Friday, March 21, 2014

Together Again, Again: MUPPETS MOST WANTED

Muppets Most Wanted finds Jim Henson’s loveable felt-and-fur goofballs up to their usual good-natured meta trickiness and bountiful warm-hearted silliness. Writer-director James Bobin, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and songwriter Bret McKenzie, who revived the franchise in 2011 with the surprisingly nostalgic and emotional – but no less gut-bustingly funny – The Muppets, are upfront about what their new picture is. It’s a sequel with the Muppets fresh off the success of their last movie setting off on a European tour where they cross paths with a jewel heist in progress. If that sounds partly like a riff on 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper, the original Muppet sequel, it is and the movie owns up to it, winking right from the start. The opening musical number is “We’re Doing a Sequel,” a song full of funny barbs at the business of Hollywood and a clear tip of the hat to Caper’s curtain raiser “Hey, a Movie!” It’s a movie that loves movies, but loves the Muppets even more. And that’s irresistible.

In their opening number, which starts right after the closing number in the last movie, the gang sings about being a “viable franchise” and preparing what’s technically their “seventh sequel,” warning that means it’s “not quite as good.” The Muppets are perpetual optimistic underdogs, lovable misfits who scramble around with manic showbiz energy, eager to tell you that the show must go on. Their personalities are so agreeably constant, chaos and order held in perfect, immutable manic amusement. It’s fun to see them, as performed here by Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, and Peter Linz, bounce off of each other in the old ways. Fearless leader Kermit the Frog, exasperated, is always wrangling Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, and all the others, competing egos and eccentricities that constantly threaten to derail their variety shows.

As usual, story exists mainly to provide a rigid genre form for the Muppets to push against, moving through charmingly near-slapdash sequences of jokes and songs. Most Wanted’s plot involves the world’s greatest criminal mastermind, a Kermit-lookalike frog named Constantine. He plots to swap places with the showbiz icon and use the cover of the Muppet tour to burgle museums at every stop. Most of the movie finds the fake Kermit faking his way through interactions with the characters we know and love, while the real Kermit plots to escape a goofy Siberian gulag. Tina Fey plays the warden, snarling, but softhearted underneath. Fellow prisoners include Ray Liotta and Jemaine Clement with thick Russian accents and Danny Trejo playing himself. (His description of his “triple threat” attributes is priceless.) At least the guards and the prisoners can agree on something, when they sing a song about how their prison is the best state-funded hotel in all of Russia. Kermit just wants out of there.

The Muppets gang moves along unaware of the switch for a while, though some grow suspicious about the changes in their old pal Kermit. He talks with a gargling vaguely foreign accent now, but their new tour manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais, playing up his shiftiness) assures them their friend just has a cold. They continue with their plan to stage Muppet Shows in a collection of European cities, every place an occasion for good culturally specific jokes. In Berlin, the theater marquee reads “Die Muppets.” Seeing this, Statler and Waldorf wryly wonder if the reviews are in already or if that’s the suggestion box. Meanwhile, a French INTERPOL agent (Ty Burrell, with a chewy Clouseau accent) and Sam the Eagle bumblingly investigate the robberies that seem to be following the Muppets around.

The impostor storyline allows the franchise a level on which to comment upon its own evolution. Once more Bobin, Stoller, and McKenzie prove their love for the Muppets. Their version of these characters is not an exact recreation. How could it be? The Muppets haven’t been exactly the same since Jim Henson died, and later when Frank Oz stepped away. No matter how good, Bobin and his crew are impersonators. But Most Wanted, like The Muppets before it, is filled with such affection for the characters and the smart silliness of Henson’s original vision, we’re better off with these films than none at all, or, worse yet, soulless profit-driven corporate property perpetuation. It’s a movie that knows what made the Muppets most lovable and sets out recreating it as best it can, with love and care. The filmmakers are true to the Muppet spirit without suffocating their own comic sensibilities in an effort to recreate the work of the irreplaceable original Muppet artists. The film’s story is resolved because Muppets are true to themselves and to each other. I’m glad to see their new stewards are as well.

Muppets Most Wanted is very good entertainment, loaded up with smart references and broad craziness. It’s a satisfyingly warm and inviting brand of inspired high/low comedy, a barrage of puns, vaudeville sketches, dry asides, sloppy slapstick, and cornball dad humor, with wall-to-wall witty musical numbers, lovable homage, and tickling satire. There’s also a fleet of random and inspired cameos, a good half of which kids today won’t get and most are sure to baffle kids of the future. In other words, it’s a Muppet movie. I had a smile on my face the whole way through. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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