Muppets Most Wanted (James Bobin, 2014) – The Muppets had fallen on hard times by the time Disney picked them up and hired Jason Segel/Nick Stoller to revive their felty ways based primarily on a single joke in Forgetting Sarah Marshell. Yet, thanks to assigning folks who genuinely loved the source material, the Muppets’ ridiculously charming comeback vehicle proved to be one of the finest flicks to ever star Kermit n’ co. Flash-forward a few years and now we have the inevitable sequel. Segal’s gone, but 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. As a result, the movie doesn’t have the same fuzzy warmth of the last movie, but makes up for it by doubling-down on the tongue-in-cheek humor to deliver a self-conscious Muppet-polooza that’s one of the most purely entertaining Muppet adventures ever conceived.
Opening up with a song that jokes about the inferiority and inevitability of sequels, James Bobin immediately sets the tone for his much more irreverent follow up. Bobin gets screenwriting credit as well this time with Segel out of the franchise (except for an amusingly obvious body double in the first shot) and his background as writer/director on Flight Of The Conchords and Da Ali G Show immediately shows in a gleeful pistake of Muppet movie and sequel conventions that doubles as a perfectly satisfying sequel for kiddies without a finely honed sense of irony.
The Muppets decide to follow up their big LA comeback gig from the climax of the last movie with a European tour. The man in charge of the tour is Ricky Gervais’ Dominic Badguy. As his subtle name hints, Gervais is not to be trusted. In fact, he’s an international jewel thief 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 of 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, Jemaine Clement and Tina Fey’s icy head guard who is not-so-secretly obsessed with a certain superstar frog. If it all sounds like the type of silly plot that normally dogs down sequels, that’s because it is. The only difference is that this time the filmmakers completely understand that cliché and are gleefully sending 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 (Chonchords’ 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 the adults in the audience more than anyone else and virtually every other supporting role is cast with a star cameo (as per usual). All of the Muppets return, but aside from Kermit they essentially play different comedy notes in the ensemble without anything resembling dramatic arcs (though, is that really necessary for a puppet?). Only a police procedural subplot involving the Eagle and Ty Burrell sags a bit, but even it has some decent gags involving oversized badges.
In the end, it’s all just 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. He’s turning into quite an amusing filmmaker and could probably crank out these Muppet movies until he dies, but hopefully he’ll get a chance to break free soon because he’s developing a nice, sardonic voice as a director. Now, it has to be said that there’s a chance this movie might play a little better to the long time Muppet lovers than their children (certainly the kids won’t get the Swedish Chef/Seventh Seal gag), but then even as far back as The Muppet Show these characters were always a guilty pleasure for adults first and kiddie fodder second. 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 and in the Bobbin/Stoller combo has managed to twice capture that tone better than anyone else since Jim Henson stopped captaining theMuppetship. Let’s just hope the third Muppet movie comes fast and turns out this well again. By the time these 112 minutes breeze by, all you’ll be thinking about is what they could possibly do with the next sequel.
As usual Disney has delivered a beautiful Blu-Ray presentation. Every inch of felt is visible in glorious clarity, the primary colors glow, and the often deliberately campy effects scenes are just that much more hilarious. Sound is clear and resonant, particularly in the musical numbers. It’s just as strong a disc as we’ve come to expect from Disney and Muppets obsessives should be pleased.
Special features kick off with the The Unnecessarily Extended Cut that lives up to the title with about 12 minutes of stuff that adds running time and a few giggles. Then there’s the Statler & Waldorf Cut which is a single joke and exactly the one you’d expect (not a bad thing). A ten-minute blooper real also appears and is surprisingly funny both to see how the Muppet actors cut loose with their characters and also to hear Ricky Gervais’ infectious laugh. Next comes an amusing little short with Rizzo The Rat complaining about not being in the movie that’s pretty gosh darn adorable. Finally, there’s a music video “I’ll Get You What You Want” include that offers a little Bret McKenzie mugging (never a bad thing). Unfortunately, as the word “finally” suggests, there are about 15-20 minutes of extras on the entire disc, which is a real shame given that the last Muppets disc came loaded with amazing features by Bobin and Stoller that would have been welcome here.
I guess the disappointing theatrical gross for Muppets Most Wanted led to a rushed Blu-ray production and that’s really a shame since the movie itself was such a blast. Ah well, at least it shouldn’t be too long before the next Muppets movie. If nothing else, it’s only a matter of time before someone at Disney figures out that thanks to recent acquisitions, it’s entirely possible to make a Muppets Star Wars movie and bring home roughly a bazillion dollars. (Phil Brown)