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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Muppets Most Wanted

 

 

MUPPETS MOST WANTED (Three Stars)

U.S.: James Bobin, 2014 (Walt Disney Pictures)

 

There was never a TV puppet show quite like “The Muppet Show” — or a romantic couple of any kind quite like Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy the hamme fatale — or a supporting troupe like Fozzie the Bear, Gonzo, Animal, the Two Old Curmudgeons, and all their funny, fuzzy friends.  And I’m happy to say that the new Walt Disney movie Muppets Most Wanted continues that splendid renaissance of Muppetry we saw in the 2011 Disney picture The Muppets. It’s not necessarily as good, because it doesn’t have the built-in emotional charge of being a Muppet revival movie about the revival of the Muppets — a storyline which, for those of us who’ve been familiar for years with the handmade troupe of the great late muppeteer Jim Henson (and Frank Oz and the rest)  quickly became hilarious and touching and something to cheer for.

Muppets Most Wanted, the follow-up, is darker and more cynical, and far less sentimental. But it’s just as entertaining. It has the same director-writer, James Bobin, the same co-writer, Nicholas Stoller, the same composer (Christophe Beck) and songwriter (Bret McKenzie),  and some of the same technical people — and of course it has the same button-eyed, enthusiastic wild and woolly-faced  bunch of  Muppets.

Even if it doesn’t carry the same emotional charge, this movie still has similar amounts of sly wit. show biz pizzazz, lovable high jinks, colorful set design (by Eve Stewart of The King’s Speech and Les Miserables) and lots of all-star cameo guest appearances. (Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga pop up together in one of the first songs, “Were Doing a Sequel,” and Celine Dion  sings with Miss Piggy (voiced by Eric Jacobson) and Kermit (Steve Whitmire) on the big ballad “Something So Right.“ If you don’t blink too much, you’ll catch Tom Hidddleston, Christophe Waltz (waltzing), Usher (ushering),  Zach Galifianakis (galifianakissing), James McAvoy and Chloe Grace Moretz..

If Muppets Most Wanted is a step  down from The 2011 Muppets (and I don’t think it is), it’s  certainly not a very far step down, if it’s a step down at all. After all, The Muppets, thanks to Jason Segel, Amy Adams and the whole gang, was the best Muppet Show of any kind in decades.

There are problems with sequels however, and no one knows that better than the show biz-savvy Muppets,  who are by now almost as imperishable a part of the movie biz as the Oscar Show. This movie‘s two first musical numbers, in the zippy new score by McKenzie. are “They’ve Ordered a Sequel” (sung by superfan Walter, Statler and Waldorf, and the aforementioned “We’re Doing a Sequel,” sung by The Muppet Ensemble, plus Bennett and Gaga — an ideal Muppet all-star pairing and a snappy, slap-happy number that sets the tone for the wised-up story that follows.

This movie begins right after the last movie ended, with the triumphant comeback of the Muppet company. Then  it brings  on its ‘60s caper movie super thriller travelogue plot, introducing two super villains, the acerbic Golden Globes dismantler and Office guy Rickey Gervais as the  sneaky and nefarious Dominic Badguy, who wants to be their manager and take them on a world tour (of Berlin, Madrid, Dublin and London), and Badguy’s bad green boss, the slimy Russian amphibian Constantine (Matt Vogel), who looks just like Kermit with the addition of a black beauty  mark on his right cheek (which he covers up with green goo) and who talks like a bad dream of Akim Tamiroff doing a bad Vladimir Putin imitation.

These two Foulfellas have cooked up an evil, exploitative scheme in which Constantine — who has escaped from Siberia, and replaced himself with Kermit — will masquerade as Kermit and the two crooks (who bring down the house with their rousing razz-ma-tazzy number “I’m Number One (He’s Number Two.)”)  will book the Muppets into a series of theatrical show venues which not coincidentally are just next door to a variety of  well-heeled places to be looted and Rifified — culminating in a final daring heist of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London itself , while Constantine marries the bedazzled Miss Piggy. (What we see is the actual Tower of  London, made available to the production, because “the woman who runs it” likes The Muppets.)

Meanwhile Kermit languishes in the Siberian gulag vacated by the perfidious Constantine, with Kermit reliving his own version of “One Day (or several) in the Life of Kermit Kermitovich,” His gulag mates include Ray Liotta, Jeamine Clement and Danny Trejo, and his seemingly ferocious, hard-ass guard, Nadya, is played, and how, by  Tina Fey. Luckily for him, Nadya  happens to be a Broadway musical comedy fanatic and she signs on whole-heartedly to Kermit’s offer (which is part of his escape plan) to put on the most show-stopping, hubba-hubba, all-singing, all-dancing, imitation Broadway musical comedy prison show since Mel Brooks’ “Prisoners of Love” closed out The Producers.

The movie’s main joke involves the bad/good doubling of Kermit — as the gentle, whimsical, crinkle-faced frog-chappie we all know and love and the fiendish and almost incomprehensible master criminal Constantine — who teams up with Dominic Badguy to turn the entire troupe into stooges and unknowing accomplices to a crime wave..

But The Muppets, as much as Sid Caesar or Carol Burnett in their prime, thrive on movie parodies, and Muppets Most  Wanted is packed with them. The movie  manages to smoosh together the genres of musical comedy (always a natural for the stage-struck Muppets), detective and heist thriller (with Ty Burrell  of  “Modern Family” as Interpol agent Jean-Pierre Napoleon, the most inept French sleuth since Inspector Clouseau, assisted by the true-red-white-and-blue C. I. A muppet bird, Sam Eagle), a prison picture (with Fey at her faintly smiling, deadpan best), and a con-artists love story which actually seems (for as second or two) as if it may produce the long-deferred nuptials of the little green guy (or his double) and his big pink ladylove.

All these plot elements keep colliding merrily, until the usual big bang-up climax brings them all together for a grand finale or two. The movie, whose exteriors were mostly shot in England (by Robert Zemeckis’ cinematographer Don Burgess), looks as shiny and feel-good flashy as something snazzy from the ’60s, and the musical numbers have the right touch of  catchy lunacy. Gervais, Fey and Burrell are admirably Muppet-friendly (or, in Gervasi’s case, Muppet-conning) human costars, and the entire show has the zip and irreverence and playful satire (and at least some of the heart) that a Muppet-admiring audience would expect.

Muppets Most Wanted is, like its predecessor, better-written and better-directed and smarter than most of the current movies made for alleged adults. Of course, it could be argued that Jim Henson’s Muppets themselves, after they branched out from Sesame Street to their own TV show and movies, were an act as much or more for adults as for children, two groups who respond to different aspects of the Muppet Mythos.

A fine custodian for the mythos so far, is writer-director James Bobin who became a hot TV scripter-helmer thanks to sharp comedies like Flight of the Conchords and Da Ali G Show.  Right now, he seems a nearly ideal auteur for the Muppets of today, and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement and Get Him to the Greek) fits in smartly with him. Both of them have credits that are more adult, and off-color than you’d expect to find in the makers of puppet movies for families. But that‘s part of the secret of the troupe: kiddie toys  who, however childishly they act, have the minds of adults. Or part of the minds of adults.

A word or two about Kermit and Miss Piggy, a couple who dance like Fred and Ginger, sing like Frank and Ella, and play romantic comedy like Spence and Kate — or at least think they do (or at least Miss Piggy thinks they do). The words: Hurrah. Good show. May Muppet Time last forever  — or at least ‘til the next sequel rolls around.

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Wilmington

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