The original 1979 The Muppet Movie is an indisputable classic. The leap of taking Jim Henson’s Muppet characters from a half-hour television variety show to a feature length motion picture musical must have been a daunting task, but the first time out the gate they did it so well that 35 years and seven films later they’ve never been able to reach that same high water mark. That being said, there are a number of the Muppet movies that are really quite good in their own right, one of them being their grand return from a 12 year absence in 2011’s The Muppets. The Muppets isn’t a perfect film – the first half of the movie has some great moments, but is generally uneven – however, it is simply overflowing with heart and affection for these characters, and the final 40 minutes of the film are the best 40 minutes of a Muppet movie since The Muppet Movie.
Now, the Muppets are back with their first sequel under this new creative team, and the results are… underwhelming. Muppets Most Wanted isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a particularly good movie either. It falls squarely in the category of “okay.”
The film’s biggest failing is that it underutilizes its most valuable asset, namely the Muppets themselves. The film is really the first direct sequel in the Muppet series in that it picks up right where the previous film left off (albeit with the standard Muppet penchant for breaking the fourth wall to pieces). The Muppets have just gotten back together and saved their studio and theater, so they embark on an international tour in an attempt to rebuild their foreign audience. Ricky Gervais steps in as the Muppets’ tour manager with the most fantastic name, Dominic Badguy, and begins overstepping Kermit’s wishes for the group. Meanwhile, Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog, escapes from a Russian prison and flees to Germany where the Muppets are on the first leg of their tour. Constantine, who bears a striking resemblance to a certain famous frog, frames Kermit and infiltrates the Muppet gang while Kermit is carted off to Siberia. Constantine and Dominic Badguy team up and use the Muppets’ international tour as a cover for their heist operation, all the while being pursued by agents from Interpol (Ty Burrell) and the CIA (Sam Eagle).
Because of the nature of the plot, Kermit is separated from the rest of the Muppets for almost the entire movie. While this gamble paid off in The Muppets Take Manhattan, it doesn’t work nearly as well here. The scenes with Kermit in the Russian gulag generally fare better than the antics of the Muppets on their tour, but both parts of the movie feel handicapped by the team being broken apart. Part of the conceit of the film is that Kermit’s leadership reigned in some of the more indulgent tendencies of the other Muppet performers, and with him out of the picture they’re putting on bloated, messy, incompetent shows. That’s fine as a conceit, but when a solid chunk of the movie is watching the Muppets put on bloated, messy, and incompetent shows… well, the results should speak for themselves. In addition, the Muppets are left to play off of Constantine and Badguy, and neither are particularly compelling characters. Constantine is the better of the two, with the joke being that he sounds NOTHING like Kermit, and yet everyone goes with it anyway (similar to the Kermit and Fozzie identical twins gag in Great Muppet Caper), but sadly the joke wears out its welcome before the movie is done. As for Dominic Badguy, despite the name being classic Muppets silliness, the character is a bore. In this case, it seems less a fault of the script than of who they cast. Gervais is basically sleepwalking through this role, and in a Muppet movie where everything is larger than life, you cannot sleepwalk. Someone like Simon Pegg or Nick Frost could have been a perfect fit here, but Gervais got it, and Gervais did nothing with it.
Fortunately, the other two main human cast members are really excellent. Ty Burrell as Jean Pierre Napoleon is essentially channeling Inspector Clouseau, and it’s simply wonderful. He absolutely nails that Peter Sellers brand of humor in a way I never would have expected, and the way he plays off Sam Eagle is fantastic. Tina Fey is also charming as ever in the role of Nadya. Both Burrell and Fey know exactly how to play a character in a Muppet movie in a way that makes what Gervais is doing even more embarrassing than it already is.
There are other genuinely good moments scattered throughout the film – the Muppets continue to excel at self-aware humor and lightly irreverent silliness – but the real deal, best thing about this movie is its soundtrack. The soundtrack for the last film was solid, but it relied heavily on classic songs and licensed music. This one is almost entirely new, and nearly every song is a winner. I adored “Life’s a Happy Song” and “Man or Muppet” from the last film, but there are two or three songs in this that are better even than those. The opening song of the movie, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” is an actual masterpiece and is so good that it makes it easier to forgive some of the failings of the rest of the film.
Muppets Most Wanted alters between elements that are very good and elements that just don’t really work, and the result is an uneven film that is enjoyable, though still disappointing. Like The Great Muppet Caper and Muppet Treasure Island, your enjoyment of this film will depend largely on how fond you are of the Muppets and how patient you are for somewhat lackluster storytelling – though I feel that Muppets Most Wanted is better than these two films. It’s hard to say whether the film suffered on a script level without Jason Segel on co-writing duties, or if the Muppets just don’t mix well with caper stories. Either way, this is definitely a lesser entry in the Muppets film series, but it’s not without its charms.
P.S. As an aside, while I initially thought the film’s original title, The Muppets… Again! was kind of terrible, the two songs that bookend this movie kind of make it the right title. I almost wish they used the original title on the title card and Most Wanted for the marketing materials.
P.P.S. As an additional aside, in the credits the film is said to be based on “Disney’s The Muppets Characters and Properties.” Does this strike anyone else as being really gross? Disney is the current rights holder for the Muppets, but the only possessive name that should ever preface the Muppets is Jim Henson’s. It’d be like failing to acknowledge George Lucas in a Star Wars film or Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko in a Marvel movie. This isn’t something that has an actual impact on the movie itself, but it left a really sour taste in my mouth as I was leaving the theater.