Muppets Most Wanted (PG)

7 Stars

My relationship with Jim Henson’s sock puppets is presently blooming.

Up until a month ago, I hadn’t seen anything aside from Muppet Vision 3D in Walt Disney World. Since the new film’s in theaters, I decided to catch up and watch the reintroduction I’d missed in 2011.

If you read my earlier review, aside from being my absolute favorite person on Earth, you know The Muppets gets me pretty choked up. I find it touching and riotous.

Muppets Most Wanted is good, but it doesn’t live up to the preceding film.

It’s a little too long, so things start to drag after the ninety-minute mark, and my bias stems from having seen The Muppets two days previous.

Although Jason Segel doesn’t appear to have a hand in this film, favorites from the voice cast return to speak the parts. James Bobin also returns to direct his second feature, and is the lead writer on the screenplay. Nicholas Stoller, a cowriter on the first film, returns to help for the second as well.

To begin, the comedy is not weak. It’s not strong, but I can’t call it weak.

The music numbers are a different story.

The only one I can remember is between Constantine (Kermit the Frog’s evil twin and the world’s number one criminal mastermind) and Ricky Gervais (as Dominic or Number Two). Their duet is one of the better parts of the movie, and things start to slow down afterward.

Speaking of, Ricky Gervais is great, but I find Constantine much less compelling. On The Film Vault, a podcast and the best place to find cinema-related discussion on the web, one of the hosts speaks of his extreme fondness for Kermit’s diabolical double. But I simply can’t conceive of the appeal.

Perhaps it’s the accent. Goofy accents generally don’t do it for me. Particularly Russian ones; I’ve heard way too many Soviet impressions.

And Constantine just feels like another plot device that’s been revisited over and over again.

Even the song he sings to Miss Piggy; while loaded with a number of silly vocabulary words, it’s just a lyrical and visual bore devoid of a memorable or catchy tune.

So, to compare the two films, the music numbers of Muppets Most Wanted leave much to be desired. Although Bret McKenzie returns to compose the musical arrangements, his achievements in the first far outweigh those of the second.

Ultimately I think the film’s greatest weakness can be attributed to the sheer amount of plot with which it engages. There are several narrative strains to follow with diverse levels of compelling material. First of all, Kermit is removed from the story almost instantly, creating his own narrative strain aside from the Muppet tour, now led by Constantine.

Kermit’s narrative posits him in a Russian prison in the criminal’s place, where his varied attempts at escape are foiled by Nadya, played by Tina Fey.

Fey is pretty great, one of the highlights of the whole film, and she brings her ‘A-Game.’ She has several scene stealing jokes and even pulls the accent off better than most.

She certainly does a much better job than Constantine.

The only aspect of the movie greater to Fey’s performance is Sam Eagle and Ty Burrell as Jean Pierre Napoleon, a jokey French inspector. The third narrative strand follows around the pair of detectives as they blunder through an elaborate and oftentimes, silly investigation.

There appears to be some social commentary taking place here. Sam represents the atypical American police officer. Burrell is reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies, so his performance involves a lot of Frenchy slapstick.

Sam’s a buttoned-up hard worker, and Napoleon’s constantly resting whenever the chance presents itself. He’s all too eager to go on vacation and take lunch breaks, although they’re hot on the pursuit of his self-proclaimed ‘arch nemesis.’

The investigative duo is the source of several uproarious laughs, and a delight each time they’re featured on-screen.

Sam Eagle is representative of a greater trend in the Muppet empire that merits discussion. He’s brought to the forefront of the story in Muppets Most Wanted and is clearly the funniest character of all the puppets.

But the French Chef, Statler and Mr. Waldorf, Animal and Sweetums play roles of significantly less prominence.

Miss Piggy’s featured strongly throughout. Of course. As always. What would we do without everybody’s favorite voyeuristic hog?

The pig is the focus of several dull and uncomfortable scenes adding up to a half-hearted chuckle, at best. I will never descend my soapbox about this perspective.

Miss Piggy is, by far, the least interesting Muppet. Yet she dominates a considerable chunk of screen time; moments where Fozzie Bear, Gonzo or any of the aforementioned entertaining puppets can steal scenes or take the narrative in funnier directions.

Instead, we’re left with several momentous sighs of frustration.

So, ultimately, Muppets Most Wanted is a good movie that pales in comparison to The Muppets from 2011.

If you have to pick between the two, forget the big screen, save a couple bucks and order the old film on Netflix or iTunes. You’ll enjoy The Muppets.

And if you don’t, then there’s no need to catch the new film, right?

The Muppets (PG)

8 Stars

Where’s the line between Man and Muppet?

My recliner’s dusty, because I was tearing up something fierce during The Muppets.

I know I’m a hardcore softy, but I was really touched by this movie.

The Muppets, as always, is a self-referential tale. The plot reflects the current state of the Muppet tradition in reality.

The last time Jim Henson’s puppets had an adventure was back in 2005, with a movie I’ve never heard of. The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz stars Ashanti, Queen Latifah and Quentin Tarantino; one of the most baffling casts in an apparent attempt to retell the classic tale in an African American context. It was clearly a major flop.

This current escapade is their attempt to revive the classic mode of storytelling.

What’s most fascinating about this franchise is its own brand of narrative. It’s a cast of characters that a large audience feels nostalgia for. And it’s a romp through self-awareness. The plot (although particularly strong in this feature) is almost inconsequential because it’s just another mode through which the Muppet experience is retold.

I think it’s rare we get to see the full performance of The Muppet Show. By this film’s end, it delivers the whole shebang-a-bang.

Jason Segel plays a big part in getting this film made, because he not only stars, but also is the top-billed screenwriter (besides Jim Henson.) The puppeteer died in 1990 at only fifty-four years old, so it’s doubtful he had a hand in writing this screenplay. But it’s nice to see them remembering his name.

Henson produced a philosophical teleplay in 1969 titled The Cube. It’s tells a smart and funny story in just under an hour and is worth a watch. (It’s online, you’ll find it.) But he wrote, directed and produced all sorts of stuff, like The Cube, which are both brilliant and completely devoid of puppets. He was a true talent that passed before his time.

Also starring in the film is Amy Adams, who may be the best actress working today. She’s top three for certain (along with Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansen).

Fun fact: Segel and Kermit recorded a video (which can be found online as well) asking Amy to costar. Clearly she accepted, she’s a delight and even dances (and potentially sings, I can’t find confirmation though!)

Now I don’t like to talk about myself, but I think my experience with the Muppets is one people can connect with. Before watching the 2011 movie, I’ve never seen a Muppet adventure in full. I’ve watched the 3D experience at Disney World several times, but that’s about it.

I went into the film with an expectation of disappointment. Which can only mean my reaction is bolstered by that bias. At worst, it’s a good movie, not a great movie.

But I’m writing this review several days later, and even with a level head I believe it deserves all four stars.

It seems to be enjoyable to everyone.

I want somebody to look me in the eye while they proclaim hatred for the Muppets. I’m not sure it’s possible.

So after that heap of praise, let’s discuss what doesn’t work.

I thought the budget was pretty small because, well, they say so in the movie. Fozzie Bear makes a comment about how he’s surprised they could afford an explosion with the budget. (IMDB estimates it around $45M, which doesn’t seem all that shallow to me.)

But when you think about it their machine involves a lot of moving pieces, including a bevy of backup dancers, seat-filling extras, music composition, an orchestral performance (I’m assuming), etc.

And as soon as he said that, I started noticing ways in which they may have cut corners. For example, the ‘muppet man’ gag is oddly poor in comparison to the rest of the film. It’s not painfully long, and the film’s so self-referential, it allows forgiveness for certain weaknesses in the narrative.

The slowest parts of the movie are, as always, any moment focused around Miss Piggy. I don’t care what anyone says, Miss Piggy is by far the most boring Muppet!

She always has been. I don’t understand why this problem still exists. People like to paraphrase to me, “Well, she’s supposed to be played in opposition to the other characters. She’s written to be cringe-worthy.”

Well, okay, that doesn’t detract from my point that Miss Piggy has proven to be boring, regardless of the writing’s intent. Regardless of the source material she’s satirizing, or the dichotomies drawn between her and other Muppets; scenes and music solos featuring Miss Piggy aren’t enjoyable, therefore can’t we cut down on her screen time?

Sorry. That swine really sets me off.

I generally dislike scatological humor. And if you’d asked me ahead of time, I would have agreed with the puppeteers, that Fozzie Bear’s ‘fart shoes’ would be lowbrow.

But they aren’t over-the-top, cheesy or stupid. In fact, it’s one of the funniest gags in the film. Which is exemplary of all the humor in The Muppets: It’s fast-paced and calculated.

The soundtrack, written by Bret McKenzie (famously from TV’s Flight of the Concords) is excellent. Even Chris Cooper’s rap number (which gets glossed over) is good. The best is “Man or Muppet” which is quite brilliant, and fun.

The cameos are thoroughly delightful.

“The Rainbow Connection” is a part I’m roaring to dislike. But I surrendered, there’s some crying involved, I don’t want to talk about it.

Overall, The Muppets is a fantastic movie that doesn’t get its due. Give it a try, and you’ll be glad you did!