Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: Belated thoughts on the wacky, wonderful "Muppets Most Wanted"

Given how over the moon I felt for what Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, James Bobin, Bret McKenzie and company achieved on 2011’s Muppets reboot – it was my number 2 film of that year, a decision I still stand by in full – I find it a little baffling how long it took me to get around to seeing the sequel, Muppets Most Wanted. Considering both my lifelong love and enthusiasm for the Muppets and the knowledge that the majority of the previous film’s creative team (minus Jason Segel) had returned, this is a film I was very much looking forward to, but it’s been a busy few weeks, and the film somehow slipped through my fingers until now.

And having finally seen it, my only frustration remains with myself for not making time for the movie earlier. Muppets Most Wanted never reaches the dizzying heights of its predecessor, but it doesn’t have to – the entire point of The Muppets was to bring the characters back into cultural relevance, and that means that future sequels, like this one, simply get to tell fun, goofy Muppet stories without any baggage. That sense of creative freedom is something Muppets Most Wanted thrives on; it isn’t trying to be the emotional, nostalgic powerhouse the previous film provided, and I love how much Bobin and Stoller (who co-wrote the film, with Bobin again on directing duty) have leapt at the opportunity to make something different, something that pays homage to some of the Muppets’ more zany, international outings (like The Great Muppet Caper) without ever once feeling like a retread. This is creative, vibrant filmmaking, an inspired piece of comedy stuffed to burst with laughs, and containing just enough heart to feel substantive. The film is a blast from start to finish, a well-earned, celebratory comic victory lap that absolutely pays off on the artistic capital provided by the 2011 film. What more could I have asked for?

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It’s the comedy and tone that really get me here, which was also one of the biggest successes of the 2011 film. Segel, Stoller, and Bobin weren’t just capable of crafting a thoughtful, heartfelt love letter to the Muppets – they had a deep, abiding understanding of the thoroughly silly, uniquely lighthearted world these characters inhabit, a tone that hadn’t been struck with the Muppets for years and years. Muppets Most Wanted doesn’t miss a beat where tone and comedy are concerned, and if anything, this film feels even more like vintage Muppets, now that some of the darker, more existential themes of the 2011 film have been dealt with. The Muppets was as effectively dramatic as it was humorous, but Muppets Most Wanted is pure madcap hilarity, featuring a wonderfully silly story – the world’s most evil frog, Constantine, is manipulating the Muppets to execute a series of increasingly ambitious heists – that is actually paced and constructed more compellingly than I would have expected. It builds in genuinely exciting, intriguing ways, managing to be both a parody of a caper film and a relatively engaging genre entry, with a climax that is surprisingly exhilarating and filled with pay-off.  

But the biggest draw here is the nonstop string of brilliantly conceived and executed Muppet-brand jokes, ranging from inspired slapstick to bad puns to recurring character gags to funny background visuals and more. Bobin and Stoller know exactly what it is about the Muppets that make people laugh – enthusiastic, wide-eyed optimism and endearing absurdity – and they run with it, crafting what is easily one of the funniest Muppets films to date. I was laughing like a madman through most of this movie, and while this film in particular checks off many boxes in my personal comedy checklist – things like creative slapstick, dumb wordplay (guest star Christoph Waltz literally does the Waltz), and especially silly accents, with which the film is most pleasingly filled to burst with – I imagine anyone who has ever felt in-tune with the Muppets comedy wavelength will be in heaven here. The great thing about Muppet comedy is that it somehow manages to deliver big laughs while being utterly kind-hearted, inoffensive, and cheerful, all qualities we so rarely associate with good comedy in our postmodern era. Muppet comedy simply makes one feel good, happy and fulfilled and completely stress-free, and that is a rare gift Muppets Most Wanted offers in spades.

The music, certainly, goes a long way to realizing the film’s comic vision. Bret McKenzie (who already held a special place in my heart for Flight of the Concords) hit things pretty well out of the park with his songs in the 2011 film, and while nothing in Muppets Most Wanted quite hits those peaks, there is a lot more music to enjoy here, and all of it is supremely funny, in addition to just being great examples of good movie musical compositions. The opening number – which, in true Muppets fashion, acknowledges and has fun with the notion of sequels as crass commercialism – is a hoot; there is a joyously funny duet near the middle with Sam the Eagle and his partner in the film, an Interpol agent played by Ty Burrell; villain Constantine gets a song that had me very nearly rolling on the floor for its zany, inspired wordplay; and Tina Fey, who plays a cartoonish prison guard at a Russian Gulag, takes great joy in her delightfully irreverent number about life in the Big House. These are only a few of the excellent songs the film has to offer, and what I love most is that each of them evolves from a different style or tradition, creating an eclectic and unpredictable soundtrack that is 100% true to what Muppet music has always been about.

The characters here are not as evenly distributed or equally serviced as they were last time – Fonzie, Gonzo, and many of the unexpectedly prominent side characters from the last film are kept on the bench longer than I might have expected here – but every single joke is so perfectly calibrated to its character, whether that Muppet exists in a major role (Sam the Eagle has rarely been funnier or better used) or is granted just one, glorious line (good God is Rizzo’s sole appearance funny). By the end, it once again feels like Bobin and company have honored the scope of the Muppet troupe, rather than just focusing on a select few characters (something the 1990s films fell into a bad habit of doing), and I really enjoyed the newcomers as well, even if the balance is weighed a bit too heavily towards humans (I would have appreciated a new Muppet besides Constantine, given that he is, visually, a Kermit clone). Ricky Gervais blends in much more seamlessly than I might have expected, while Tina Fey and Ty Burrell (doing a funny French accent that would make Peter Sellers proud) are just relentless in generating jokes. There are a few cameo appearances I didn’t much care for – as always happens in Muppet movies – but there are a lot I found hilarious, and I especially appreciated how many actors who could have been relegated to one-off one-liners instead get bigger, more recurring parts in the Gulag sections of the film. That’s one thing the 2011 film didn’t necessarily get right – Muppet cameo actors usually came in for extended bits, not quick, in-and-out appearances – and it’s something that gets rectified here to pleasing effect.

I continue to love how James Bobin directs these movies. More than any other Muppet director, he frames the characters up close, just as if they were people, acknowledging and having fun with the artifice by putting all the felt and fur right in our face. It allows us to fully appreciate what great work Muppet performers like Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, and Dave Goelz are doing with the puppets; there is so much nuance and expression to their movements, and Bobin lets us see that in full. The visuals in this film, as in its predecessor, are just a real treat, and it will be a shame to see Bobin walk away from this series now that he’s been signed to direct Disney’s wholly unwanted Alice in Wonderland sequel, a job that is no doubt higher-profile and better-paying, but much lower on potential creative dividends.

Then again, I wonder when we might see the Muppets again, given how poorly Muppets Most Wanted has been doing at the American box office. I understand why the film has underperformed – Disney chose a bad time of year to release the film, and probably marketed it a tough too lazily (I personally found the trailers a tad off-putting) – but it’s still a shame, as this film is so superior to the majority of family comedies made in Hollywood. I don’t know if the Muppets can continue to survive in our modern cinematic landscape – I just have to wonder if audiences have become utterly jaded against cheerful, non-ironic humor, given how crass and cynical most comedies, even (or especially) family ones have become – but Muppets Most Wanted proves that they can absolutely continue to thrive. This is a wonderful, joyous little film, one I am very happy is part of the Muppet canon, and one of the foremost cinematic pleasures of the year to date.

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