Muppets Most Wanted (2014) – Directed by James Bobin – Starring Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, Bill Barretta, Dave Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz, Tony Bennett, Hugh Bonneville, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Jemaine Clement, Rob Corddry, Celine Dion, Dexter Fletcher, Lady Gaga, Zach Galifianakis, Josh Groban, Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Hollander, Frank Langella, Ray Liotta, James McAvoy, Chloë Grace Moretz, Miranda Richardson, Danny Trejo, Stanley Tucci, Usher, Christoph Waltz, Bonnie Wright, and Hornswoggle.
Let me explain the title of this review right at the top.
For me, the single funniest moment in cinematic history is Mr. Potato Head crapping his pants in Toy Story 2. When I saw that scene play out on the big screen, I laughed so hard and for so long that I got slightly dizzy and missed the next several minutes of the movie. It’s a small moment in the movie but it’s a perfect visual gag and perfectly straddles the line between being harmless and inappropriate.
Hearing Nadya (Tina Fey), a prison guard in charge of a gulag in Siberia, say, “Goodnight, Danny Trejo” as she exits a row of prison cells at the end of a long day in which an imprisoned Kermit the Frog has come to grips with his new status quo does not achieve the heights of Mr. Potato Head crapping out his accessories, but it’s pretty darn funny and the funniest moment in a movie full of funny moments.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED is a nearly perfect film that continues the Muppet tradition in fine style. While Jason Segel has not returned from THE MUPPETS, much of the remaining creative staff has, including director/co-writer James Bobin, music supervisor Bret McKenzie, and, of course, the puppeteers. By writing that this film does not miss either Segel or co-star Amy Adams, it will come across as a dig, that I’m saying this movie is better without them being here and that is not my intent. Segel and Adams did a great job making the last movie work and giving birth to the latest Muppets’ run. That MOST WANTED doesn’t miss their presence is more about the strength of the characters, the importance of Bobin and McKenzie, and the effective execution of an entirely new story.
The filmmakers were free to go off in a new direction, and that’s really how the Muppets probably should work – let humans come in an be the guest stars to the ongoing story of the Muppets. Picking up directly where the last film left off, the Muppets are confronted with the question of, “What now?”
Enter Richard Badguy (Ricky Gervais), a criminal posing as a talent manager who wants to take the Muppets on a European tour in order to mask a series of museum heists. Kermit (see below for a list of Muppet performers) is hesitant to go right out on the road when they’ve just re-discovered each other, but the Muppets are performers coming off a long lay-off and it’s understandable they’d want to strike while there’s interest.
Kermit is outvoted as the Muppets become seduced by Badguy’s offer and while Kermie’s out taking a walk to clear his head, he’s arrested in a case of mistaken identity. Our hero is a dead ringer for Constantine, the world’s most wanted criminal frog, with only Constantine’s facial mole their only physical difference. I love how the movie pokes some fun at the notion that the Muppets would mistake Constantine for Kermit just because they look the same when they sound and act so differently. It’s a knowing wink to the ludicrousness of the plot, but I’d much rather storytellers have a wink at the audience instead of insisting that no, no one can figure out Clark Kent is Superman because he modulates his voice and wears glasses. In MOST WANTED, such a case of mistaken identity is necessary for the movie to happen, of course, but it also speaks to how blinded the Muppets are at the potentiality for another run in the spotlight. So bright is their hoped for future that they’re all willing to look past the obvious.
Well, almost all of them. Animal notices right away because he can smell the difference, but no one listens to him because no one ever listens to anyone who speaks mostly in words of only one syllable, and turns multi-syllabic words into multiple words: A. Ni. Mal.
While the Muppets are a unit, Kermit is undoubtedly the star, and the film slyly acknowledges this by splitting him from the rest of his group. In the world of the Muppets, Kermit is the boss, and bosses are always subject to some grumbling from their employees. We see Kermit having to make decisions on who gets to perform and what they get to perform during the planning for their tour’s opening act in Berlin, as he has to balance the egos of his talented group with the constraints of putting on a variety show. Without Kermit around, Constantine lets them do whatever they want and the show becomes a disaster: Gonzo and Salma Hayek nearly get run over by bulls, Miss Piggy sings the Macarena, and the Electric Mayhem allow Animal a drum solo that lasts long enough it puts the entire audience to sleep.
After waking up when Animal is finished, the crowd erupts in wild applause, which the Muppets accept as testament to their own greatness. Only Walter understands that something is amiss with the audience’s reaction, and that leads him to secretly follow Dominic the next day, where he uncovers the criminal plot.
It’s telling that other than Animal it’s Walter who is the most hip to something being wrong with Kermit, because Walter has been around the least amount of time. He knows the “public” Kermit much more than he knows the “private” Kermit, yet it’s Walter who’s given the prime spot in the film to be the Muppet who notices Kermit’s absence and then escapes with Fozzie and Animal to mount a rescue attempt. It’s Walter who gets to have the heart-to-heart with Kermit about how he needs to break out of the Gulag because the Muppets need him.
The meta-nesss of the Muppets makes them a perfect foil for critiquing both themselves and the entertainment industry, and it is mildly uncomfortable to hear the other Muppets question Dominic and Constantine’s explanation that Walter and Fozzie aren’t around because they quit the Muppets. Despite Walter’s presence in the movie, it’s hard not to hear their words as a shot at the new guy. Rowlf gives voice to the idea that “we just spent a lot of time developing” the story of Walter wanting to be in the Muppets (meaning, the entire last movie), and we see Robin the Frog break the fourth wall and make eye contact with us as Rizzo (I believe) says something to the effect of, “Yeah, and at the expense of other characters who have been here for years.”
I get that Robin is just a puppet sitting in a … whatever kind of container Disney keeps the Muppets in … but at that moment, his sadness feels completely real.
An alternative interpretation is that Walter picks up on the problem because he’s the least jaded when it comes to showbiz. The other Muppets are entertainment veterans and just want to be back performing in front of sold out shows (unaware that Dominic is paying the audience to be there), whereas Walter just achieved his dream of getting into the Muppets. He’s still got a bit of a glossy view of what “the Muppets” stand for, while the rest of the crew have become slightly jaded by the business. Watching them fight for a bigger spot during the show has that slight bit of desperation to it because they know what it’s like to have been in a down cycle when no one wants to come to see you do what you do.
I love those moments. I love seeing Kermit have to say no to Gonzo and Piggy and Electric Mayhem about their desire to have a bigger role in the show because it makes all of them feel that much more real.
The Muppets do get lost a bit in the Badguy/Constantine plot, which effectively mirrors their own push for stage time. Walter sees the Muppets as a big family but the Muppets know themselves to be a traveling show where stage time is limited and they have to fight to get their act on the bill. That we don’t see a lot of them as individuals (beyond Kermit, Walter, Piggy, Fozzie, and Sam) but do see a lot of them as a roving background of the Muppets Collective speaks to this idea. Fittingly, not two minutes before Robin did his brief walk past the camera, I was wondering where he was. I imagine a lot of people are going to have that experience with MOST WANTED, wondering where Beaker or Beauregard or Uncle Deadly are, only to have them pop up on screen a few minutes later.
I don’t mind that most of the Muppets exist as the Collective in MOST WANTED because the story is so good. James Bobin puts a legitimately good plot up on the screen and then works jokes and gags in around that narrative. Nowhere in the film does it feel like the gags are running the narrative. The musical numbers are also very strong. Bret McKenzie has produced a handful of songs that work to advance the narrative, reveal something about the characters, and simply work as great songs. “We’re Doing a Sequel” is the strongest of the bunch, but that might just be my preference for big, Muppets-dominated ensemble numbers shining through. “The Big House” number made me smile the most, and features Tina Fey on lead and the inmates of the Gulag (which includes Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, Jemaine Clement, Hornswoggle, and Josh Groban) singing and dancing around her. The cleverest wordplay comes in “Interrogation Song,” sung by Ty Burrell and Sam Eagle as they question the Muppets for their potential involvement in the museum heists. I’m less a fan of the Muppets singing other people’s songs, and while this is thankfully kept to a minimum in the film, the inclusion of “Moves Like Jagger,” “Macarena,” and “Working in the Coal Mine” just might stop me from paying full price for the soundtrack.
Going into the film, I was most concerned about the Ty Burrell and Sam Eagle subplot because the “who’s got the bigger badge” gag in the trailers was the least interesting part, but it works really well in the film. Inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon and Sam Eagle do the standard “start as antagonists, end as friends” police trope, but they do it really well. Their part of the film could come off as perfunctory because they’re here mostly to keep the heist plot moving forward, but they make a perfect pair and manage to make their brief scenes enjoyable far more for their chemistry than they do for their sight gags with badges and small cars.
I have to admit, though, that Sam having a super large badge delivered to him was pretty funny because the gag appeared to be over minutes earlier. The gag comes back again, later, when the Muppets are similarly impressed with the similar sizes and attractiveness of both their badges.
Burrell, Gervais, and Fey all buy into the movie, which is key to making a film like this work. Fey is particularly good as the Gulag guard who knows Kermit isn’t Constantine but still doesn’t let him go. In part, that’s because such a decision is made above her position, but it’s also partly based on her massive crush on the frog, which only comes out after Kermit tells her she won’t be in the prisoner’s revue that he’s been convinced to run.
To get back to the “Goodnight, Danny Trejo” line that she delivers – I don’t know if that line was in the script, originated on the spot, or even in post-production, but it speaks to the film’s cleverness. Trejo, Liotta, Clement, and Hornswoggle have been doing the big bad prisoner bit through the film without getting the benefit of names. After Nadya’s character softens a bit, she walks down the prison hallway wishing everyone a good night. The camera stays on Kermit but we can hear Nadya’s voice slowly getting softer as she works her way through the cell block, calling out one character name after another. Just before her voice fades away completely, you hear her say, “Goodnight, Danny Trejo,” as if this is the real Danny Trejo in a Siberian Gulag. Given the way the Muppets and MOST WANTED work, with their shifting realities of stage and off-stage, it’s a small but strikingly good bit that’s almost lost as background noise.
There’s the requisite rapid fire barrage of celebrity cameos, and I’ve read several critics complain about this technique. I can understand that – there’s so many of them that if you watch movies for a living you might very well be annoyed by the constant hit-and-run appearances. I watch a lot of movies, though, and it didn’t bother me. Given how the Muppets are about the entertainment industry, and specifically about performers stuck in the lower end of the industry (which is why Badguy has to have people bribed to go to the show, and why he pre-writes his own glowing reviews he pays newspapers off to run), it’s a reminder how finicky fame is to see James McAvoy playing a UPS delivery guy and Tom Hiddleston an escape artist. Turn right at Albuquerque instead of left and roles like these might now be their bread and butter. I also get a kick out of seeing who shows up to play “As Himself” or “As Herself” and who gets to play a part.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED had a disappointing opening weekend at the United States box office, bringing in only $17 million compared to THE MUPPETS’ $29 million haul, and I really can’t fathom why. Sure, the “first” movie (as someone points out during the “We’re Making a Sequel” song, MOST WANTED is actually the seventh sequel) was released at Thanksgiving instead of the middle of March, but this is a strong movie that was marketed rather well, and there’s plenty here for the whole family. Maybe it’s just that the Muppets have rarely had a massive box office appeal, with none of the films breaking $100 mil at the U.S. box office during their run, and only the original The Muppet Movie breaking that barrier (it broke the $200 million barrier, too) when adjusted for inflation. Even THE MUPPETS only made $88 million at the domestic box office, which is roughly equal to what Mr. Peabody & Sherman has made in just 22 days of release. I dig Mr. Peabody and Sherman and all, but their cultural impact has been much less pronounced than Jim Henson’s Muppets.
Whatever the reason for the disappointing numbers (isn’t one of the reasons you have kids is that you can take them to movies like this?), MUPPETS MOST WANTED is an excellent film. It’s smart, funny, and full of great songs. Because it’s done with puppeteers instead of CGI, Disney can make a Muppets movie for one-third what Fox spent on the CGI Peabody and Sherman. My enjoyment of a movie isn’t ruined by what others think, but if enough people aren’t willing to pay to see a movie I enjoy, a future movie might not get made. Whatever number Disney needs to get another Muppets movie onto the big screen, I hope MOST WANTED reaches it. I’ll take a new Muppets movie every two or three for the rest of my life if they’re going to be this well made, but that’s clearly a sentiment not everyone shares.
Including (narratively speaking), some of the Muppets. After hearing that Walter and “Fonzie” have quit, Lew Zealand asks, “You can quit the Muppets?”
Maybe you can, Lew, but I can’t.
List of Muppet performers:
Steve Whitmire as Kermit the Frog, Link Hogthrob, The Newsman, Foo-Foo, Rizzo the Rat, Lips, Beaker, Statler; Eric Jacobson as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam Eagle; Dave Goelz as The Great Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Waldorf, Beauregard, Zoot; Bill Barretta as Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, Pepe the King Prawn, The Swedish Chef, Bobo the Bear, Big Mean Carl, Baby Boss, Carlo Flamingo, Leprechaun Security Guard; David Rudman as Scooter, Janice, Bobby Benson, Wayne, Miss Poogy; Matt Vogel as Constantine, Floyd Pepper, Robin the Frog, Camilla the Chicken, Crazy Harry, Lew Zealand, Uncle Deadly, Pops, Sweetums; Peter Linz as Walter, Manolo Flamingo.