Published Mar 21, 2014Are Muppets movies in 2014 aimed at adults or their children? While the talking felt-bags never really went away, their rebirth on the big screen three years ago was treated as something of a second coming, a phenomenon that was clearly aimed at the grown ups who, well, grew up with them. (Full disclosure: I am one of those people).
For all those fond childhood memories, the Muppets always had an edge that adults could get behind. Jim Henson created the original Muppet Show as a vehicle for his marionette puppets to be appreciated by an older demographic, and the show's appeal lies in the way a parent could chuckle from behind the newspaper they were pretending to read while their kids watched on in wonderment. It was failure to recognize this crucial balance that marooned the franchise in straight-to-video limbo for two decades, until Jason Segel put the Muppets back on the right path.
Segel opted out of this sequel, but co-writer Nicholas Stoller returns, as does Flight of the Conchords' co-creator James Bobin and Bret McKenzie, who directed and wrote the film's musical numbers, respectively.
Picking up right where the last film left off, after an epic telethon saved the old Muppet Theatre from the clutches of an evil oil baron, the gang is shocked to find the cameras still rolling. It can only mean one thing: a sequel. After ruminating on the nature of sequels in one of the film's better musical numbers, the Muppets are approached by Dominic Badguy (he tells them it's pronounced "Bad-gee") played by Ricky Gervais. Against Kermit's better judgment, Badguy cajoles the group into a European tour so they can strike while the iron's hot. In reality, Badguy is number two to Constantine, the world's most dangerous frog, a Kermit doppelgänger save for the mole on his face. Recognizing the resemblance, Constantine, who recently escaped from a Russian gulag, replaces Kermit, who's sent back to Siberia in his stead.
Busy plotting the theft of England's crown jewels with Badguy, Constantine takes an arms-length approach to organizing their European shows, pleasing the cast and blinding them to "Kermit's" dubious accent. Meanwhile, Russian officer Nadya (Tina Fey) continuously foils the real Kermit's repeated escape plans. Realizing that his friends aren't coming to rescue him, he finds solace in planning the Gulag's annual revue.
There are, of course, many celebrity cameos, some of which are hilarious, and lots of self-reflexive humour. The Muppets were trading in self-referential jokes for decades before DreamWorks discovered its box office draw with Shrek, and McKenzie's songs add much by staying as sharp and catchy as ever. Still, like the opening number warns, the film does fall into the sequel trap of overstuffing the picture with storylines. Ty Burrell's subplot, as an Interpol agent tracking a series of burglaries with Sam the Eagle, feels shoehorned in, and with the focus clearly on Kermit, Constantine and Badguy, the rest of the Muppets get short shrift. Walter, the moral compass of 2011's The Muppets is little more than a background character for two-thirds of the film, only to come forward when the plot requires a clearheaded, earnest leader while Kermit's M.I.A.
Disney knows the Muppets is a franchise with broad-based appeal, which explains why its many moving plotlines sometimes feel oversimplified for the children they hope will flock to theatres, but it's questionable whether kids in 2014 will recognize the vaudeville conceit of the Muppet Show, or respond to its Marx Bros. style physical comedy. Either way, the Muppets seem incapable of losing their charm and there's more than enough to satisfy their parents, even if they're just going "because their kids want to see it." Muppets Most Wanted lives up to the legacy of its predecessor, even if it fails to better it.