2011’s The Muppets, a cinematic reboot of the entire Muppet franchise, fared surprisingly well with critics. The notable exception was myself. I didn’t respond to the plot, I felt the songs were unmemorable, I failed to notice the chemistry between human stars Jason Segel and Amy Adams, the celebrity cameos came off as gimmicky, and worst of all, it truly seemed as if the title characters, who are supposed to dominate every story they partake in, were reduced to background scenery. Personally, I believe mass nostalgia was responsible for the film’s good press; the critics were so distracted by their own fond memories of the Muppets that they were blind to the film’s obvious shortcomings.
The same can be said for members of the Academy. Listen to the song “Man or Muppet,” and then tell me with a straight face that it deserved to win an Oscar.
Knowing this, it’s conceivable I went into Muppets Most Wanted with a chip on my shoulder, especially since I knew beforehand it utilized the same director, screenwriter, and songwriter. So imagine my surprise when I left the theater feeling as if I had seen the best Muppets film in years. In every conceivable way, this movie outshines its predecessor. It tells a much more engaging story. This time around, the songs are catchy and clever. The jokes are funnier. Cameos from the likes of Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, Lady Gaga, James McAvoy, Usher, Sean Combs, Zach Galifianakis, Tony Bennett, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christoph Waltz, and Salma Hayek, among several others, are this time properly utilized. Most importantly, the Muppets themselves are once again allowed to be the stars of their own film. The whole thing is such a superior construct, it’s as if the filmmakers had a pre-production meeting where one of them suggested, “Let’s do the exact opposite of what we did last time.”
The plot involves the Muppets taking their show on a European tour, unaware that their new manager, the aptly named Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais, surprisingly funny), is using them as part of a scheme to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Badguy is actually a sidekick to the mastermind of the heist, an oily Russian frog named Constantine (performed by Matt Vogel), who, with the exception of a wart and a sneered upper lip, looks exactly like Kermit the Frog. He takes Kermit’s place, and no one, with the exception of Animal (performed by Eric Jacobson), is initially any the wiser. Meanwhile, the real Kermit (performed by Steve Whitmire) is mistaken for Constantine and imprisoned in the same Siberian gulag from which Constantine escaped. Having felt underappreciated by his Muppet pals, Kermit feels acceptance when ordered by a warden named Nadya (Tina Fey, her Russian accent hilariously exaggerated) to orchestrate the gulag’s annual revue.
Hot on the case of Constantine and Badguy are CIA agent Sam Eagle (also performed by Jacobson) and French INTERPOL operative Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell, adopting a priceless Clouseau-esque accent). As they comedically sniff around the scenes of museum break-ins in Berlin, Madrid, and Dublin (all stops on the Muppets’ tour), some of the Muppets begin to feel that something isn’t quite right with who they believe to be Kermit. One is Walter (performed by Peter Linz), introduced in the previous film as the inexplicable puppet brother of Jason Segel. The other is Miss Piggy (Jacobson yet again), whom Constantine proposes to as part of his charade. Piggy has waited for Kermit to propose for years, but now that it seems to have finally happened, she finds she doesn’t quite know how to cope with it. As she sings about her doubts, she’s accompanied by none other than Celine Dion.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its self-referential humor. The film begins, for example, with the final shot of the previous film, with fireworks spelling out the words “the end.” The camera pans down, the crowd disperses, the director announces that the film has wrapped, and the Muppets stand there, unsure of what to do. Then one notices that a camera is still pointed at them, and they realize that there’s only one way to go from here: They have to make a sequel. This realization comes in the form of one of the film’s best songs, a Broadway-style showstopper in which the characters dress in sequined tuxes and discuss various plotlines to pursue. The single funniest suggestion has the Swedish Chef (performed by Bill Barretta) in a momentary reenactment of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
But for me, the single best joke directly addresses the failure of the previous film to prominently feature the Muppet characters. When Badguy falsely announces to the Muppets that Walter has quit, Rowlf the Dog (also Barretta) complains that they just made an entire film about him being accepted as a Muppet. Then Rizzo the Rat (also Whitmire) chimes in, noting that so much time was spent on Walter that other Muppet characters were completely overlooked. He then beckons over Kermit’s rarely-seen nephew, Robin, who can only look into the camera, sigh, and shake his head in disbelief. At that moment, I felt as if the filmmakers had finally got it, that, at last, they made the delightful family entertainment that should have been made three years ago. The Muppets sing at one point that sequels are never as good as their predecessors, but Muppets Most Wanted proves them wrong in spectacular fashion.
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Walt Disney Pictures