Muppets Most Wanted
Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell
(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 21 Mar 2014 (General release); 2013)
He was born around 1955. Legend has it he was crafted from a discarded coat and two halves of a ping pong ball. While the inspiration for the name has been a long debated source of contention, one thing remains clear: the minute Kermit the lizard (???) made his first appearance on Jim Henson’s localized Sam and Friends TV show, he became an instant icon. One slight species shift to frog-dom prior to cementing his status as part of Sesame Street and the next thing you know, the world has gone wonky for a simplified green amphibian. Indeed, along with his many Muppet friends, Kermit continues to be a bastion of bravery, a minister of wit, and an intensely popular and easily merchandisable combination of wire armature and felt.
Of course, life was not always lily pads and swamp vistas for our plucky little star. After dominating the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ‘80s became a bit troubled, with the intended demo turning away from the green guy and his gang while embracing more contemporary, culturally cool fare. By the new millennium, the Muppets were a fond memory, a combination of Children’s Television Workshop wants and Hollywood studio needs. So Disney decided to pick up the property, turned it over to a couple of discerning die-hards (Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller) and the results was a miraculous rebirth. 2011’s The Muppets made many in the lagging audience remember just why they fell in love with these loveable characters in the first place, while a whole new generation marveled at the meaning that could be deciphered from a non-CG collection of adorable creatures.
Since success mandates sequels, it makes sense that Stoller is back, along with director James Bobin. Back in the late ‘70s, Kermit and the crew turned The Muppet Movie into a timeless gem. Their fiscally forced follow-up was an international mystery with the gang heading over to the continent to continue their amiable adventures. Fast forward over three decades and this new version is taking its collection of crazies and shifting them over to Europe. Well, put another way, Muppets Most Wanted has a Cold War era-like narrative which sees a promoter named Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), offering the gang a chance to tour the world. What they don’t know is that the friendly foreigner is actually working for a Russian criminal named Constantine who looks suspiciously like Kermit, except for a mole on his cheek.
Indeed, after plotting to escape a nasty GULAG, our villain works his way into the Muppet family while our hero gets dragged off to take his place. As they move around from country to country, the gang always seems to be appearing at a place located right next to a bank, museum, or similar place of safely secured valuables. This allows Constantine to do what he does best while the rest of the Muppets remain oblivious. Then, Sam the Eagle and INTERPOL inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) take on the case of finding our fiend. In the meantime, Kermit is wooing the warden of his GULAG (Tina Fey), a true fan of our web-footed friend. Even Miss Piggy is tricked by Constantine, falling for his debonair demeanor while accidentally aiding and abetting his actions.
When you look at how The Muppets got things right, how it revered the past while bringing the characters up to the high tech social media present, anything afterwards was going to be considered a bit of a letdown. In fact, after any reset, the reality of what to do with your new configuration sets in, and sometimes, you make a misstep or two. Luckily, Muppets Most Wanted is “almost” as good as the first go around, a rousing entertainment which pales only slightly in comparison to its predecessor. Without human helpers Jason and Amy (both Mr. Segal and Ms. Adams did not return for Part 2) but a slew of sensational cameos, this second installment into what is bound to be more Muppet movies is fun, jovial, and subversive. Adults—the original demo for Henson’s creations—will get many of the allusions. The kiddies will simply enjoy the silly slapstick antics.
It’s just so strange that a group of characters, including ones clearly cemented to the psychedelic counterculture (we’re looking at you, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem) can still capture a child’s imagination. That’s the inherent value in the Muppets that billions of Madagascars and Ice Ages will never have. When Henson put these pieces together, they may not have been built to last, but they have. That is apparent in Muppets Most Wanted, even if the voices are slightly off and the characters catering to a younger viewership. We smile when we see Kermit (and Constantine’s attempt at same). We still chuckle at Miss Piggy’s diva dementia and stare in disbelief at oddities like Pepe the King Prawn, Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and the Swedish Chef. It’s a similar design approach as Disney, the Muppets new masters. This thing is timeless. Audiences just need to get back in touch with its magic.
That’s why the makers of Muppets Most Wanted get a pass for not perfecting things this time out. There are no big flaws, but there’s also not the same level of awe created when we were first reintroduced to these fixtures from the past. Thanks to Gervais and Fey, who are both very good given their slightly stereotyped roles, and the performers who’ve take over for the late great Henson and his original crew, everything here clicks and then conforms to what we want a Muppets movie to be.
The genius needed to relaunch the property has been put back in its place. Now, we have a whole new zoo revue ready to take over and delight. Hopefully, this new franchise doesn’t follow the narrative designs of before. If it does, then be prepared for the Muppets to “take Manhattan” before leaning on literary faves A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island. One thing’s for sure. After some decidedly rough times, the Muppets are indeed back.