. What we most want is The Muppets themselves, and if the films aren’t going to do more with them, maybe we should start wanting something else.