Mon
Mar 24 2014 10:00am

This is Indeed a Disturbing Universe. Muppets Most Wanted

Muppets Most Wanted movie review

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.”

Muppets Most Wanted Celine Dion

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.

Muppets Most Wanted Constantine teeth

You’re welcome.

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 Ricky Gervais

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.

 

Mentionables:

  • 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.)

Muppets Most Wanted Ty Burrell Sam the Eagle

  • 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.


Chris Lough falls thoroughly on the Muppet end of the Man or Muppet spectrum. He flails about, wide-eyed, here on Tor.com and Twitter.

9 comments
Martel Sardina
1. Martel Sardina
The Doctor Who actor cameo was Toby Jones who played the Dream Lord. I almost missed that one, too.

I was glad that Animal finally got to play his drum solo :)
Scott Sherris
2. ssherris
What was the Diana Rigg/Muppets reference in GoT?
Matthew Glover
3. themightysven
I often opine that someone's favorite muppet is a depiction of themselves (for the record, my muppet-self is Sweetums) and as such, I think it's great that they keep showing how important Kermit is, because how often is the hero of anything the calm rational one? If there is one, they get hit with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the plot become them transforming out of being a Kermit.

People who are Kermits can go to practically any Muppet movie (except for Muppets from Space) and come out thinking that their calm rational selves are just as important as the Piggys, Rizzos, and Lew Zealands.

Looking forward to this movie
Christopher Bennett
4. ChristopherLBennett
The Muppets were never meant to be sweet and sentimental. They were always edgy and deconstructive from the start. Remember, Henson got his start doing commercials in which a proto-Kermit blew people away with a cannon for not drinking the right kind of coffee, then turned the cannon on the audience. The Muppets should be subversive and transgressive and defiantly weird.

Indeed, that's why The Muppets was a failure for me. It got Kermit totally wrong as a character by making him too sweet and gentle to the point of being totally ineffectual -- constantly giving up hope at every tiny setback and needing everyone else to convince him to keep going, the complete opposite of Kermit's proper role. Kermit needs an edge and an aggressive streak to be effective, and so do the Muppets.
Stephen Dunscombe
5. cythraul
I liked this movie a lot less than 2011's "The Muppets". I found the new movie less funny, less moving, less convincing.

Dark I could deal with. Sticking Constantine in in place of Kermit hampered the movie not because it made things dark (I found Constantine's scenes of MENACE! to be hilarious), but because it broke up the dynamic that's fundamental to how the Muppets work: Kermit is earnest and sane, and the rest of the Muppets are earnest and insane. Kermit riffing with the Muppets is fun and funny in ways that Kermit riffing with awkwardly stunt-cast gulag denizens is not. It's like breaking up Star Trek's Power Trio.

I don't think the quality of the musical numbers was better, but it may be that they'll just take time to grow on me. "I'll Get You What You Want" only works for me as "character exposition" for Constantine if I read it thus: Constantine is a humourless curmudgeon (which he is), and the song is him *attempting* to be Wild And Zany in order to convince the Muppets that he's one of them, and it comes out as bizarre and incongruous as it does because, as mentioned, Constantine is a humourless curmudgeon.

The whole movie just felt... less. It felt muddled and weak. I didn't *buy* Tina Fey or Ricky Gervais the way I bought Jason Siegel and Amy Adams (and even Chris Cooper). (I kind of want to see how this movie would play if Dominic Badguy were played by Eddie Izzard.)

Also: "Animal is the only Muppet who senses that Kermit has been replaced, which I love."

And Animal had enough restraint to wait for evidence before pouncing/denouncing etc.! Because that's totally in character for Animal?

"The Muppets" was a glorious rising from the ashes story for the Muppets. It was a meditation on fandom, and on the nostalgia of all the fans who're maybe seeing a Muppets movie as an adult for the first time. And it was fix-fic for the Muppets' long absence from the spotlight. It took these OOC factors and rode them all the way home. "Muppets Most Wanted" found itself in the unenviable position of being a follow-up act, of having to tell a "typical" Muppets story and still be as engaging, and I don't think it rose to that challenge.
Martel Sardina
6. SeeingI
Well, I saw it this weekend with my mom, my sister, and my little grade school age nephews. None of us thought it was quite up to snuff with the last one, but we all laughed, and all came out imitating Constantine's bad "Kayrmiiit" impression. So that's gotta be at least a qualified win.

And oh my goodness, Bret McKenzie's version of "I'll Get You Want You Want" needs to get in my iPod NOW.
Martel Sardina
7. SeeingI
I agree it's a big disappointment that most of the cameos are blink and you'll miss 'em little pop-ups. In the past, the cameos had a little scene where they interacted with the Muppets in some way, like Bob Hope's ice cream cone salesman, John Cleese's befuddled husband, or Joan Rivers' cosmetics counter lady. (OK fine, some of them were just popups, like Liza taking umbrage at Kermit's picture replacing hers or Edgar Bergen's couple of lines as the beauty pageant judge). But you get the point - what fun is it having Lady Gaga or Mickey Rooney on hand if they're just going to sing one line and disappear?
Martel Sardina
8. Southpaw211
Also, Russell Tovey was in Doctor Who - Voyage of the Damned. Alonsy, Alonso! (Although I know your operative word was 'major', just had to point it out and let my nerd flag fly!)
Tucker McKinnon
9. jazzfish
"What was with the babies during the Tower of London heist? Was this a reference I’m not getting?"

That was Bobby Benson And His Baby Band. They appeared at least twice in the show: once performing "Pennsylvania 6-5000" and once in the Paul Simon episode doing (what else?) "Baby Driver."

I thought Most Wanted was a much better *Muppet* movie than Muppets. Not sure if I liked it better or not. Needed more 80s Robot.

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