April 10th, 2014
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Director James Bobin, entrusted with bringing “Muppets Most Wanted” to the silver screen, dives into the toy box of things Muppets and dexterously assembles all the parts that comprise the famed franchise, except for one. Missing from this eighth feature film, as Miss Piggy may be wont to emote in her best French, is the joie de vivre, the je ne sais quoi. Or, as Kermit might plainly croak, it just doesn’t fly off the fat end of the bat.
While entertaining via the inside jokes that generate from the convivial familiarity, it’s basically old home week. The inherent irony is that, essentially a sequel to “The Muppets” (2011), the gang begins the follow-up in a quandary: What to do next? Failing to answer that dilemma with a satisfying burst of new energy, the script embarks on a self-consciously pieced together crime caper that doubtlessly played much better on paper.
Still, if little Tyler or Brittany is showing an early interest in international affairs, this colorful, travelogue–like traipse across Europe as the Muppets become unwitting camouflage for the world’s #1 criminal, could be a further inspiring primer. Then again, since much of the action takes place in a Russian gulag, one has to decide if prison satire is appropriate for their offspring.
The grand deceit begins when the career-confused Muppets are visited by Ricky Gervais’s Dominic Badguy, who presents himself as an artistic manager extraordinaire. Informing his last name is French, and pronounced Badgee, he suggests that a world tour would revivify the Muppets’s showbiz fortunes. Kermit is skeptical but, seeing how the troupe is won over by the charismatic Badguy’s promise of renewed glory, he accedes.
Badguy, you see, is but the point man for the evil machinations of Constantine, a dead-ringer for Kermit who escapes from the aforementioned Siberian prison camp, facilitates Kermit’s incarceration there, and takes the showman’s place. Never mind his Russian accent, Constantine tells the gang. He merely has a cold…for the entire film. Such wryly cute rationalizations and contrivances, essentially winking stage whispers, often bring a smile, perhaps a titter or a full-fledged laugh, but rarely a guffaw.
While cameos by movie celebrities have long been a Muppets staple, in this permutation the best lines are reserved for said humans. Tina Fey steals the show as Nadya, the prison commandant who has her very own secret reason for wanting to keep Kermit under lock and key. Mr. Gervais, whose formidable evildoer must endure Constantine’s incessant reminders of his secondary status, is a properly cartoonish, uh, bad guy.
Naturally, the perennially enigmatic courtship between Miss Piggy and Kermit again takes its hallowed place as the sub-plot. Here, in a comic switcheroo, Miss Piggy would be advised to be careful what she wishes for. In a fever pitch to lasso the green one, she discounts her inamorato’s sudden and uncharacteristic zeal to wed. The masquerading Constantine has his ulterior motives.
Our trepidation in light of these perfidious circumstances reminded me of “Winky Dink and You,” a TV show that aired two or three generations ago. Employing erasable crayons and a clear vinyl film that fit over the screen, the plots encouraged tykes to help out Winky by, for example, drawing a bridge to make safe his path, and hence essentially serve as his deus ex machina. Here, bereft of such tools, we can but clamor warnings from the fourth wall.
But then that’s part of the humor…the conceit that we, but not they, can discern such an obvious charade. Too bad the script, which is more intelligently droll than out-and-out funny, can’t better support the mistaken identity blueprint.
Nevertheless, not wishing to appear the Grinch, I must note there are a few effervescently redeeming moments. One bona fide hoot, after Kermit is coerced to produce a musical review in the gulag, features Ray Liotta as the prisoner Big Papa leading his cohorts in a rendition of “I Need This Job” from “A Chorus Line.”
Unfortunately, while I specifically viewed this kiddy flick in early afternoon so that I might immerse in the social contagion of the target audience, nary a rug rat, adolescent or moppet was in attendance. Oddly, it was the same case two weeks ago when I saw “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.” I fear the Pied Piper’s schedule is conflicting with mine.
Thus the veracity of this review solely hinges on my ability to confer with the 10-year-old me who, by his own barometer of movie analysis, confesses a greater interest in the concession stand’s popcorn, Goobers™ and Sno-Caps™ than in “Muppets Most Wanted.”
“Muppets Most Wanted,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by James Bobin and stars Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais and the voice of Steve Whitmire. Running time: 107 minutes