Jim Henson’s Muppets have been a fixture of pop culture since their 1970s TV series The Muppet Show. Having conquered the television landscape they made the natural transition to feature films. With three films in the ‘80s and three more in the ‘90s, the lovable song-and-dance troupe was silenced during the first decade of the 21st century. Then Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller entered the picture and revitalized the franchise with 2011’s The Muppets.
That film had the unenviable task of trying to make those felt characters relevant again to a younger generation. The result saw the Muppets rejuvenated and ready to play to audiences, both young and old, for the foreseeable future. A sequel was all but inevitable, and it has arrived three years later with Muppets Most Wanted. And while it may not be as sentimental as its predecessor, the charm remains and there are plenty of toe-tapping songs to enjoy.
Whereas The Muppets was about blowing the dust off the brand and presenting it anew, the sequel forgoes emotional resonance in favor of tomfoolery in the form of lampooning heist movies and prison escape movies with a few Pink Panther nods (despite no animated pink cat or Henry Mancini score) as the icing on top. It picks up right after The Muppets wrap up the first movie with an elaborately choreographed song and dance. With felt tongue firmly in cheek the sequel starts off with a musical number that outright acknowledges that the gang is doing a sequel. The Muppets are in on the joke with lyrics like “We can’t do any worse than The Godfather III,” as well as stating that it is more of the same. Those disappointed with the outcome, well, the troupe sings it out for you in the opening scene. So you can already expect more singing, dancing, and slapstick.
At the start The Muppets have no prospects stateside for its variety show, so they are easily tempted by Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who offers his managerial services to book them on a world tour. Meanwhile, in Siberia, master thief Constantine the frog has made a daring escape from a maximum security Gulag. He soon crosses paths with Kermit and assumes his identity, reunites with Dominic (his No. 2), and charts a plan to steal England’s famed Crown Jewels while using the tour as a cover.
Kermit out of the picture becomes the Andy Dufresne of this story and the gulag is his own personal Shawshank. Wrongly imprisoned the amphibian has to survive his new reality behind bars alongside hardened criminals played by the likes of Ray Liotta, Jemaine Clement and Danny Trejo (as Danny Trejo).
Another side plot includes CIA Agent Sam the Eagle and Interpol Inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell acting as if he was a distant relative to Inspector Clouseau) working together to uncover the identity of the someone or someones responsible for a rash of thefts coincidentally at locations near concert halls where The Muppets perform.
The Muppets is an enjoyable romp but you could make the case that the addition of Walter as the newest Muppet overshadowed some of the other Muppets. Muppets Most Wanted corrects this by highlighting some of those characters that were pushed to the background (specifically, Rizzo the Rat – a nice touch). It also wouldn’t be a Muppets movie if you didn’t have a bevy of cameos. Surprise appearances include the likes of musicians Celine Dion and Usher, plus Christoph Waltz, Tom Hiddleston (who I didn’t recognize at first glance), and Frank Langella among a dozen others.
Ty Burrell (of Modern Family) and Ricky Gervais seem to be having a ball playing their respective characters and interacting with the Muppets, including participating in the occasional song, but it is Tina Fey that is the standout among the human actors. Highlighted by a cartoonish Russian accent, she has great comedic timing as Nadya, the stern warden running the gulag who becomes dependent upon Kermit to direct the annual prison show. Her song “The Big House” is one of movie’s many song highlights.
The quality of the songs is impressive. Ben McKenzie’s tunes are toe-tapping good and more consistent than what The Muppets offered. Personal favorite would have to be “I’ll Get You What You Want.” It echoes some of the works of Paul Williams who famously composed “Rainbow Connection” for 1979’s The Muppet Movie.
Muppets Most Wanted may not have the nostalgia factor that came along with the release of The Muppets three years ago, but the follow-up is in no way a turkey (or Fozie’s rubber chicken, for that matter). Here is a sequel that is less concerned with the narrative and is more about the troupe doing more of the same that made them stars in the first place: singing and slapstick. So at the very least you should be exiting the theater with at least one of the musical numbers dancing around in your head.
Director: James Bobin
Writer: James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller
Notable Cast: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, and the voices of Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobzon, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel
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