'Muppets Most Wanted' has all the right pieces, but misses its comic potential
Muppets Most Wanted Walt Disney Pictures
Director: James Bobin
Screenplay: James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, and the voices of Steve Whitmire, Matt Vogel, Eric Jacobson, Bill Barretta and David Goelz
Rated PG / 1 hour, 47 minutes
March 21, 2014
(out of four)
The Muppets and madcap plotting have always gone hand-in-hand, and sure enough, Muppets Most Wanted has the kind of zany storyline - international thieves use a Muppet World Tour as a front for a series of heists - that seems like a perfect match.
But looking back on the movie, I realized plot was practically all I could remember about it. I could recall every piece of the narrative, could remember it sapping more and more out of the characters and the humor with each plodding step. Even now as I think about it, the failures don't make a whole lot of sense. On paper, everything adds up. The setup is delightfully absurd. The way writer/director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller exploit espionage-thriller, con-artist and buddy-cop stereotypes is right on target. And the film places all of its main characters within specific comedic contexts that should, by all reason, get the most out of them.
And yet it all seems more clever in concept than execution. This is the rare example of a movie getting everything absolutely right in the planning stages - the story, the concept, the casting - and still yielding a subpar result. It's a cliche to call something "uninspired" - it's one of those phrases we too often use without further elaboration, myself included - but I feel compelled to use it here. Muppets Most Wanted has all the ingredients that all good Muppet movies have had, but the filmmakers don't seem all that interested. (Even the songs, once again written by Bret McKenzie, are forgettable this time around. There's nothing with the silly emotional texture of "Man or Muppet" or the sheer playful joy of "Life's a Happy Song" - instead a series of vaguely clever numbers that no one will ever remember.)
Consider the main screwball plot hook, which revolves around the dead-on resemblance between the world-famous entertainer Kermit the Frog and the world-famous criminal Constantine. The latter's devious scheme depends on trading places with his doppelgänger, which means swapping the one physical difference that distinguishes the two - the giant mole on the right side of Constantine's face.
And so, when his plan is put into motion (thanks to the planning of his second-in-command, Dominic Badguy, played by Ricky Gervais), he slaps a fake mole on Kermit's face, puts on some green makeup to cover up his own, and takes his place at the head of the Muppet troupe while poor Kermit languishes away in a Siberian prison camp.
That whole thing is a terrifically funny concept, but oddly, it's used mostly just to set the plot in motion, rather than for its own comic absurdity. Bobin and Stoller use the switcheroo mainly just to place two characters in unexpected circumstances, and don't really mine the comedic potential of their physical resemblance. The one exception is a scene where Fozzie Bear and Walter react to the all-too-obvious discovery that Kermit and Constantine share a physical likeness at all. It's one of the few scenes that captures the glorious absurdity of it.
Beyond that, the film wastes a lot of time trying to find some use for Kermit in prison - first by repeatedly trying to escape, only for the head guard Nadya (Tina Fey) to be a step ahead of him each time; and later by directing the prison's annual talent show at Nadya's behest. Meanwhile, the Muppets - with Constantine-as-Kermit leading the way (he insists his strange accent is simply the result of a cold) and Dominic organizing their world tour (conveniently scheduling each performance right next door to a museum, bank, castle, what have you) - go about their business, riding high from their (supposed) rediscovered fame.
The other parallel subplot - and probably the movie's highlight as a whole - involves a human Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) and a CIA operative, Sam Eagle, who have to team up to investigate a series of major thefts across Europe that coincidentally align with the Muppets' travel schedule. The film seems more engaged when we're around these two, as Bobin and Stoller have a lot of fun toying with the buddy-cop dynamic by painting the characters' obligatory cultural differences in hilarious extremes.
But we get too little of those two and too much of Constantine, Dominic and the Muppets themselves (who, individually, don't amount to much more than a series of cameos), who I'd love to see more of in theory, just not in this dry a storyline. We get scene after scene of plot setups and payoffs, at the expense of the humor and warmth of character that the Muppets have given us even in some of their most plot-heavy outings. At times you get the feeling they just took an existing crime script and touched it up to accommodate the presence of Muppets and showtunes.
The film's predecessor, 2011's franchise-kickstarting The Muppets, took an age-old plot and used it to prop up a series of fantastic comedic setpieces, while using its central human story to reflect on the virtues of the Muppets themselves. The plot mattered, but only as a vehicle for other things. Muppets Most Wanted has it backwards. The plot gets in the way of the comedy, and, unlike last time, there's no emotional core to speak of. This isn't an especially bad movie, by any means - just a disappointing missed opportunity.