Monday, April 14, 2014

"Most Wanted" a Deserved #2

Kermit the Frog and company are quick to admit at the beginning of Muppets Most Wanted that sequels usually aren't quite as good as the original. In song, no less. And true to form, the sequel we have in theaters now isn't quite as good or memorable as 2011's The Muppets. It's not for lack of trying, however, as Jim Henson's creations crack every joke, drop in every celebrity cameo, and break every wall - especially the fourth - they can in their attempt to follow up the force of pure nostalgia that came before it.

Director James Bobin and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (sans Jason Segel this go-around) return to continue the story of the Muppets, fresh off their comeback show and ready to figure out the plot of the sequel. The plot sees the gang going on a world tour to take advantage of their rediscovered popularity, but subverted by an evil talent agent (Ricky Gervais) and a criminal mastermind Kermit look-alike named Constantine, who replaces everyone's favorite amphibian and sends his predecessor to a gulag run by a Russian Tina Fey. Together, the duo plan to use the Muppets as a cover in a plot to steal the crown jewels of Great Britain. Yes, the plot sounds silly. But considering this is a Muppets movie, it makes the best kind of irreverent sense.
Yes, everybody is back, even that one you forgot existed.
Freed from the shackles of a human-centric storyline (sorry, Segel; your heart was in the right place), Muppets Most Wanted focuses all of its attention where it SHOULD, on the felt-covered puppets with personality that we've become accustomed to over the previous decades. One of the major complaints about the 2011 Muppets is that it focused too much on Walter, a human-raised Muppet whose quest to join the group was the central theme. That the story gives more story to Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Walter (yes, yes, but it's okay now because now he's one of them), and Sam the Eagle as main protagonists, while relegating their human counterparts to chiefly supportive roles, is a real step up, allowing the characters to thrive on their own now that they've become re-acclimated to the spotlight. Characters sound more like themselves (no more out of tune Fozzie), and the workload is shuffled around a bit more so that the A-Listers aren't the only ones carrying the film, or spouting the best dialogue.
Now Miss Piggy isn't the only one who wants him.
The film also capitalizes on two fronts, with both its human stars and soundtrack. No, Most Wanted was never going to upgrade from Segel, Amy Adams and Chris Cooper, but they get the absolute most they could out Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey. I've never been a big Gervais fan, but as a secondary antagonist with a snarky tongue, he fits in well. Fey of course shines, her lack of serious singing chops or accent skills actually adding to her humorous performance. And Burrell is pitch perfect as a French Interpol agent whose antics with Sam the Eagle (as a patriotic CIA agent, naturally) make for some of the movie's funniest bits. And that's not even including the numerous celebrity cameos, of which special attention needs to be given to Jemaine Clement, Salma Hayek, Josh Groban, Frank Langella, Usher, Stanley Tucci and Danny Trejo as standouts. Linking all this together is the soundrack by returning composer Christophe Beck and music supervisor (and Academy Award winner) Brett McKenzie (thus completing the Flight of the Conchords loop), which isn't quite as strong as it their collaboration in 2011 but doesn't have the glaring weaknesses, either (I still have nightmares of Chris Cooper attempting to rap). "Something So Right", performed by Miss Piggy and featuring Celine Dion, is engaging and beautiful while clearly meant to be remembered at awards season, and most of the other songs are varying degrees of entertainment. The only real complaint I have is with the variation, which sees the intruder Constantine overexposed and delivering two solo performances before Kermit even gets one from the confines of his prison cell. I hate criticizing Beck's work, since he's been delivering some great soundtracks over the years, but this is one that - while still good - doesn't quite compare with his previous efforts.
Name those celebrity cameos!
One final issue is the lack of focus on a target audience. Naturally, the Muppets gained their popularity from a generation that is showing more than a few gray hairs at this point. But at it's heart, they're supposed to be childrens' entertainment, and that's where the script fails. It's not that the movie isn't funny. It's HILARIOUS. but most of what makes the movie entertaining is dependent on the audience understanding pop culture references that sail well over smaller tykes' heads. How many kids would recognize Constantine wearing the iron teeth of James Bond villain Jaws? Or Kermit trussed up like Hannibal Lecter? Or gulag prisoners performing the opening number from A Chorus Line? This isn't a problem, per se, and fits in well with the personalities the characters have previously established. And there are a few gags (especially a couple of physical ones) at which kids will laugh raucously, but they're far overshadowed by those that will appeal only to those who understand the reference.
Easily the movie's best parts.
Without the nostalgia factor that made the 2011 film such a big hit, it was doubtless that Muppets Most Wanted would be a disappointment of sorts. But that honestly means little when this much fun is happening on the big screen. The irreverent story, self-referential humor, interesting characters and fun musical numbers make for something that is destined to come to rest in your DVD collection. Yes, it fails as a true "family" film, and it doesn't quite stack up against its immediate predecessor. It crosses just enough lines to be wittily eccentric, but is a bit too reliant on pop culture references to be "funny." But for those who grew up admiring the TV show's wackiness it's a worthy followup to the newly-reestablished movie franchise, warts and all.

1 comment:

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