As a huge Muppets fan for my whole life, this might be the hardest review I have ever had to write. Muppets Most Wanted isn’t only the worst big screen feature that the fine, felted group of friends that I grew up with have ever produced, but it’s also just a poorly made film in general. Next to the made-for-TV Wizard of Oz retelling they attempted, it’s easily the worst thing the Muppets have ever done. Sure, there are a few decent laughs here and there, but this all star cast of credible actors, wall to wall cameos, and beloved Muppets bombs far more spectacularly than it hits. I could feel my heart sinking lower and lower with each passing second of the film, not because I didn’t laugh a few times, but because this outing is dreadfully cynical: the one thing a Muppet film should never be. I suppose it isn’t terrible and completely without merit, but I’d never recommend it to anyone, nor do I ever want to watch it again. As a fan I wanted to cry when I saw how far these characters have fallen, and yet I still wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt overall. As a film critic, this outing is an unqualified, incompetent, glib train wreck made from something that shouldn’t have failed. As a human being torn with his own emotions, my final verdict sadly sides more with the Statler and Waldorf types that would happily watch this movie get hooked off the Muppet stage.
Picking up where the first film left off – and oddly enough saying the first outing was a sham – The Muppets are still struggling on the comeback trail. They’re approached by a potential tour manager, ominously named Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who suggests the comedy troupe try out some new material on the road in Europe before heading back stateside. Kermit reluctantly agrees, but while on their first stop in Berlin he’s mugged in an alleyway by “the world’s most dangerous frog,” Constantine. Because of their uncanny resemblance (and because Constantine glued a mole to Kermit’s face), Kermit is sent off to a Siberian gulag (run by Tina Fey) while Constantine and Dominic run The Muppet Show, with only Animal and (much later on) Walter being the only people to suspect something is wrong. Constantine and Dominic book The Muppets into shows adjacent to museums housing precious national treasures, all of which contain clues on how to steal the Crown Jewels in London. With The Muppets set to take the fall, only Kermit can save the day, but he needs to plan an escape from Mother Russia first.
Right from the opening scene something is amiss, and it confirms any suspicions one might have had about the first Muppet reboot being a labour of love for star Jason Segel than it was for co-writer Nicholas Stoller and returning director James Bobin. Segel’s presence is missed right off the top, not only in the fact that he couldn’t be bothered to come back to cameo here even though his character is clearly in the scene, but also that the heart and life has been sucked out of everything that the first film tried to set up. The opening scene essentially says “We lied to you. We’re going to give you the same story again, suckers.” Only this time, it isn’t the same story or even sentiment. It’s essentially a reworking of The Great Muppet Caper, not only the funniest Muppet film, but one of my favourite films of all time and possibly the most underrated comedy ever made, a comparison to which is like comparing gourmet cupcakes to candy coated sewage on a plate. (Also, the opening musical number clearly keeps referring to the film by its working title “The Muppets, Again,” which makes the title card reveal for this one feel like a 70s grindhouse film from Europe that no one could figure out how to rename. Also, the title grammatically, humorously, and thematically makes precious little sense because the film goes out of its way to say The Muppets aren’t wanted anywhere.)
When The Muppets and their human counterparts aren’t making tired, unfunny cracks about being in a sequel or making weak, tossed off pop-culture references to Maroon 5 and The Macarena that feel like no one knew how to craft a joke, the film bounces around aimlessly trying out of desperation to find some kind of through-line, and when it can’t find one, it gets downright snarky about it in a “well, we already got your money, so what are you going to do about it now?” kind of way. This film even goes as arrogantly far as to poke fun at the problems the first film had (little narrative coherency, abundance of songs, and promoting some characters at the expense of fan favourites) without ever FIXING any of those problems and getting even lazier by committing a whole bunch of new problems. It is essentially to the Muppet franchise what A Good Day to Die Hard was to the John McClane films.
The only thing on a comedic level that works in this film’s favour outside of a couple of clever, but forgettable one liners, is the idea of an evil Kermit doppelganger. It’s a character doing such a poor impression of Kermit that despite just being a frowning, Russian accented knock off, he’s actually a fun character to watch. Sure, he plays into this film’s cynicism far too much, but at least he’s the villain of the piece, which makes him – and by extension, Gervais – far more acceptable presences that almost rise above the abysmal writing and even worse editing.
Nothing here is working. It’s like watching someone trying valiantly to start a car underwater. The songs (once again from Bret McKenzie, FAR from Oscar winning form) are almost entirely forgettable at best and ear shatteringly awful at their worst. The only good musical number is an upbeat 80s adult contemporary styled ballad delivered by Constantine to Miss Piggy. The rest of them reek of flop sweat; a desperate plea for anything from the first film to carry over and save this mess. They feel forced and trite rather than upbeat and funny.
The leading humans are fine, but they’re mostly just being good sports. I’d have probably done the movie, too, just to be around these comedic icons, but I’d still be disappointed and perhaps disillusioned by the results. Gervais and Fey seem to be having a good time. Ty Burrell plays a stereotypically French Interpol agent that teams up with literal government stooge Sam the Eagle to crack the string of recent heists, and while he gets precisely two laughs in the whole film, he again seems to be having fun.
Also, not only do the cameos in this film miss the mark by Muppet movie standards, they are some of the worst handled and again cynically minded shoehornings of talented people into a film for no reason. Guests on the Muppet stage show in this film do precisely nothing. They have no funny lines, no amusing set pieces, they are just there to react to the rumbling being caused by whatever unseen heist is going on beneath the stage. Why would you even hire them if you weren’t going to give them anything to do. The best example of this can also be seen in the film’s trailer: Sean Combs shows up on the Muppet transport train and throws up his hands in celebration while playing a game of what appears to be craps. That one shot in the trailer is all he does. That’s it. Nothing else. You have seen the entirety of his contribution to the film. No lines. No punchline for him being there. This is a film so cynical and backhanded towards its audience that it thinks the mere sight of a celebrity doing nothing is funny. It isn’t and they nearly kill the entire film. The only cameos that kind of work are those of Kermit’s cellmates in the gulag, mostly because it leads to admittedly one of the best uses of Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” ever put to screen.
Not that any of the Muppets have anything to say, either. This is a film that bears the scars of having been test marketed to death by people with precious little faith in the product or final results. If you remember the episode of The Simpsons that led to the creation of the reviled, Homer voiced Itchy and Scratchy character Poochie where little kids keep contradicting what they want from the show, you’ll immediately see the problem with Muppets Most Wanted. It’s a film made by a studio desperate to market these characters to kids that’s made by people who have no clue how to make a film for kids. Instead, it comes across as a film that not only has no clue what it’s trying to accomplish, but something that isn’t fun to watch as a viewer either young or old. Every other Muppet film (again, except that Wizard of Oz one) had an internal logic that balanced humour with characters that could easily be cared about, laughed with, and could be loved. This film simply says: “Who cares? MONEY.” It’s a film with no confidence in its stars – Muppet or human, and maybe even the writers and filmmakers – to create a final product that will measure up to the studio’s satisfaction. The end result is akin to a highlight reel with very few highlights that simply crash into one another along a very vague and stupid timeline.
When the film callously makes a woefully ill advised callback to Muppets Take Manhattan for its final scene (replete with some of the worst CGI I have ever seen in a film that’s being used for no discernibly good reason) I officially felt had. I was going to cry. I had to get out of there and walk it off. I was dumbfounded as if I were slapped in the face by a friend I had known my entire life. I was sad. Almost inconsolably sad. The Muppets should not make me sad unless they were actually TRYING to make me sad. I went home and watched The Muppet Movie and Great Muppet Caper back to back as I took the rest of the day off to decompress. I never want to speak of this movie in the same breath as any other Muppet production ever again. And I am sad that I ever had to type that sentence. The Muppets have always been about sticking things out and believing in yourself. I still believe in them even after all of this. That doesn’t make it sting any less.