The Muppets, like the characters in Peanuts before them, have always been strangely pure. No matter how much the characters are licensed, sold, re-worked, re-packaged, and overexposed, they always seem to bounce back with their innocence intact. Kermit’s face may have been slapped on just about every product imaginable, and his image may have been exploited to within an inch of its life, but Kermit himself, when he appears on the big or small screen, still seems like a pretty darn nice guy. So even when they’re in a bad film – and I’ll cite Muppets from Space here – audiences are still eager to see more.
So the delights from James Bobin’s Muppets Most Wanted still come from one’s direct enjoyment of the Muppets themselves, even if the film itself is, at the end of the day, only a middling comedy. Muppets Most Wanted is a hokey heist farce lacking the bracing enthused hipster energy of its immediate predecessor, 2011’s pseudo-reboot The Muppets. That film managed to pay wonderfully sentimental homage to the scrappy let’s-put-on-a-show variety vibe of the original 1970s TV program while keenly updating the energy into a modern idiom. It was a good film that was both warmly old-fashioned and hotly modern at the same time. Sure, the overall tone was slightly different – the new film was slightly more blunt and outright hyperactive when compared to even the mayhem of The Muppet Movie – but it’s no wonder the film became such a hit.
Muppets Most Wanted, by contrast, aims lower. This is not The Muppets cracking out their “A” material, opting instead for a pleasant and funny spoof that works just fine, but feels relatively trifling. It’s a film that concerns the schemes of a villain and the machinations of a plot, rather than the everyday doings of actual Muppets themselves. It’s a spiritual remake of 1981’s spotty The Great Muppet Caper, and it displays the same weaknesses: The Muppets are less interesting, and less funny, when they have to deal with real-world crime and grit, and have to engage in clichéd action movie climaxes. When the drama of a Muppet film centers on whether or not a Big Show will be successful, we buy it. When Muppets have to quickly form a puppety body chain to reach a fleeing helicopter being piloted by an evil puppet spy who has taken Miss Piggy hostage, not so much.
Aside: Although I do love the swordfight in 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island. But then, I admit that I love Muppet Treasure Island to an unreasonable degree.
Muppets Most Wanted is about Constantine (voiced by Matt Vogel), a Russian frog who looks exactly like Kermit, only sporting a mole and speaking with a pidgin Russian accent (he seems unable to pronounce the word “Kermit”). He has teamed up with a slimy talent agent Dominic Badguy (pronounced “Bad-JEE,” played by Ricky Gervais) to replace Kermit the Frog (thanks to a clever mole swap), take the Muppets on an international tour, and commit a series of increasingly high-profile robberies in exotic locales. Constantine allows the Muppets to do whatever they want on this tour, making for some truly bizarre numbers (Gonzo is keen on an indoor running of the bulls). Kermit (Steve Whitmire), meanwhile, is sent to a Siberian gulag (!) where he attracts the affections of wicked warden Nadya (Tina Fey). There are a pair of cops on the case as well, played by Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle.
The film is peppered with literally dozens of amusing celebrity cameos ranging from Salma Hayek to Frank Langella to Danny Trejo to Saoirse Ronan; it’s always been hip to appear next to the Muppets. Some of Bret McKenzie’s songs are spot on (the villain’s love ballad to Miss Piggy is a highlight, and the opening number about making a sequel is pretty clever) while others are just spotty. Overall, the film almost feels like a vacation for the characters. With nothing left to establish (or re-establish), this is them playing around with a disposable genre film. Not that every Muppet film has to deal with the fate of the troupe, but it would be nice if the Muppets’ patented theatrical camaraderie were at the center of things, rather than a pretty usual plot.
You will most certainly laugh, and the film is fun and high-energy, but this is lesser Muppets.