Review: Muppets Most Wanted (2014, Bobin)


They look like the Muppets. They sound like the Muppets. But these aren’t my Muppets.

This is how I’m inclined to feel about the way Disney has used Jim Henson’s creations, most critically from 2002 onwards. Disney’s well-meaning attempts to re-launch the Muppets into the mainstream have been successful on the whole. But I still can’t shake the feeling that the Muppets are presently held captive, only to be trotted out for events, appearances, and performances. I know what you’re saying; Katie, the Muppets aren’t real. Oh, but they are. They are to me. And it doesn’t feel like they have agency anymore no matter how much zany international fun, or even 2011’s nostalgia strategy, is supposedly throw my way.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m fond of the 2011 film, but not as wholly taken with it as many others. Muppets Most Wanted has its moments throughout, though in reference to its funniest joke, in the words of “South Park”, “The Simpsons” already did it. Matt Vogel’s superb voice work as  Constantine, the World’s Most Dangerous Frog, saves the picture from being an out-and-out turkey (“The lovers, the dreamers, and cheese. Nailed it”).  Bret McKenzie’s contribution is weaker this go-around but still makes up many of the highlights. A million points to Gryffindor for “I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)”. But the film never comes together,  it isn’t staged particularly well, and most of it feels stale on arrival.

Why? Well, the major reason, besides the general lack of writing quality, is the deal-breaker fact that the Muppets barely interact with one another throughout. Think about it. Humans have always had significant presence in Muppet movies, but always in service of Kermit and the gang (the show is a different matter). No matter how prevalent people have been, even in less successful efforts, it never felt sacrificial.

Humans litter Muppets Most Wanted, splintering key players off with either humans or antagonist Muppet Constantine, while leaving almost every other Muppet crowd scene scraps. Constantine and Dominique (Ricky Gervais) drive the plot, and so take up immeasurable time just on their own. Muppet + Human. Look no further than how the museum break-ins are handled (hint; we see every single one) Then, Kermit is sent to a Russian gulag where he interacts with, take a guess, a bunch of humans (the pig extras don’t count). Muppet + Humans. Struggling to find purpose for Walter, the film has him watching Constantine suspiciously before the third act gives him, Fozzie and Animal a sliver more screentime. Constantine + Other Muppets. Miss Piggy mostly interacts with Constantine. Constantine + Muppet. Sam the Eagle is kindly given a subplot, but one in which his sole acting partner is, yep, another human, this time Ty Burrell. Muppet + Human. The ways in which Muppets interact with humans, and not everyday humans, but grand nefarious and caricatured characters by a cast that hopped right out of the aughts, is cripplingly dependent on mediocrity and a fundamental misunderstanding as to how Muppets should function within their own film.

Because guess what? On top of everything else, the Muppets are also collectively treated like a bunch of hive mind fucking imbeciles. As if they were all defined solely by their gullible stupidity. It becomes part of the film’s purported humor, and it’s even acknowledged at the end how ridiculous it is that nobody recognizes that Constantine isn’t Kermit. But it remains infuriating because this obliviousness is the key function of nearly every Muppet in the film. Even Kermit. Between this and a key lack of screen-time, individual personality is erased. What kind of Muppet mockery is this where Gonzo has but a handful of lines, and where Rizzo has a cameo about how all he has is a cameo, only to exit stage right with fellow reject Robin. Good call Rizzo. Good call indeed.

Short Review: The Muppets (2011, Bobin)

The Muppets proves that Jim Henson’s zany bunch of felt-skinned characters will indeed live on. With “The Muppet Show”, Henson brought a welcome off-kilter perspective to humor complete with star hosts. With The Muppet Movie and future films, Henson used that humor as a gateway to showcase tangible heart with its potent messages of friendship, camaraderie and the ability to achieve one’s dreams. Led by actor/writer Jason Segel, this revival reminds us why we love the Muppets so much in a story laced with regretful longing and time past. Its more serious themes follow through on the conviction that these characters mean something to people. Jason Segel’s assemblage is from start to finish a tangible labor of love that the audience can immediately feel and relate to. The highlights come from the songs by music supervisor Bret McKenzie, which contains no throwaways, and infectiously lingers with you for days after. “Man or Muppet” in particular is superb.

Admittedly, there is a struggle to maintain a balance between the wackiness and poignancy. Some of the jokes work splendidly, but a sizable chunk of them either don’t or fall somewhat short, throwing the axis of tone in favor of sentiment which threatens to take over the picture. Overall, it is steeped in Muppet tradition, and thus the film scores more hits than misses. Its heart is in the right place and that makes up for it not being quite the consistent work it could have been. Between the love and care radiating off of Segel, the music, and the invaluable presence of the Muppets themselves, who remain irreplaceably special creations, The Muppets serves as a much needed reminder of the world Jim Henson built.

Afterthought: There is a film in the Muppet franchise that I consider one of my ten favorite films. It is not the one you think. It’s a work I would defend to the death. Like so many, The Muppets mean quite a lot to me; four of the films I have seen countless times (we’re talking numbers in the hundreds) and  the show remains a favorite. I am one of those saps that will, without fail, be brought to tears the second Kermit starts to sing. Something that felt really gratifying leading up to this film’s release was the excitement coming from the blogosphere. Granted, the film’s relentless and wildly achieved marketing helped with this, but a communal sense of appreciation for Henson’s work was felt across the board from everyone involved in making the film to the people anticipating it. And that aspect of it was just as wonderful to see as the finished product.