Muppets Most Wanted is a worthy follow-up to the characters’ 2011 comeback film and it starts right where the last one left off. In a strange opening, it is implied that the last movie was the film version of the story of their reunification. This isn’t unheard of in Muppet-dom, of course. It is reminiscent of the revolutionary framing device of the original Muppet Movie when the whole crew gathered to watch a film based on the story of their origins.
Leading into a song about making a sequel (and the law of diminishing returns), it is not the last time in the film that they make self-deprecating and effective references to the prior film, including a perhaps deserved jab or two at Walter, the Muppet introduced in the last film that wisely takes a backseat in Wanted so the spotlight is back on Kermit and Co. This film isn’t his story and the filmmakers understand that, not trying to force him into the proceedings more than is organic. It’s great seeing this kind of continuity built into the Muppet films, allowing them to build on each other even as they change in tone and focus.
Whereas the last film did a great job taking its cues from the original Muppet Movie, the new film feels like a retread of The Great Muppet Caper. In this way it reminds me of Star Trek Into Darkness; it feels unneeded and smacks of wasted opportunities to try something new, but it is too well made to deny its quality. The most positive change may be the introduction of the fantastic villain Constantine, aka the world’s most dangerous frog. With his awful Russian accent and penchant for blowing up everything in his path with a detonator (not to mention maliciously punning his way through Kermit’s catchphrases), he is not only effectively evil, but hilarious. He beats the hell out of Charles Grodin.
In a lot of ways, the sequel feels like a very confident statement from James Bobin and company that they feel they’ve survived trying to live up to the Muppet legacy and now they get a well-deserved chance to play around. The film doesn’t have the same heart as the previous outing. We don’t have anything like the relationship between Walter and his brother (Jason Segal doesn’t even cameo this time out) or the effectiveness of Kermit’s reunions with his old comrades in harms. Instead we get what may be the funniest 90 minutes yet featuring the characters. At times it comes across as more of a classic spoof movie than the type of Muppet films we got last time, sort of like if the Zuckers had used Kermit for the main character in Top Secret. There is a joyous absurdity to the film that carries across it from start to finish, only interrupted (as usual) by the obligatory Miss Piggy song. Though even that has more kick than usual and includes one of the most delightfully horrifying visuals ever put in a family film.
In addition to that, Bret McKenzie puts together what I feel is an even stronger set of songs which manage to continue the comic energy of the film rather than pull it back, something he is excellent at given his pedigree in Flight of the Conchords. He deftly maneuvers from one song styling to another and keeps them short and sweet.
As for the humans in the movie, the one that comes off best is probably Ty Burrell as a Cluseau-like inspector for Interpol. This is partially because of the writing, partially because of his chemistry with Sam the Eagle and especially because of the great writing poking fun at European work norms. Ricky Gervais also does well as Dominic Badguy (“It’s pronounced Bad-gzhee.”) Tina Fey is surprisingly the one that seems a bit out of her depth in comparison, never hitting quite the right tone in her role as a Gulag warden. That said, she still manages to elicit some good laughs when she finds her rhythm.
As someone that doesn’t find sentiment particularly enticing, it’s surprising that I actually find the film not quite as good as its predecessor. I would guess perhaps some of it was the element of surprise over how well it had turned out and some of it is definitely related to just plain how long it had been before we’d gotten a Muppet movie that good. Sure, their takes on Treasure Island and A Christmas Carol weren’t exactly slouches, but unless you’re a member of the generation that grew up on them as kids (and I know a few), they don’t tend to be seen as classics. The Muppets was pretty darn close. Muppets Most Wanted is not quite to that level, but darned if it isn’t a great time.
(Three and a half damns given out of five)