Monday, March 24, 2014

MUPPETS MOST WANTED Is Very Funny, Very Muppet-y


- I enjoyed the last Muppets movie a lot. After so many relatively Muppet-less years, it felt good to have these characters back on the big screen and back in a place of prominence in the world of pop-culture. When I think about the influence that Jim Henson and his creations had on me as a kid - the way they cultivated in me a love for comedy, satire, imagination, and creativity - I think about how all kids should be exposed to these great characters and the values that they stand for. I'm not usually one to make that kind of pronouncement, but what I love about the Muppets is how their message is ultimately wholesome and good, but they're also just edgy enough to make you think outside the box. As a kid, The Muppets influenced not just my values, but spurred my interest in everything from science-fiction to comedy to rock n' roll. And so, while the last Muppet movie was a nice and heartfelt love letter of sorts to the characters and what they meant to a generation, what I like about MUPPETS MOST WANTED is that, now that the re-introductions and meta-commentaries are over with, the Muppets can get back to doing what they do best. This is the Muppets in their purest form, and I like that. No, it may not be the grand thesis statement of Muppetdom that the last film was (no existential "man or Muppet?" questions here). But this sequel is funny, clever, and just a blast from start to finish. It reminded me of the kinds of Muppets stories that made me a Muppets fan in the first place.

The plot of the film is silly, but in the best sort of way. It involves a notorious criminal frog named Constantine, who - save for a telling mole - looks exactly like Kermit. The thickly-accented Constantine escapes from imprisonment in a Siberian gulag, and hatches a scheme to take Kermit's place in the Muppets. The newly-reunited Muppets, planning a world tour to celebrate their return, hire bigshot manager Dominic (Ricky Gervais) to to guide them. What the unsuspecting Muppets don't realize is that Dominic is in league with Constantine. The two arrange for Kermit to get frog-napped, and taken to the prison from which Constantine escaped. Their master plan: to use the Muppets' shows as a front for a series of elaborate heists, culminating with the theft of the Crown Jewels of England.

The plot offers many opportunities for inspired zaniness. For one, seeing Constantine try to pass himself off as Kermit is oftentimes hilarious (the way he pronounces Muppets in his poorly-veiled Russian accent cracked me up every time - "Maaahpits!"). Before Kermit was taken out of the picture, he'd been getting cold (webbed) feet about popping the question to Ms. Piggy. But Constantine - who wants to marry Ms. Piggy as part of his evil plan to steal the Crown Jewels - is amusingly, um, aggressive in his wooing of the world's most famous pig (encapsulated in the hilarious song "I'll Get You What You Want"). I really liked Gervais here as Dominic - his brand of awkward humor is a great match for the Muppets, and his character's David Brent-esque persona - a bit pathetic, but misguidedly ambitious - makes for a great comic foil to Constantine and a great villain.

While Constantine and Dominic try to con the Muppets, poor Kermit is locked up in prison with a motley crew of inmates, which include such recognizable faces as Danny Trejo (playing himself!), and Flight of the Conchords' Jermaine Clement. The gruff warden of the prison is played by Tina Fey, whose tough exterior softens a bit when she develops a bit of a crush on Kermit. The prison scenes are a highlight though, as Fey, Clement, and the rest of the prison crew are very funny, and in top form. Seeing Kermit lead the rough-looking prison gang in a musical revue is comedy gold.

The other inspired subplot involves stone-faced Muppet Sam Eagle - now a CIA agent - investigating the criminal activity around the Muppets with the help of bumbling French inspector Jean Pierre (Modern Family's Ty Burell). Burell and Sam Eagle are such a great pairing. What can I say, I laughed a lot at their back-and-forth. All the French jokes at Jean Pierre's expense are probably old hat to older viewers, but it made me smile a bit that so many surprisingly un-PC jokes were slipped into the movie involving Burell. It's all pretty harmless stuff, ultimately ... but again, I dig that there was just a bit of edge to some of the humor.

And the movie's jokes really hit hard, in my opinion. I laughed out loud a lot at this movie, in a way that I didn't during the first film. Again, without all the re-building that the first movie had to do, it seems like the script here by Nicholas Stohler and director James Bobin is free to just be silly and entertaining and funny. There are a lot of clever bits - movie parodies, pop-culture riffs, and just general wackiness that really hits. The songs, too, are very funny, very Flight of the Conchords-ish (and no wonder, since the movie's music supervisor is the Conchords' Bret McKenzie). My favorite is the slyly funny "Interrogation Song", in which Jean Pierre and Sam Eagle question the Muppets one-by-one about alleged crimes - which becomes an increasingly, hilariously futile effort (culminating with the unintelligible musings of the Swedish Chef).

From some of the trailers, I was worried that the movie would be celebrity cameo overkill, but that's not the case. There are a lot of cameos, but they're mostly brief and often funny. And hey, who could object to Salma Hayek teaming with Gonzo to take part in his genius "indoor running of the bulls" performance?

Of course, even though this Muppet movie is wackier and sillier than its predecessor, there's still a lot of heart. I don't know what it is about these characters, but somehow - and it really is incredible - the felt forms of Kermit and co. always manage to feel more human than many of the human actors in these films. When newest-Muppet Walter sets out with Fozzie Bear and Animal to find and free their missing frog friend, you can't help but smile at the lengths these intrepid creatures will go to to help out their friend in need. And when Ms. Piggy must take part in the classic "which Kermit is the real Kermit?" test, well ... you will believe in the love of a sheepish frog and a bullish pig. What I love about the Muppets is that while the humor can be a little edgy, a little boundary-pushing given the target audience - there's always a very tangible sense of goodness and decency that shines through with these characters and these stories.

I'm not sure why I've seen so much cynicism crop up in recent reviews of MUPPETS MOST WANTED. Maybe it's just a rebellion against the resurgence in Muppetude over the last few years. Perhaps without the meta-commentary of the first film, jaded critics couldn't find an "important" enough reason to get behind this sequel. Or perhaps there's simply an opposition to the Muppets continuing on without the involvement of some of the original creative driving forces. But I found that this film pays a lot of homage to what's come before while still feeling modern and fresh. At the same time, it just-about-perfectly captures the right Muppety mix of playful humor and positive vibes that make the Muppets what they are. The human cast here is excellent, and Constantine proves a fun adversary for Kermit and co. At the end of the day, the film had me smiling and laughing throughout: what more can I ask for in a Muppet movie?

My Grade: A-

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