02 April 2014

First Impressions: Muppets Most Wanted

Everything about Muppets Most Wanted (2013) can be summarized in the first thirty seconds of the film. It pikcs up immeidately where The Muppets (2011) left off, literally, with the backs of Jason Segel and Amy Adams along with a wrap on the old movie. They quickly dive into an introductory song that sets up the disappointment and stupidness inherent to sequels with a bit of the same tongue-in-cheek flair that filled Segel and Nick Stoller's film to the brim. While this is typical and as refreshingly as on the nose as most of the The Muppets, but it's also telling you right away that this film isn't going to feature Segel and it's not going to be as good. I think we all knew that, though.

There's a decidedly different air to Most Wanted. By all means it's a hilarious film and certainly one worthy of the Muppet Canon, not in a Muppets From Space (1999) awful sort of way, but not really a The Muppet Movie (1979) or The Muppets legendary kind of way either. More like a The Great Muppet Caper (1981) whatever sort of way. It's not really going to be remembered as anything really special in ten years, but it's another installment in the franchise that adds to its net value. SPOILERS from here on out.
25% Natasha Fatale, 40% Ouromov, 35% Baby Mama

So, why is that? Well, part of that has to do with the humans involved. Adams, Segel and every other human from the first film is tossed out in favor of noted Golden Globes hosts Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey, along with Ty Burrell rounding out the human cast. It's telling that the film suffers because of the goofiness of all three compared to the much more grounded roles and real pathos earned by the first humans. But we didn't come to see humans, right? It's true that the moving pieces of felt get a whole lot more to do while the human characters become one-note cartoonish caricatures. Maybe that's a good thing.

Ricky is suitable here, but this isn't really his forte. His song is especially awful, and he never looks all that comfortable singing and dancing. He's also just not that likable as a really deceptive Lemur Burglar. Now, Gervais has made a career out of being unlikable, but his treachery isn't as fun to cheer for as Constantine's over-the-top #1 Burglar character. And not one shout-out to Ocean's 12 (2004) to be found.

Tina Fey is a ridiculous ham that is probably the best of these three, completely sending up Russian Gulag Guards (they had it coming). It's oddly fitting that this comes on the heals of everyone on earth hating Russia for their Crimean Annexation, making it all the more comforting to mock and laugh at these crazy backwards people. Burrell also suitably mocks the French in ways that are really lacking these days. His buddy cop role with Sam Eagle is pretty close to perfect but it's never in the center of the proceedings.

As for the rest of the humans, these kinds of movies have always prided themselves on some really thick cameos, but unlike Steve Martin or Mel Brooks appearing in The Muppet Movie (1979) as great bit parts, these cameos are more flash and you miss 'em sort of things, with everyone from Tony Bennett to P.Diddy showing up for a mug. There's also a ton of really quick bits with people who aren't all that noteworthy. Is that James McAvoy as the UPS guy? An Stanley Tucci as a Gulag Guard? Why? I did get some pleasure watching Tom Hiddleston as "The Great Escapo" and Hugo Stiglitz as a quickie German Police Officer. The trio of Russian inmates played by Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, and Jermaine Clement (a nice appearance considering the work his Flight of the Conchords bud Bret McKenzie has done for this series), may fall in line with this, too but there isn't much substance here.

Now, we can't just complain about humans, that's like whining about the humans in a Godzilla movie. The Muppets themselves are spot on and given lots of room and time to be as weird as they wanna be. Especially when Constantine, posing as Kermit, gives them free reign to do whatever they want within the Muppet Stage Shows. There may be a dig here at the validity of reviews, suggesting nefarious interests that prod one show to be better than another (in this case, outright bribing), but I'm not sure there is enough to support that theme, either.

Constantine himself is pretty enjoyable as an extremely silly villainous frog, hopping around, butchering names with an obtuse accent, and being a ridiculous host and lover of Miss Piggy. It's also good that they found a role for the most recently introduced Muppet, Walter, who remains a solid character addition from The Muppets. They even highlighted this with a direct call out to Rizzo and Robin, who were absent from the previous film.
I can't imagine what kids think of this reference
when it comes up. I guess just "That looks so silly!"
Fairly accurate I suppose.

There are plenty of excellent gags here, from the Swedish Chef imitating The Seventh Seal (1957), to epic sets by Electric Mayhem and accusations that Fozzie is so dumb that it must be an act. Or the German sign, "Die Muppets." Kermit himself demonstrates his natural showrunner abilities in the Gulag, with plenty of references to The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or even The Great Escape (1963). At the same time, the movie plays with what would happen to this particular Muppet ensemble if it lost its rock, a frog leader who may be overly cautious, but one with an eye for good critical work.

I ended up most fascinated with the last line in that first song, though. All the Muppets proclaim their movie to be called The Muppets...Again! which was indeed the original title of the production. It's possible the song was recorded before the title change to Most Wanted, but it seems unlikely that they wouldn't have been able to alter this. Instead, it's as if the Muppets, despite all their self-awareness and winking at the audience, don't actually know what kind of movie they're in until it's dreadfully too late. They in fact believe they're fulfilling another great sequel trope, the international journey (jeez, move it movie it to Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted [2012] for any more proof that this idea is still everywhere. Or the aforementioned Ocean's 12). But they're actually in this double-crossing doppelgänger heist movie, which informs their awareness levels up until nearly the final scene.

Then we get some horrible green screen and we're out of here. Despite the gaps in genre knowledge on the part of the principal protagonists, this is a much more straightforward experience than the thorough meta-commentary of The Muppets. It still hits the Rule of Funny pretty hard, though, and is worth it for any Felt Fan.

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