'Muppets Most Wanted'
The Muppets had fallen on hard times by the time Disney picked them up and hired Jason Segel and Nick Stoller (based primarily on a single joke in ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’) to revive their felty ways. Yet, thanks to assigning folks who genuinely loved the source material, the Muppets’ charming comeback vehicle proved to be one of the finest flicks to ever star Kermit and company. Flash-forward a few years and now we have the inevitable sequel. ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ may not have the same fuzzy warmth as the last one, but makes up for that by doubling-down on the tongue-in-cheek humor to deliver a self-conscious Muppet-palooza that’s one of the most purely entertaining Muppet adventures ever conceived.
Segel has not returned for the sequel, but writer Nick Stoller and director James Bobin remain (plus, you know, the Muppets). This time, instead of paying tribute and homage to ‘The Muppet Movie’, they’re playing off the sillier follow-ups like ‘The Great Muppet Caper’.
An opening song that jokes about the inferiority and inevitability of sequels immediately sets the tone for this much more irreverent follow-up. The Muppets decide to follow their big L.A. comeback gig from the climax of the last movie with a European tour. The man in charge of that tour is Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). As his subtle name hints, Badguy is not to be trusted. In fact, he’s an international jewel thief who has partnered with an evil frog named Constantine. That frog looks just like Kermit except for a mole on his cheek, so a personnel swap is as simple as slapping a fake mole on Kermit’s green face.
Soon, the Muppets are playing gigs around Europe as cover for a string of robberies, while Kermit is stuck in a Russian gulag with Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo and Jemaine Clement. Tina Fey’s icy head guard is not-so-secretly obsessed with a certain superstar frog. If this sounds like the type of silly plot that would normally bog down a sequel, the filmmakers completely understand that cliché and gleefully send it up for the purposes of goofy giggles.
There are moments of warmth in ‘Muppets Most Wanted’, as there are in all Muppet joints, but this flick is not nearly as concerned with tugging on heartstrings as the last one. Instead, it plays out like a live action cartoon with musical interludes. (Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie returns for songwriting duty, and while an Oscar isn’t likely in the cards this time, every one of his contributions is a delight.) Gervais and Fey bring their usual comedy stylings to the proceedings in roles that will likely please adults in the audience. As per usual, virtually every other supporting role is cast with a star cameo.
All of the Muppets return, but aside from Kermit they essentially play different comedy notes in the ensemble without anything resembling dramatic arcs. (Is that really necessary for a puppet anyway?). Only a police procedural subplot involving Sam the Eagle and Ty Burrell sags a bit, but even it has some decent gags involving oversized badges.
In the end, the movie is insubstantial fun, but what glorious fun it is. Bobin paces his film like a bullet and shoots it like a globe-hopping caper with hand puppets. There’s a chance that it might play a little better to the longtime Muppet lovers than their children. (Certainly, kids won’t get the Swedish Chef/’Seventh Seal’ gag.) However, even as far back as ‘The Muppet Show’, these characters were always a guilty pleasure for adults first and kiddie fodder secondly. The kids have ‘Sesame Street’ and we have ‘The Muppets’. (Well, and the kids have ‘The Muppets’ too, but you know what I mean.) That’s how it should be. The Bobbin/Stoller combo has twice managed to capture that tone better than anyone else since Jim Henson stopped captaining the Muppet ship. Let’s just hope the third Muppet movie comes fast and turns out to be this good.