I want with all my heart to love Muppets Most Wanted. Loyal lifetime Muppets fan that I am, I very much want to be able to tell you that this film is every bit as good as, or better than, 2011′s The Muppets. Unfortunately, I can’t do either and maintain journalistic integrity.
Muppets Most Wanted is not a bad film: it’s just that it has the potential to be so much better than it is that it’s difficult not to be disappointed with the results. The filmmakers, I think, tried so hard to give their audience something for everybody that they ended up giving nobody quite enough.
1. Will my kids like it?
Very probably, yes. There are a lot of jokes aimed at kids, as you’d expect, and kids are much less likely than adults to be disappointed by the movie’s failures. There are plenty of references they won’t get, as you’d also expect, but they all go by swiftly enough to be ignored. The outrageous accents put on by Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, and of course Constantine (the villainous Kermit-doppelganger, in case you’ve missed every commercial and/or trailer for the movie) will – if my kids are any indication, anyway – inspire much laughter and no small amount of post-movie imitation.
Younger kids who’ve seen 2011′s The Muppets may be a bit confused, as this one begins by showing the completion of the filming of that movie, blurring the line between the Muppets as themselves and as actors playing themselves. Kids may also be confused by the fact that, after we briefly see Jason Segel’s and Amy Adams’ characters from The Muppets from behind, they are never seen or mentioned again.
2. Will I like it?
If you’re a Muppets fan, you’ll be disappointed – but not to the point where you won’t have a good time. I can’t say how non-fans of the Muppets will feel, as I don’t share a frame of reference with them. There are plenty of jokes that will fly over kids’ heads, most particularly a brilliant one very early in the film involving the Swedish Chef (brush up on your Ingmar Bergman, or you may not get it, either).
One of the things I liked so much about The Muppets was that Gary (Jason Segel’s character) and Walter (his Muppet brother) served as audience surrogates, expressing for Muppets fans both the feeling that we miss the TV show and desperately wish it would come back and our desire to join the Muppets ourselves. Gary’s absence from the movie is keenly felt – though not, I think, as keenly as Jason Segel’s absence from the film’s production. And in the new film Walter serves as more of an audience surrogate than I suspect the filmmakers intended, essentially pointing out the flaws in the plot. Kids aren’t likely to notice that too much, I think; but you will, and if you’re at all like me it will bother you throughout.
3. When’s the best time for a restroom break?
Muppets Most Wanted is only eight minutes shorter than its two-hour predecessor, so this may well be a concern. There are so many cameos there’s barely any time you can leave where you’re not liable to miss one, so don’t really worry about that – you can always see the film again on video to catch them all. So my advice is just to try to go right after a musical number ends, since the songs are all worth watching, and that way you won’t miss any.
4. Do I need to stay through the credits for a bonus scene at the end?
There is a short “stinger” after the credits, but it’s a pretty old joke and not really worth sticking around for if you’ve got kids with you who need to get some wiggles out or if anybody in your party needs to use the restroom.
The short, titled Party Central, is terrific. That may be one of the reasons the film itself is disappointing, in fact: the short has a ton of laughs packed into a few minutes, then the first song of the movie is by far the best… and then things just go downhill from there.
Anyway, Party Central would honestly be almost worth the price of admission by itself, if theaters weren’t close to requiring you to get a second mortgage if you want to take your whole family to an evening show. It is notable for being the first-ever Pixar short to be rated PG – and both Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University were rated G – and it’s actually pretty understandable why. I wouldn’t worry too much, unless you think your kid is really likely to try jumping off the roof because a character in the short does.
6. What about the human actors in the film? How do they do?
First, the Muppets’ costars: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and Ty Burrell. Gervais has by far the most interaction with the Muppets, and does a credible job as Dominic Badguy (pronounced “BAHD-jee,” of course): he has one musical number with a full-bodied Constantine (whose Muppeteers are only sometimes properly greenscreened into invisibility), and gets lines that were clearly written with him in mind, like (not a direct quote) “It’s not that they don’t like you any more, Kermit; it’s just that they prefer me.” Fey does a great job with the role of Nadya the Gulag officer, milking the part for every bit of humor she can; unfortunately, the only Muppet she gets any real chance to interact with is Kermit, which I think is really unfortunate given Fey’s comedic talents. Burrell makes a decent Interpol agent, whose competition / cooperation with CIA officer Sam the Eagle is very funny; it’s not his fault that his character and his outrageous French accent serve to remind those of us old enough to recall the Pink Panther movies how much better the late, great Peter Sellers would have been in the role.
And then, of course, there are the cameos. I hardly know where to begin to write about the cameos, as there are so many (not all of them human – fans of the original Muppet Show and the first several movies will be happy to see some familiar Muppet faces they haven’t seen in too long). Some, like Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo as Gulag prisoners, provoke laughter just because of their presence in certain scenes. Others, like Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, are surprising without actually being funny. Some just seem like strange choices: why, for example, would you have the handsome and smoky-voiced Tom Hiddleston do a cameo in which he wears what looks like long underwear (in which no person has ever looked attractive) and doesn’t speak? And some are wasted opportunities: getting Celine Dion to sing a duet with Miss Piggy is inspired (even if most kids will have no idea who she is), but then why have her only sing on the chorus?
The terrific Bret McKenzie, who won a well-deserved Oscar for “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets, also wrote the songs for Muppets Most Wanted. Unfortunately, there’s really only one song in the movie that comes close to the brilliance of “Man or Muppet” or “Life’s a Happy Song,” and that’s “We’re Doing a Sequel,” which is (as you’d expect) right at the movie’s beginning. It’s a great song, written from a fourth-wall perspective with lines like “everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good,” and “the studio wants more, while they wait for Tom Hanks to make Toy Story 4.”
The only other musical bits that stand out for me are when you get to see/hear the Muppet Show theme sung in Spanish, and the last musical number – a sequel of sorts to The Muppets take Manhattan‘s “Together Again” – called, of course, “Together Again Again.”
8. The character of Constantine is a departure for the Muppets. How does it work out?
Constantine annoys me, and not in the way he’s supposed to. His accent is funny, though I wonder if the filmmakers gave much consideration to how it’ll play outside the United States (particularly with the current real-world situation involving Russia). It seems strange to me, when there’s even a bit in the movie where they explicitly bring back less-seen Muppets, that they would introduce another new Muppet character after having already done so with Walter in The Muppets. And then there’s the fact that, in Muppets movies, the chief villain is always human – but here there’s even a song about how Constantine is number one and Badguy is number two. It just seems wrong to me, though not as wrong as almost all the Muppets (including Miss Piggy!) believing that Constantine is really Kermit. I realize it’s supposed to be a joke that the accent doesn’t make it incredibly obvious, but it’s taken to the point where it seemed impossibly sad to me that these longtime friends of Kermit would fail to notice that he’d been replaced.
9. So, bottom line: Go see it, or don’t?
Go see it: I don’t think you’ll be sorry you did, and honestly, all Muppets fans should want this movie to make a lot of money – because, if it does, the chances of another movie, a new TV show, or a Broadway show (which has been rumored for a little while now) go way, way up.
Muppets Most Wanted opens today in theaters across the United States. It’s rated PG by the MPAA “for some mild action,” but I can’t imagine any kid old enough to understand what’s going on being upset by it. The short Party Central that precedes the film is also rated PG – see my notes in item #5, above.
I attended a preview screening and the world premiere of Muppets Most Wanted as part of a junket paid for by Disney. My opinions as expressed here are entirely my own.