Following up on 2011’s The Muppets, Director/co-screenwriter (with Nicholas Stoller) James Bobin guides Jim Henson’s cast of characters through a cleverly-plotted adventure full of songs and guest stars. The tone is more manic than the prior outing, capturing more of the flavor of the classic Muppet Show from the 1970s.
The Muppets Most Wanted is preceded by a Pixar short; this one is a Monsters University story, Party Central, in which Mike and Sully turn a dull party at their frat house into the party of the year through clever use of a pair of dimension-spanning doors. Like all Pixar products, it’s very funny and serves as a nice appetizer for the main attraction.
Picking up where The Muppets left off (literally; the first thing to appear on screen is the words “The End,” followed by the assistant director, Rob Corddry, calling “cut!”), The Muppets Most Wanted launches immediately into the sequel with a song, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” in which they acknowledge that the studio once again considers them a viable franchise, at least “while we wait for Tom Hanks to do Toy Story 4.”
Ricky Gervais plays unctuous manager Dominic, who convinces the Muppets to launch a world tour to capitalize on their return to the public eye; meanwhile, sinister master criminal Constantine, “the world’s most dangerous frog,” who happens to look just like Kermit except for a distinguishing mole, has escaped from a Siberian gulag and begins his campaign to return to his position as #1 criminal. His plan involves kidnapping and replacing Kermit, who ends up in the gulag under the oppressive thumb of Nadia, the camps’ commandant, played by Tina Fey. Much scenery is chewed.
The Muppets Most Wanted avoids the error of The Great Muppet Caper, where the Muppets were supporting players in their own movie, and the most recent film, in which a large portion of the story was devoted to Jason Segal and Amy Adams. As appealing as those performers are, if it says Muppets in the title, we’re here to see Muppets, and The Muppets Most Wanted delivers. The Muppets are front and center throughout, and all the human characters are there in support of the Muppet storyline rather than their own.
That’s not to say that the human cast is wasted; on the contrary, all of the guest stars are given great moments and funny bits that play to their comedic strengths; Ty Burrell (Modern Family) is hilarious as a French police inspector who bears more than a little resemblance to Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau (and he does a far better job of it than Steve Martin did in the remake of The Pink Panther), while Gervais and Fey do a lot of the heavy lifting in keeping the plot moving.
As usual, The Muppets Most Wanted is a musical, and again the songs are provided by Bret MacKenzie of Flight of the Conchords. MacKenzie outdoes himself, coming up with clever lyrics that advance the story and reveal the characters, though there isn’t one stand-out number like “Am I a Man or a Muppet” from the last film. Miss Piggy and Celine Dion share a duet, and while this may be heresy to old-school Muppet Fans, Eric Jacobson’s Piggy is a better singer than Frank Oz’s (not that either of them is a great vocalist). Burrell and Sam the Eagle (playing a CIA agent working with Burrell’s character to investigate Constantine’s crimes) sing “the Interrogation Duet,” a funny patter-song.
The cameo appearances by celebrities are always a favorite part of any Muppet movie, and this one is no exception; ranging from Tony Bennett to Chloe Grace Moretz, bit parts are filled by actors, singers and other showbiz types, including Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, Tom Hiddleston, Josh Groban and Jemaine Clement as prisoners, Stanley Tucci as a guard, Frank Langella as the Vicar, James McAvoy as a UPS man, Zach Gallifinakis as Hobo Joe, and Salma Hayek, Usher, Lady Gaga, P. Diddy, Celine Dion and Christoph Waltz as themselves.There’s a lot going on, and some of these appearances are of the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” variety.
It’s been 24 years since Jim Henson passed away, and Steve Whitmire has solidly established himself as Kermit since then, while Eric Jacobson has taken over for Frank Oz. His performance has greatly improved over the years, especially with Piggy and Fozzie; his Animal was always good, but his version of Sam the Eagle sounds more gravelly than the original, but this is only noticeable to old guys like me who remember the way Frank Oz did it 15 years ago. With the passing this year of Jerry Nelson, several character voices have had to be replaced, and almost all of them fell to Matt Vogel, a Sesame Street performer who transitioned to the Muppets in 2008. Similarly, most of Jim Henson’s characters are now played by Bill Baretta, and he does a fine job.
The Muppets Most Wanted is a solid entry in the Muppet catalog, on equal footing with The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Muppets. The filmmakers and studio have demonstrated that they understand the characters and their world, and the Muppets are in good hands. I look forward to the next film.