Who knows if Jason Segel was pushed out or maybe he freely stepped away from the franchise. Either way his presence is missed in Muppets Most Wanted, not so much because he is needed in front of the camera, but his writing did breathe some charisma, energy, and an admiration for the legacy in The Muppets. The Flight of the Conchords creators, James Bobin (director) and Nicholas Stoller (writer) did return for the latest Muppet tour, but they don’t exhibit the labor of love that Segel had–and it shows.
The concept is decent at the start. Picking up from the last film, the Muppet gang breaks into the first of several musical numbers, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” that may have spoken a bit more truth than it should be so conscious of:
“We’re doing a sequel, we’re back by popular demand… that’s what we do in Hollywood, everybody knows that the sequel is never quite as good… I thought it was the end, but no my friends, this is when, we get to do it all again… We’re doing a sequel, there’s no reason to disguise, the studios considers us a viable franchise… We’re doing a sequel, how hard can it be? We couldn’t do worse than the Godfather III… We’re doing a sequel, it’s more of the same…” Oof. Funny? Yes. Catchy? Extremely. But the jokes aren’t nearly as funny when it actually plays out as the lyrics in the song.
A Russian frog named Constantine (Matt Vogel) is a dead ringer for Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmire) except that he bears a mole on his face. Constantine escapes the Gulag prison and devises a plan with Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) to switch frogs with the help of some green coverup and a careful glue job before a big European tour of the Muppet Show gets underway. The puppeteers (as usual) brilliantly convey different mannerisms and postures for the two frogs to keep them straight (just in case you’re deaf or hard of hearing). Badguy re-arranges all of the gigs, upgrading Kermit’s itinerary from pub crawls to concert halls adjacent to art museums. Kermit meanwhile is mistakingly locked up in the Siberian clink, run by Nadya, a prison guard played by Tina Fey who in her own cute way sounds like she got sidetracked studying for her role by watching too many reruns of Hogan’s Heroes instead of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Constantine and Badguy let the rest of the Muppets perform whatever they want – the hint of something fishy – and as the rest of the Muppets abuse the sudden freedom (Gonzo runs a live running of the bulls, Animal does a marathon drum solo, Piggy is allowed to sing… well anything), the two crooks break into the art museums in what seems like a diet version of a Dan Brown treasure hunt to the Crown Jewels. Meanwhile, cold on their trails are an Interpol Agent (Ty Burrell) and Sam Eagle (Eric Jacobson).
With two major set pieces, the enormous ensemble leaves little space for any real development or screen time for many characters. Two messy subplots stretch the story even further, but are shortchanged like everything else. Constantine finds himself in competition with the Lemur, another master crook, and Nadya’s middle school crush on Kermit. They even manage to cram a wedding in too. As for the Muppets’ fearless leader, Kermit is practically forgotten by the rest of his crew and makes the best of his life behind bars. Stoller may have forgotten about him too, as so much of the story is focused on Constantine and Badguy’s sinister plans, Kermit’s stay in Gulag becomes a bigger draw if only to take a much needed break of the mess of the main story, which begins to slow down past the halfway point. When Kermit manages to muster some hope, you don’t necessarily feel like it’s in his best interest, considering the difference he’s making in Gulag.
Guest-stars are typically not a major factor in the Muppet films but Muppets Most Wanted boasts a fine reserve, and I wanted them to do more than what is basically the work of extras. Some are lucky to get one line, while others are squandered and are completely missed if you blink (or yawn) at the wrong time. For example Christoph Waltz appears as himself to, well, simply waltz for less than three seconds of screen time. Tom Hiddleston? The same. A waste, right? But don’t you worry, you’re indulgence for Celine Dion will be satisfied.
The musical performances are one redeeming quality of Most Wanted. They might even save the film for some. Oscar-Winning music writer, Bret McKenzie was retained from The Muppets, thankfully, and comes up with a strong effort, making nods to the golden age of the stage and cinema. In addition to the opening number, “I’ll Get You What You Want” is a sexy black velvet painting come to life, Fey conjures up Smokey Joe’s Cafe in “The Big House” while “I’m Number One” gets Gervais to ham it up. These are fun sequences and I longed for the opportunity to see those clips on a loop, but unfortunately, I wanted to be saved from Muppet covers of “Moves Like Jagger” and Piggy wailing the “Macarena”.
Since this is a family film, there are jokes for kids under the ages of eight, but not many as one might hope. In a packed screening I found that a majority of the boisterous laughter came from those who have had the Muppets in their life for at least three decades, including the television show and the Saturday morning cartoon. Be warned that the film may spur bad restlessness in youngsters’ seats with a marathon running time of nearly two hours, padded with many dead spaces. Younger kids might need the convoluted plot explained too, but hey, at least they don’t have to wrestle with ill-fitting 3D glasses for a change. There is however, a delightful Monsters Inc. short before the film, so don’t be late.
As for those who are young at heart, Most Wanted is likely to get a mixed reaction. I was mildly amused in the front half, but the backend dragged like a dentist visit that never ends. Most of the musical pieces were extraordinary, but away from that, the punchlines aren’t as good as the setups and the story could be described as Hollywood goulash. Disney milked this resurgence in the franchise rather than build off of what was done so well in the last film. Segel understood how to translate that love of the franchise into something heart-felt. Muppets Most Wanted feels colder, more mass-produced, like a lazy step back, which might be enough to satisfy those simply looking for a fleeting escape, but it’s nothing special.