Synopsis: Disney’s “Muppets Most Wanted” takes the entire Muppets gang on a global tour, selling out grand theaters in some of Europe’s most exciting destinations, including Berlin, Madrid and London. But mayhem follows the Muppets overseas, as they find themselves unwittingly entangled in an international crime caper headed by Constantine—the World’s Number One Criminal and a dead ringer for Kermit—and his dastardly sidekick Dominic, aka Number Two, portrayed by Ricky Gervais. The film stars Tina Fey as Nadya, a feisty prison guard, and Ty Burrell as Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon. Disney’s “Muppets Most Wanted” is directed by James Bobin and produced by David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman. Bobin co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller, who is also executive producer with John G. Scotti. Featuring music from Academy Award®-winning songwriter Bret McKenzie.
eyelights: the basic plot.
eyesores: the dark tone of the film. the joylessness of the proceedings. the humourless script. the “cameos”.
“It’s not easy being mean…”
After watching ‘The Muppets‘, I kicked myself for not going to the movies to see it at the time; it was a lot of fun, far more than I’d ever anticipated, bringing back that Muppet magic in many ways. I wished I had been in a room full of other Muppets fans when I’d seen it: laughter is infectious, and a good comedy creates an amazing energy in a cinema.
And so it was that I spontaneously decided that I was going to go see its sequel ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ over the weekend, while it was still hot, while cinemas were still bristling with fans. I even coaxed a few people to join me for what I’d hoped would be an amusing outing to see one of pop culture’s most offbeat, zany, refreshing cast of characters in action.
Sadly, ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ was a soul-sucking experience.
Right from its first moments, the picture showed signs of serious lack of joie de vivre: With its opening tongue-in-cheek musical number, called “We’re Doing a Sequel”, we were treated to moderately amusing irony, but it was readily apparent that the dancers were going through the motions – they had no verve. The sequence felt empty, joyless, like a paint-by-numbers affair.
And it went downhill from there.
‘Muppets Most Wanted’ is apparently supposed to be an homage to ’60s crime caper films. It sends the Muppets on a international tour, financed without their knowledge by Constantine, a criminal mastermind who is trying to track down some priceless jewels and is using them as cover. Coincidentally, he who happens to look a lot like Kermit. He is considered the world’s most dangerous frog.
With the help of his number two, Dominic Badguy (pronounced Bad-Gee), who poses as a tour promoter, they bring the Muppets to concert halls near locations that they plan to break into, doing their deeds while the Muppets are performing – offering them the perfect cover. Obviously, the Muppets are completely unaware of being used for these criminal activities.
Constantine and Dominic’s main hurdle: Kermit, the Muppets’ leader.
And so it is that Constantine arranges for Kermit to be mistaken for him, arrested, and taken to the Russian Gulag that he recently broke out of. With Kermit locked away and with no one aware of his disappearance, Constantine takes his place and Dominic (Ricky Gervais) manipulates the Muppets, giving them everything that they want so that they are too happy to pay attention to what’s wrong.
On paper, ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ could be a half-decent movie. It has a plot, for one. It also has the potential for mayhem and zany fun. Except that it makes a few massive mistakes: 1) it is far too dark for the Muppets, who should rightly be sunny and friendly, 2) it focuses on the villains, not the Muppets, 3) it’s not quick-witted enough, gracing us with humour sparingly.
1. Its darkness
I was astonished by how violent this was for a Muppets film. Honestly, the only violence in the Muppets is usually cartoon violence of an absurd nature, such as Crazy Harry exploding random things, or Gonzo hurting himself doing ridiculous stunts – which he actually enjoys. Beyond that, it’s usually a fairly innocuous affair, with few threats or displays of violence.
In ‘Muppets most Wanted’, we were treated to Constantine’s break-out from the Gulag, which had him fighting off a dozen guards in hand-to-palm combat. They were also a lot of explosions, because Constantine destroyed everything to avoid leaving traces behind. This works fine for Crazy Harry because he’s a loopy character, but it was overkill in the hands of a threatening figure.
Also, much of the film takes place in the Gulag, as Kermit first tries to escape and later takes on the role of director for the Gulag’s big annual show. The problem is that the Gulag is grey, grim and cold. Again, this is far too sinister for the lively Muppets – especially Kermit, who’s hardly the most jubilant of the bunch to start with (to make matters worse, he’s brought in wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask).
2. Its focus
At first, one gets the impression that the Muppets will be central to the picture, because the film begins where the last one left off, in the streets after the big closing musical number (featuring pathetic stand-ins for Jason Segel and Amy Adams, I must add). Unfortunately, the moment that Constantine and Dominic show up, it becomes their movie, with the Muppets as secondary characters.
Thankfully, the Muppets’ personalities were relatively intact, unlike in ‘Christmas Carol’ or ‘Treasure Island‘. But they weren’t at all integral to the story, even if they were all present; they were mostly there for the ride, with very little influence on the plot development. The only ones that did were Fozzie and Walter, and almost any Muppet could have replaced them, actually.
Bizarrely enough, one character that got a lot of screen time was Sam Eagle – one of the dullest, most uptight characters of the lot. He was terrific as a cameo Muppet, who would react to the others’ strange and “unwholesome” behaviour. But, as the CIA sidekick to Interpol’s Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell), he was a strange choice – he had far too much time on his hands.
Meanwhile, some of the more delightful characters, such as Pepe the King Prawn and Bobo the Bear, have recently been relegated to miniscule roles. Even Gonzo barely had any lines – and they weren’t funny at all. Meanwhile, Walter, the latest Muppet (and a bland version of Scooter, if that’s at all possible!), was given a central part. Perhaps Disney owns him more than the others?
Meanwhile, Constantine (the “mean Kermit”) and the human characters showed up the most. Frankly, the human actors were on screen far too much and far too long. Danny Trejo and Ray Liota, for instance, were great at first glance, but they kept popping up over and over again. As much as I love Trejo and Liota’s cameos in previous films, they were great as that: cameos, not secondary characters.
And then there was the choice of cameo stars. Many of them are total has-beens, like Sean Combs and Céline Dion (you could also argue Lady Gaga, but that remains to be seen). Could they not have gotten more current celebrities other than the Disney Channel stars? (Because, yes, Disney got a few of their teen stars crammed into the picture while they could. Hurrah cross-promotion.)
The only human actor who had any place on screen was Ricky Gervais, being integral to the plot – although his performance is decent, but nothing outstanding. Even Tina Fey, as the Gulag officer, should have been used in moderation. As much as I adore her, she isn’t that great an actress; right from the start she stunk it up a bit. I could have done with less of her.
3. Its humour
Whereas all of the best Muppets films have a zippy, zany quality about them, this one spreads the jokes far apart – a little like ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan‘ did. Further to that problem, the few jokes or gags that made it on screen aren’t even all that funny: a cinema half-full of children couldn’t even produce more than a handful of laughs. Forget it for the adults.
The closest thing to the Muppets’ brand of absurdist humour to show up is when Fozzie and Walter discover that Constantine and Kermit look alike: they got confused while switching between a picture of Constantine with and without his mole. It was slightly akin to the Kermit and Fozzie gag of ‘The Great Muppet Caper‘, except that this was a short scene and it didn’t reflect the rest of the movie at all.
It was disheartening to see/hear how little jubilation ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ produced in any of the audience (there was that woman with a nasty cold in the back seat who laughed a little towards the end, but she might have been feverish). And what are the Muppets without zest and laughter? Not much, I dare say: those elements are part of what bonds younger and older audiences to them.
Even the songs weren’t as fun as in the last one. While it’s an important component of the Muppets films, I wouldn’t say that it’s entirely essential. Except that there were so bloody many of them that they were impossible to ignore. They were all well-produced, but they lacked quirk, zaniness, that lovely slightly mad quality that makes the Muppets so fun to sing along to.
‘Muppets Most Wanted’ had too much money thrown at it. I suppose that Disney decided that they wanted to make a big picture out of the Muppets, but expensive sets, locations and musical numbers are not the ingredients that make the Muppets magic. It’s heart. And this film was seriously lacking in heart. Of course, a corporation can’t understand that cash won’t bring anything to life.
The script was workmanlike, but lacked the vibrancy and cleverness needed to get it off the ground and carry us along. It wasn’t at all witty (or adoringly corny), and the stereotypes in it (about German, French and Russian characters) were perhaps a little dated. One gets the impression that the film was a paint-by-numbers affair, not a part of a truly creative process.
I seriously wanted to love ‘Muppets Most Wanted’. Going in, I even adjusted my expectations, telling myself that, being a sequel, the magic was likely not going to trickle through from one production to the next. I prepared myself for something slightly less good. And yet, despite my acceptance of this possibility, I never expected the lifeless bore that this motion picture was.
Only time can tell, but this may actually turn out to be my least wanted Muppets movie of them all.
Date of viewing: March 22, 2014