Written by James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller
Directed by James Bobin
At their best, the Muppets walk a careful balance between sincerity and self-awareness, something few cinematic comedy acts can handle. All the way back to The Muppet Movie, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, The Great Gonzo, and their friends were able to step outside of any given story to gleefully mock it and, almost in the same instant, wholeheartedly embrace the artifice of the moment. When the situation demanded it, they could be journalists or pirates or beloved literary characters in a holiday story. The 2011 reboot demanded that they play themselves, in a story that acknowledged how the Muppets had fallen out of public favor over time and needed to mount a comeback to win back the masses. As Muppets Most Wanted opens, the Muppets have won the day and are stuck for ideas about what to do next. What they alight upon for this sequel, thankfully, is as winning, delightful, exuberant, and knowing as The Muppets, a equally fine return to form.
After a rousing opening number (all of the songs are once again composed by half of Flight of the Conchords, Bret McKenzie; his partner-in-crime Jemaine Clement makes an extended cameo appearance), the Muppets are off on a world tour with their new manager, the unctuous Dominic Badguy. (“It’s French,” he says to clarify the obvious pronunciation. Though, being fair, it’s no less direct than Chris Cooper’s baddie from the 2011 reboot, Tex Richman.) Dominic is really the second-in-command to the world’s most dangerous frog, Constantine (Muppet performer Matt Vogel), who’s the spitting image of Kermit except for a telltale mole. Constantine and Dominic have nefarious plans in mind to steal the Crown Jewels of England, starting with Constantine breaking out of a Russian gulag and having Kermit unknowingly take his place. (Here, as in a few other sequences, the puppeteering is far more detailed and challenging, and thus exciting, than, at least, in the 2011 reboot.) Once Constantine’s fooled the rest of the Muppets amidst their tour, it’s up to Kermit to break out and hope that some of his pals will recognize the oddly-accented frog in his place isn’t really their leader, in spite of giving them “everything” they want.
As The Muppets owed a great debt to The Muppet Movie, culminating in a sweet rendition of “The Rainbow Connection,” Muppets Most Wanted shares obvious thematic similarities to The Great Muppet Caper: both are set primarily in Europe, both involve a jewel heist, and the main human character is a criminal behind that heist. Also, the “We’re Doing A Sequel” opening number here feels like an aural blood brother to “Hey, A Movie!” from the 1981 adventure. But what Muppets Most Wanted gets right most of all is making the Muppets themselves the main focus of the story. There are three main human characters here—Ricky Gervais as Dominic, Tina Fey as the head guard at the gulag, and Ty Burrell as a sniffy and somewhat lazy Interpol agent teamed with Sam the Eagle in investigating crimes occurring next to the Muppet tour performances—but the show belongs to Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, and the rest of our felt friends. Though The Muppets was undeniably charming, it often felt as though Jason Segel and Amy Adams were slightly more important than those beloved characters they deified so much. Here, the humans support the Muppets, not the other way around.
There are, of course, a bevy of cameo performers surrounding the Muppets, from singing legends to comic-book movie stars to comedians, and everywhere in between. If this is not enough of a sign that a revival of The Muppet Show would do wonders, then what is? Countless celebrities appear in this movie for under a minute each, and it’s safe to assume they did so because they wanted to share time with the Muppets, not for a check. Granted, most of the cameos amount to the type of appearance once decried by the late Roger Ebert, wherein a celebrity is introduced mostly so the audience can think, “Hey, it’s Celebrity X!” (One specific gag involving Usher—playing…well, think about his name for a second—is a fine example of this.) But often enough, the randomness of the cameo works in the film’s favor; none of them really falter.
Nor, frankly, do most of the jokes. Director James Bobin, returning from The Muppets, co-writes this film with Nicholas Stoller and they’ve found new ways to mine humor from these characters. The gags come and go quickly—although this is the longest Muppet movie at 113 minutes, the pacing is almost always frantic and fast—so even the weak ones are forgotten quickly. (One bit, where Scooter sings “Moves Like Jagger” during a Muppet Show performance, was teased in the poor marketing campaign, and doesn’t improve with context.) A major improvement, tied in no small part to making the Muppets the main characters in ways they weren’t previously, is that many old favorites get either more to do, or something to do. Sam, Rowlf, Scooter, and others get more face time here; there’s even a wry gag where Rizzo the Rat comments sadly on how the 2011 film focused on new characters like Walter instead of familiar standbys like him.
The Muppets offer one of the most reliable and joyous forms of entertainment, and Muppets Most Wanted maintains that streak. Part of the thrill of this film is the simple fact that we’re still getting solidly fun Muppet movies long after Jim Henson passed away and Frank Oz retired from puppeteering. (Though Eric Jacobson as Miss Piggy hasn’t transitioned as smoothly into the part, even now, Steve Whitmire’s vocal and puppeteering work has grown to fit Kermit’s personality over the past two decades quite well.) The rest is that the new films’ creators love these characters and can balance a sense of nostalgia for the past with the choice to look forward. Muppets Most Wanted closes with an extended reference to The Muppets Take Manhattan, the last Henson-era Muppet movie, but this film is less obsessed with these characters’ nostalgic power than with putting on a brand new show. The Muppets introduced these characters to a new generation. Muppets Most Wanted is a cheerful and heartwarming step forward from that nostalgia in the right direction.
– Josh Spiegel