Something special happened in 2011: Jim Henson’s iconic cloth creations, the Muppets, were reintroduced to contemporary popular culture by the team of Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller and James Bobin. The trio crafted their collaborative effort, simply titled The Muppets, as a love letter to Henson’s imagination and characters; it’s a film about what the Muppets mean to them, and to audiences, even decades after they were first conceived by Henson. Even better, the movie proved to be a solid success, scoring high praise from critics and raking in a handsome box office that clocked in at roughly three and a half times its projected studio budget.
Cut to the present, and we have a new Muppets adventure, Muppets Most Wanted, on our hands, and it’s a hoot. Absent of Segel’s participation (as well as the presence of Amy Adams), Bobin and Stoller’s followup tends more toward the delights of a straight-up Muppet romp instead of existing as a heartfelt exercise in nostalgia. The Muppets was designed to capitalize on fond memories spent watching The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, and maybe even Muppets Tonight, as well as 1990s theatrical efforts like Muppet Treasure Island. Muppets Most Wanted elects to do none of these things—or rather, any such intentions are clearly secondary—it simply presents the gang with a plot to drive them and plenty of hijinks to keep things lively.
The new film picks up literally where its predecessor leaves off, on the studio backlot where The Muppets’ finale takes place. Left to celebrate their renewed studio viability, our heroes immediately launch into a humorously barbed tune about the common wisdom on sequels: they’re never quite as good as the original (though a hundred and ten minutes later, Bobin and Stoller may bring some viewers to question that particular convention). The message, is simple: The Muppets are back in the big leagues! And they’re going on a world tour, courtesy of the unctuous Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais)! Nothing about this seems like it could possibly go awry until, of course, it does.
It turns out that Dominic has far fouler intentions than he lets on, despite all assurances about his surname’s pronunciation; he’s in cahoots with Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog (and recent Gulag escapee), who, save for a lone distinguishing beauty mark, happens to be a dead ringer for Kermit, the world’s most revered frog. Their plan? Swap Kermit for Constantine (using guerilla make-up techniques to hide their duplicity), let Kermit get pinched by the Russian authorities and hauled off to captivity, and use the Muppets’ globe-trotting playdates as a cover for breaking into conveniently located museums, all as part of a larger scheme to steal the Crown Jewels.
It’s a plot that’s complicated to the point of absurdity, but this is a Muppets film; absurdity is part and parcel of the experience. After all, a realistic enterprise set in the Muppetverse would be supremely boring, and for everything that Muppets Most Wanted happens to be—a bit sloppy, brimming with cliches, and a bit long in the tooth—it’s certainly never dull. Bobin and Stoller have a keen grasp on how to intertwine the loose threads of their narrative with the staples of Muppetry, from musical numbers to celebrity cameos to random acts of slapstick hilarity, pacing out each essential element just enough to let them all breathe together.
Even the film’s lesser merits are part of the Muppet charm. The Muppets have been, and always will be, scrappy underdogs just barely scraping their entertainments together in time to please their audiences. If Muppets Most Wanted runs a bit slipshod, that’s okay, because you’re paying the price of admission to cheer on the ragtag troupe. If you’re looking for finely calibrated cinema, you’re in the wrong place; if you want to see Kermit lead a group of burly Gulag inmates in a rendition of A Chorus Line’s “I Hope I Get It” while Ty Burrell does a better job at representing The Pink Panther on screen than Steve Martin, then Muppets Most Wanted should be a refreshing tonic for your amusement.
Burrell, it’s worth noting, sets a new standard for humans interacting with Muppets; like Segel and Adams, he gets it, and he engages with his assigned co-star, Sam the Eagle, with real gusto. Among the film’s many other flesh-and-blood cast members, Gervais revels in a role that, frankly, is well within his acting wheelhouse, while Tina Fey, playing the head honcho at the Gulag, is given far too little to do to really resonate. She’s fine, just underused and completely drowned out by her peers (including Christoph Waltz, Jemaine Clement, Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo). But in the end, even the best celebrity performance is kind of irrelevant; the Muppets themselves are the real stars of Muppets Most Wanted, and everyone knows it.
Especially Bobin and Stoller. This time around, they’re paying specific tribute to Kermit, the beloved amphibian behind the Muppets’ longevity; the film shows us what the crew might look like without his guiding influence, and it’s a pretty anarchic picture. But unlike The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted doesn’t overtly pay homage to its subjects, and instead quite contently filters its bounty of heist caper tropes through a felt-tinted lens. By doing so, the film ends up being just as much of an ode to the Muppets’ brand of unbridled delight without having to wax sentimental; in the end, Bobin and Stoller cleverly get to have their cake and eat it, too. And so do we.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and TV on the web since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: James Bobin
Writers: James Bobin, Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Kermit the Frog and countless muppets, Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey
Release Date: Mar. 21, 3014