Muppets Most Wanted is not as good as The Muppets, but it so owns its own sequelitis that I love it anyway. The opening song is all about how sequels are never as good, pointing out that this is actually The Muppets 8 and comparing it to Godfather III. Let’s just pause for a moment to appreciate that we’re watching a kids movie that makes fun of a maligned Francis Ford Coppola film. Granted, there are only a few references to sequelhood and complaints fans may have had about the previous film, but it’s enough to make me feel that any shortcomings are of a piece. This is an irreverent Muppets take on sequels.
Presumably picking up immediately after the end of the previous film, Muppets Most Wanted is essentially a new standalone story. Shady promoter Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) takes the Muppets on a world tour, which he uses as a cover for high-end art heists. Meanwhile, a Russian criminal frog named Constantine has switched places with Kermit and gotten Kermit thrown in a Gulag with a host of criminals (including the Moopets’ Miss Poogy) under a prison guard named Nadya (Tina Fey).
The strongest storyline of Most Wanted is the one that is loosely a sequel to their comeback film. Now that they’re performing again, Kermit has to be the authority and say no to some bad ideas. It’s a recurring theme in Muppet movies that Kermit bears the burden of all his performers’ hopes and dreams, but now there’s a sleazy promoter who is willing to indulge their every whim. So the Muppets out-vote Kermit in favor of Badguy’s crazy plans. The voice of reason advising a less glamorous and not instantly gratifying course is drowned out by the huckster.
When Constantine replaces Kermit, it’s a joke that they can’t tell the difference, but it really speaks to the idea that they want to believe this is Kermit telling them that all their ideas are good. Sometimes it is good to listen to constructive criticism, or even an authoritative “no” in the arts. On a personal level, Miss Piggy is forced to choose between the ideal “Kermit” who tolerates all her advances and the real deal who actually stands up to her. The idea that no one can tell this Russian accent with broken English isn’t Kermit could even be a subtle comment on the voice change after Jim Henson passed away. Even if I’m reading way too much into it, I like that interpretation. In any event, the puppet work is so clearly different that we could tell Constantine and Kermit apart even without the mole and the accent. The hand is completely different inside that green sock.
The other subplots are full of clever jokes but are never compelling as a whole. Kermit runs a prison talent show in the Gulag. Sam Eagle and inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) investigate the robberies that take place every time the Muppets perform. These are, in fact, the same lame sequel ideas that the Muppets warned us about, but in context you kind of go with it. Yeah, do your lame crime caper with unwanted new characters and make fun of how lame it is… although I would personally rather see a whole movie about The Muppets performing their worst ideas. Eagle has more to do than Walter in this movie, which is good because he’s a better character than Walter. Walter has earned his place, but that place is only a fifth or sixth supporting character.
Unfortunately, a lot of the puppet work is clearly shot in a studio against a green or blue screen, where a background plate is inserted. While the compositing of two shots is seamless, you can tell the background is a flat layer that does not interact with the foreground puppets at all. This must be the unfortunate reality of making a puppet movie in this economy. They’re not going to spend the money to hire extras for a day of puppet work, or the cost of bringing the puppeteers out on location when the shot is convincing enough in the safe, controlled environment of the studio. There is way too much digital Muppetry too. We don’t need to see free standing Muppets if the wire removal is that obvious, and we certainly don’t need to see Constantine do martial arts that clearly a puppeteer can’t do. At least when they do compose a fully interactive location puppet shoot, it’s worth the money shot.
The film looks great on Blu-ray. The picture is sharp and clear, and international locations give a lot of color to the proceedings. Or, in the case of Berlin back alleys and the Gulag, it provides some high definition texture, if not color. The detail in the puppets is palpable in close-up, but one of the things I was talking about with the visual effects compositing shots is also palpable. When Muppets are in a real set or location, you can see the dust in the frame around them. Other shots are so processed that it’s a clearer picture, but then you don’t get that authentic dust to show that the Muppets really exist in the world.
Other bonus features include The Statler & Waldorf Cut, which is predictably a version of the film that ends right away. Cute. A gag reel runs about nine minutes with an amusing mix of A-list actors flubbing in front of the Muppets, and the Muppets themselves flubbing while staying in character. “Rizzo’s Biggest Fan” is a cute short with Rizzo the Rat, and the “I’ll Get You What You Want” Music Video essentially replaces Constantine with Bret McKenzie in scenes from the movie.
The “Unnecessarily Extended Edition” improves my rating of the film by about half a point, if only for sheer quantity of jokes and a touch more meta-ness. It is a film about sequelitis, and it’s true to itself, but it only reigned as the 2014 king of sequelitis for about three months. Then 22 Jump Street crushed it with a poignant and profound take on sequelitis. Even with Muppets Most Wanted falling to second place, it’s a good year for me to be Franchise Fred.