Muppets Most Wanted (Film Review)

I was slightly worried going into Muppets Most Wanted.  The trailer had me believing the film would be full of celebrity cameos and funny accents, which in itself is no bad thing; Muppets Most Wanted is full of them and it’s great. But the trailer had me convinced the film was content to rely on them. After the success of the cameos in the first film I thought the sequel was going to be lazy enough to just populate the film with them wholesale and call it a job done. I was wrong.

Muppets Most Wanted comes from a franchise known for an old fashioned work ethic. They create material, refine it and put every aspect of their craft into making it as funny as they possibly can. None of that is missing in this sequel. It’s an old school romp made with that kind of vaudevillian care that squeezes every last laugh out of every single situation. It’s wonderful to watch so many talented artists work so hard to make so many people so damn happy. This – along with the Marvel and animation franchises – really makes it seem Disney is dedicated to making the best movies possible out of their tent-pole franchises. I’m growing more hopeful for the new Star Wars film every day.

From the moment the show started I knew I was wrong to have so little faith. The movie opens exactly where it left off, right down to the very last shot of the previous film. The Muppets potter around trying to figure out what they’re all going to do next. Then someone realizes the camera’s have all been left on. Cue a musical number that makes us remember why we loved The Muppets so much in the first place. The irreverence, the anarchy, the cheeky self-referential gags at the franchise’s expense. Within moments there was a grin on my face I could not wipe off, not even now as I’m writing this review.

The song – like almost all of those featured – was written by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame. He did a brilliant job – getting Oscar Nominated in the process – for the 2011 Muppet revival, and while nothing in this film is as memorable as Man or Muppet they all have the catchy melodies and witty rhyming that McKenzie is known for. Highlights include We’re Doin’ a Sequel, The Interrogation Song – which benefits from the fantastic interplay between Sam Eagle and Ty Burrel – and I’m Number One which combines Ricky Gervais and musical theatre in a way fans would never have believed back in 2002. The whole way through his face communicates to the audience “I would happily be punched in the groin to get out of this.”

In it he plays Dominic Badguy (yes really, this is the level we’re looking at here), a talent agent that convinces the Muppets to go on a world tour. In reality (or as close to reality as we can get in a film where sentient felt plushies live side by side with man) he is the puppet – dear Lord, I’ve started now – of the nefarious Constantine, Interpol’s most wanted art thief and the worlds most dangerous frog. Constantine – coincidently – is a dead ringer for Kermit and plans to use this fact to infiltrate The Muppets and use their world tour as a cover for stealing some of Europe’s most priceless art. If you didn’t keep up with that, it really doesn’t matter.

It’s utterly bonkers and is no more than an excuse for the Muppets to travel around Europe causing mayhem in their wake. Although it does take time to create one or two surprisingly effective scenes that help give the characters some motivation and the plot a little more heft, the film never achieves – or tries to achieve – the level of emotional engagement the previous film was so praised for.

But then there are the jokes. There are old jokes, new jokes, silly jokes, surrealist jokes, satire, parody, references to film, theatre and music. There is plenty for the kids to laugh at, but even more for the grown ups, especially those who have been following the Muppets since their debut on the Sam & Friends Show in 1955. There’s a concerted effort to give funny dialogue to as many of the characters as they possibly can. And as well-intentioned as this is, it unfortunately exposes a couple of the films problems.

Firstly they can’t win with Walter, the new Muppet acting as the audience cipher in the last movie. They’ve really backed themselves into a corner with that guy. Either they give him a substantial role at the expense of other, more beloved, Muppets (there’s even a joke about it in there somewhere which I’m 50/50 on), or they relegate him to the back chorus making a third of the last film a total waste. In Most Wanted he’s just another plot device, but far more transparently this time. Given no real development or particularly amusing jokes he’s demoted to a function and robbed of his previous charisma.

The other flaw is that in trying to fit every single Muppet into the movie they create the hope that your favourite Muppet will get a substantial role. But when they turn out to have only a few measly lines, you can’t help but feel disappointed. For me its Ralph. All films could use a little more Ralph, even non Muppet based ones.

The same might go for the celebrity cameos but I can live with that. Its possibly the most amazing sight of the film. So many famous names – literally dozens of them – line up to take part in the movie. Most of them you will recognise, a few you won’t, some you will have to double check to make sure it really is them. Most of them don’t even have lines or at best one or two. Danny Trejo has three and that apparently upgrades him to supporting actor. You will be amazed at how many veteran thesps, household names and hot young actors queue up to show their face, sacrifice their dignity to the alter of Jim Henson and then disappear, never to be heard from again.  James McAvoy literally just shows up to hand someone a length of rope.

The main human cast – whilst not having the kind of emotional impact on the plot as Jason Segel or Amy Adams were allowed to have – are terrific fun. Ricky Gervais looks like he’s being tortured for kicks, Tina Fey is hilariously convincing as a sadistic Gulag warden, but best is Ty Burrell as Sam’s European Interpol partner, the six hour lunch taking, smart car driving Jean Pierre Napoleon.  Although special mention must go to Bret’s partner in musical crime Jemaine Clement who is certainly the king of the cameos (I won’t say who the queen of the cameo is but she appears substantially in one of the musical numbers towards the end).

Muppets Most Wanted feels like a treat. A constantly funny, joyous experience, one that makes you feel, almost embarrassingly, like a kid again. It doesn’t have the same level of emotional involvement that made the last film feel so substantial, but it’s just as funny. Which might not be the most you can ask for, but its certainly enough.