Finally saw MUPPETS MOST WANTED
As my longtime readers (all 17 of you) may recall, I was underwhelmed by The Muppets when it came out two years ago. I felt it was too dependent on nostalgia, and I particularly disliked the way it enfeebled Kermit as a character, making him passive and defeatist so they could build up the new character Walter as the main protagonist. So I wasn’t interested enough in Muppets Most Wanted to go see it at the theater, and thus it’s only now that it’s reached the top of my Netflix queue.
But MMW is a much, much better movie than its predecessor. Now that they’ve gotten the nostalgic let’s-get-the-band-back-together stuff out of the way, the filmmakers were free to tell a new story, and it’s a fun one, in which Kermit is replaced by the lookalike Constantine, The World’s Most Dangerous Frog, who uses the Muppets as a cover for his heist of the century while Kermit is stuck in a Siberian gulag. There’s a lot of fun action and stuff going on, and some entertaining character work. Constantine is constantly putting down his second-in-command Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), insisting he’ll never be more than “Number 2” even though Dominic’s clearly the smarter one and the guy doing all the work. But Constantine and Dominic keep the Muppets fooled — despite Constantine’s terrible Kermit impression — by giving them everything they want, up to and including Constantine proposing to Miss Piggy. But some of the Muppets gradually catch on that something’s wrong with “Kermit.” Meanwhile, the real Kermit wins over the gang at the gulag — primarily Tina Fey as its commandant Nadya, and with inmates including Jemaine Clement, Ray Liotta, and Danny Trejo (as himself, apparently) — by helping them organize their talent show. Meanwhile, CIA agent Sam the Eagle and a vaguely Clouseau-like Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) are tracking the thieves, and it all builds up to an epic action climax at the Tower of London, where the various plot threads converge with surprising coherence (although the festering resentment Dominic feels for Constantine has a weak payoff).
At first, I was afraid we were getting the same passive, pessimistic Kermit that the previous film gave us; indeed, it was arguably his initial weakness and negativity that made it so easy for Dominic to sway the Muppets into preferring his indulgent approach. But once Kermit had been in the gulag for a while, he finally found that old backbone and started asserting himself again, getting the unruly inmates in order the way the old Kermit did with the Muppet troupe — by yelling at them with fairness and respect. Once he started putting his flipper down, he became the Kermit I remember again (or a reasonable facsimile), and that renewed assertiveness really came to the fore in the climax, where he went full action-hero to rescue Piggy and the others. It’s like the filmmakers realized how they’d mishandled Kermit the last time and used this story to put him back on track. (There’s even a funny moment where Rizzo comments on how the last movie put so much focus on Walter at the expense of established characters such as himself and Robin.) And there’s good character interplay with the other Muppets, an effective sense that these are people with a lot of history and nuance to their relationships.
The cast did a pretty good job this time out, even though hardly any of the classic Muppet performers are left. Steve Whitmire’s Kermit will never quite be Jim Henson’s Kermit, but he’s been playing the role for over 2/3 as long as Henson did, so he has made it his own now. Eric Jacobson is now doing all of Frank Oz’s characters, but he does them very well, and he’s actually a better singer than Oz, especially as Piggy. In her big solo number here, Piggy hits high notes I don’t think Oz ever managed. Constantine is played by Matt Vogel, who’s inherited Jerry Nelson’s characters (e.g. Floyd, Robin, and Lew Zealand), yet also manages to do a pretty good job with Constantine’s impersonation of Kermit (which is bad but not entirely un-Kermit-like). Tina Fey is effective and rather lovely as Nadya, Ty Burrell is good as the inspector, and Ricky Gervais is okay as Dominic, though not really a standout.
I have mixed feelings about the songs. Some of them don’t seem to be in quite the right style; they’re all in a similar breezy and upbeat vein even when some of them could stand to vary it up a little, like the gulag song, which could’ve used more of a Russian flavor, and Constantine’s “I’m Number One” song putting Dominic down, which could’ve used more of a harsh edge. There’s a certain sameness to their music after a while, though it has its moments. But the lyrics were very clever and there were some fun visual gags.
The character design for Constantine deserves mention too. In theory, he was supposed to be a dead ringer for Kermit aside from his mole, and there was a funny running gag about how that tiny mole completely changed the Muppets’ perception of his face; but the designers put in some subtle differences, like molding his mouth in more of a frown, making his eye markings more horizontal to suggest a more haughty and sinister expression, and making his neck ruff shorter. (This poster shows the differences pretty well.) Aside from the mole and the ruff, they’re more differences in expression than anything else, so it fits the conceit of them being identical while still giving them very different looks.
So now that they’ve gotten past trying to convince new audiences how cool the Muppets were and just gone ahead and made a Muppet movie, they got a much better movie out of it. I’m inclined to call this one of my favorite Muppet movies of all, though maybe it’s just because it’s such a refreshing improvement over its predecessor.