Straight away I can tell you that I enjoyed Muppets Most Wanted far more than 2011’s revival The Muppets, but the reasons for that comprise a movie that is probably not what High Disney, Lord of All may have preferred film director James Bobin and writer Nicholas Stoller present to an audience of children.
Though as a member of the other portion of the audience being courted—nostalgists, basically—I found the film’s antagonistic creepiness and lack of sentiment pretty amazing.
(There are some spoilers for the movie ahead, but are you really going to a Muppet movie for the plot?)
A lot of this is due to the introduction of Constantine, the Russian-ish/Eastern European-ish evil version of Kermit. Constantine is an instant break-out character—in that he is first seen breaking out of a Russian gulag in a display of puppet acrobatics so impressive that it puts Yoda’s Episode II lightsaber duel to shame—and puppeteer Matt Vogel voices the character with a forceful menace. Constantine spends the majority of the movie slipping into Kermit’s life and supplanting him bit by bit, and it’s because of Vogel’s oozy, intense voicework that you actually feel the horror of Kermit’s identity being wiped away.
Muppets Most Wanted fully commits to this creepy character crashing the Muppets’ generally bumblesome world; at no point does Constantine warm towards the Muppets or come to realize the error of his ways. Introducing such a destructive force gives the movie a focus that Muppet outings usually lack, but it risks wiping away the very frivolousness that we enjoy about the Muppets in the first place.
Smartly, the film uses Constantine’s presence to enhance the unthinking chaos and hilarity that the Muppets naturally generate. Without Kermit there as the arm-flailing voice of reason, the Muppets run themselves gleefully off cliff after cliff, until their own creative efforts begin to take on a tinge of the same creepiness that Constantine embodies. This becomes apparent repeatedly, but for me the most effective depiction of this came about in Celine Dion’s ghoulish cameo during one of Miss Piggy’s musical numbers, “Something So Right.”
It’s not even meant to be a weird cameo, but it ends up as one because by that point in the film every Muppet is completely out of their depth, being hurtled knowingly or unknowingly towards their destruction by Constantine. Instead of a sense of joyous camaraderie, Dion’s appearance in Piggy’s lament portrays the same fearful lack of control that one experiences in a nightmare.
But this is still, you know, the Muppets, so we’re not entirely worried that Kermit will rot away in a Russian prison, or that Piggy’s engagement ring doubles as a bomb, or that everything Constantine says is tremendously evil. Mostly because everyone is so upfront and broad about what’s happening. Constantine himself always lingers just a touch too long on anything that he says, audibly chewing his words in classic “moose-und-squirrel” fashion, so instead of coming off as threatening he just sounds demented and warped, as if even he’s not sure what’s going on.
Although there is ONE moment where Constantine is genuinely scary.
Normally, this kind of humor would be mean-spirited, but Constantine himself is a mean-spirited little frog, so what results is an unsympathetic villain who is constantly getting his comeuppance while his evil plan unspools. The jarring nature of Constantine also underscores the overall theme of Muppets Most Wanted: that the Muppets (and, oddly enough, Tina Fey) don’t realize how badly they need Kermit until he’s already gone.
Arguably this was the same message that 2011’s The Muppets conveyed (and years ago, Muppets Take Manhattan) but where the 2011 movie banked upon sentiment to move its story forward, Muppets Most Wanted trusts more in the charisma of its own characters to keep the audience entertained. It’s a film that doesn’t obsess over convincing you to care about The Muppets and I personally found that refreshing. Here are the Muppets. Here are the things they’re doing that make no sense. (OMG that train.) You’re either on board or you aren’t.
Muppets Most Wanted also has more than a little in common with The Great Muppet Caper and how I felt about that movie in comparison with The Muppet Movie also applies to my feelings when comparing Most Wanted to the 2011 film relaunch. While The Muppets brought us a sentimental redefinition of the Muppets akin to The Muppet Movie, Most Wanted represents a perfecting of that redefinition in the same manner that Caper did back in the 1980s.
Most Wanted also shares a lot structurally with Caper. Both break the fourth wall and establish their story via musical number in the first few minutes. Both feature a second banana villain on a downward trajectory in their career (Charles Grodin and Ricky Gervais). Both are concerned with the theft of priceless jewels in London. Both feature a Muppet wrongfully imprisoned. And both feature triumphant last minute saves by Miss Piggy in a vehicle. (Although Muppets Most Wanted’s is the funnier by far. “You’re still a frog.” WHAM.)
(Just an aside, iTunes shuffle brought up “Hey! A Movie!”, The Great Muppet Caper’s opening number while I was writing the above paragraphs about the film. GET OUT OF MY HEAD, APPLE.)
(One more aside. I only just realized that Lady Holiday in Caper is played by Diana Rigg, who is currently Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones. As if that wasn’t awesome enough, I also just realized she kind of makes a reference to her Muppet movie role in the Game of Thrones season 4 premiere “Two Swords.”)
It feels weird declaring Muppets Most Wanted a worthy Muppet film because it’s less sentimental and more creepy than previous Muppet outings, but that is nonetheless the assessment I came away with. To be sure, Most Wanted isn’t going to bowl anyone over. It’s not a grand achievement, but it’s a more solid and dependably entertaining outing than its preceding movie and it makes me hopeful that the next Muppet film can combine the best qualities of these two new-era movies and produce something really special.
- Most reviews lament that Bret McKenzie’s musical offerings in this film aren’t as impactful as “Man or Muppet,” and while that’s true, the quality of the musical numbers overall is much better. “I’ll Get You What You Want” alone is a fantastic mix of character exposition, disco weirdness, and Flight of the Conchords-style humor.
- The movie is bursting with humor and references. I think my favorite was Kermit immediately attempting a Shawshank Redemption-style prison escape, right down to the Miss Piggy version of the Rita Hayworth poster.
- The Swedish Chef playing chess with Death was a very close second.
- I haven’t at all mentioned the buddy cop scenes between Sam the Eagle and Ty Burrell’s almost-Pink Panther character. The two of them are so much fun to watch they could support their own film. (If you didn’t like them in the trailer, don’t worry, that’s easily their least funny scene.)
- The film’s cameos are incredibly odd. If you blink you’ll miss the majority of them, and they’re never utilized as well as they could be. For example: Tom Hiddleston is featured as a character named “The Great Escapo.” Sounds fun, right? He shows up for five seconds and doesn’t speak at all. Stanley Tucci’s there, too! As someone mostly disguised by shadows and hats. Oh hey Russell Tovey…wait, he’s gone. ERUGGGHH.
- I kept waiting for a cameo from a major Doctor Who actor. No such luck. (Shame, too. John Hurt or Tom Baker would have been perfect as the priest marrying Piggy and Constantine.)
- Rizzo the Rat and Robin the Tadpole have a heartbreaking scene that I TOTALLY AGREE WITH. Brace yourself.
- What was with the babies during the Tower of London heist? Was this a reference I’m not getting?
- Animal is the only Muppet who senses that Kermit has been replaced, which I love. What I didn’t love was how dismissive Kermit was of that. Come on, dude. How many times has Animal saved your ass? ALL the times.
- Just so we’re keeping track of how great Animal is: He got giant and scared away the bad guys in The Muppet Movie, he pried open the museum window in The Great Muppet Caper, he chased Kathy Griffin away in Muppets From Space. And then there’s this:
- Oh, and this:
If I don’t stop now I’ll just keep posting videos… In summary, Muppets Most Wanted is good! Maybe “wait to rent it” good but you won’t regret seeing it in the theater.