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Muppets Most Wanted

Well, that went bad quickly.

Jason Segel and Nick Stoller spent years working to revive the Muppets franchise on film, recruiting James Bobin to direct and Bret McKenzie to write the songs. Their effort came out in 2011, and it was amazing. It was funny, it was charming, and it was loaded with childhood nostalgia while still creating something new. The Muppets were back, baby!

News of a sequel was of course a given, but Segel made it clear early on that he would not be returning. This didn’t seem to be much of a problem at the time. His character had been more or less written out of the franchise at the end of the previous film, and most of Segel’s behind-the-scenes collaborators would be returning. And anyway, who cares about the human characters when we all came to see the Muppets?

Then the sequel came out. And after the delightful opening number, something felt strangely off. It wasn’t an easy thing to pinpoint at first, but it slowly became more and more obvious that something had gone very wrong. I’m not sure if Segel’s departure was the only reason, though I’m sure it was a factor. But we’ll get back to that in a moment.

Muppets Most Wanted picks up immediately after the last film left off. Now reunited and bigger than ever, the Muppets hire Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) to book an international tour all over Europe. Little do they know that Dominic is colluding with the recently-escaped Constantine, a criminal mastermind who’s only one birthmark away from looking exactly like Kermit. Constantine switches places with Kermit, who is promptly arrested and sent to the Russian gulag that Constantine had just broken out of. Meanwhile, Constantine and Dominic take over the Muppet Show, using the tour as a cover to go on a series of art and jewel heists. But of course, the show flies entirely off the rails because Constantine is such a poor substitute for the real Kermit.

Do you see the problem here? It’s very subtle. So subtle that I can completely understand why this seems like a solid premise in theory. Yet there are some teeny little flaws that snowball so quickly that this whole plot should’ve been scrapped in development.

For comparison’s sake, look at the previous film. In that movie, the protagonist was the new Walter character, alongside the characters played by Jason Segel and Amy Adams. So we have three wide-eyed, naive, optimistic characters who really wanted to make people laugh and put on a great show. And they set the tone of the film accordingly (which is exactly the type of tone you’d want in a Muppet film) as they moved the plot forward.

Now take another look at the plot synopsis I typed above. Who’s the driving force this time? A couple of highly dangerous criminal masterminds. Right up until the third act, these are the characters who determine everything that happens in the movie, with absolutely nothing to stand in their way. There are so many reasons why this damages the film.

First of all, Constantine and Dominic have no development arcs. Why would they, since they’re transparently evil villains? Which brings me to my next point: These villains are established as legitimate threats. Again, that might not seem like much of a problem on paper. But in practice, we are explicitly shown that these characters have no problem killing people and blowing stuff up to get what they need. And, again, these are the main freaking characters. Just as Segel and costars did for the first movie, these are the characters who drive the plot and set the tone for the second movie. Two violent criminals. In a Muppet film.

This leads into the third problem: These characters aren’t funny. At all. The film tries to keep them legitimately threatening while also poking fun at their comically evil nature, but the contradiction doesn’t work. Another comparison to the previous film: Chris Cooper’s most notable running gag was his “maniacal laugh.” In this film, Constantine’s main gag is that he fools the entire Muppets cast with the worst Kermit impression ever. The filmmakers were clearly trying to make Constantine into the butt of the joke, but it only makes the Muppets look bad because they keep falling for the same flimsy routine over and over again through two-thirds of the running time. At least with Chris Cooper, the joke was entirely on him.

Now, I’m aware that the Muppets aren’t supposed to be geniuses. In fact, their clueless and irrational nature is part of the charm for many of them. But when two transparently evil villains lead them on by the nose through one blatant lie after another, it renders the Muppets pretty much entirely worthless in their own movie. I get that the absence of Kermit is supposed to highlight why the group needs him, but that point gets fogged over when Kermit is stuck in prison through most of the movie and NO ONE ELSE NOTICES THAT HE’S GONE. There’s also Walter, here employed as the film’s heart and the sole character who suspects that something’s wrong. Yet no one listens to him and he doesn’t get the courage to actually do anything until the third act, so again, what’s the point?

Basically put, the film has an admittedly difficult time juggling all the Muppets. A huge crux of the film is that the Muppets all want a chance to get onstage, but there are only so many hours in a night. The Muppets’ squabbles over stage time is a clear self-reference to the filmmakers’ difficulty in making sure that all the beloved characters get their chances to shine. Constantine — and the filmmakers — solve this problem by letting all the characters indulge themselves; the Muppets are all kept happy, the longer shows mean more time to complete the heists, and the chaos provides more cover. This is a strangely self-defeating solution, since it means that the Muppets all drown each other out and precious few of them get any distinctive jokes or unique effects on the plot.

But then comes a moment when the film comes to a dead halt. The movie makes a full stop to acknowledge Rizzo and Robin, a couple of longtime and much-beloved characters who got shafted in this movie and the one before. In a better movie, this might have made for a neat little joke and a fun apology. As it is, it comes off more like an insult or an admission of defeat. It’s like “Yeah, we could have come up with a different plot to involve these characters, but this ill-conceived premise without them is what you’re stuck with. Sorry!”

…Wait a minute, back up! Robin is in this movie? Robin. Kermit’s nephew. He was in the group this whole time. While his own beloved uncle was being played by a horribly unconvincing impostor. Are we supposed to believe that he couldn’t tell the difference? Did he notice and not say anything about it for some reason? Either way, this was a perfect opportunity to give Robin his own subplot instead of cramming him into a half-assed walk-on cameo apology. Is there a name for what’s wrong with these writers?!

No respect.

I can’t stress this enough, folks. Every time the Muppets genuinely believe that Constantine really is Kermit, every time they fall for Dominic’s lip service, and every time they start to get suspicious only to do absolutely nothing, it only gets less funny and more infuriating. Though the film also uses self-referential humor as the last film did, the results this time are WAAAAY less effective. When the previous film used meta humor, it was done for the purpose of making a funny joke (Mary: “This is going to be a really short movie.”). When this film calls attention to itself, it’s more like an excuse for lazy storytelling (The convenient shovels and pickaxes that appear out of nowhere).

Then we have the cameos, because of course the Muppets and celebrity cameos go hand in hand. But again, it’s not nearly as funny this time. In the previous film, it felt like a ton of effort was put in to make sure that every single cameo got a laugh. Every celebrity was there for a reason, and their presence made the joke funny. In this film, there are maybe two or three cameos that land so well. All the other ones could be recast or cut entirely and nothing would be lost. They even recycled a cameo from the last movie, for Henson’s sake.

Speaking of which, I suppose I should address Sam the Eagle and Ty Burrell. They play a couple of squabbling law enforcement officials after Constantine and Dominic. The comic potential of Sam the Uber-American Eagle in Europe is almost completely wasted, and the two characters put together have almost nothing in the way of good jokes. They’re also entirely ineffectual and succeed in doing precisely nothing to stop our villains. Moving on.

It’s worth noting that the tone problems aren’t limited entirely to Constantine and Dominic. There’s a running subplot through the movie in which Miss Piggy wants to get married and Kermit doesn’t. They have a huge shouting match about it early in the film. That’s right: Kermit and Miss Piggy have a shouting match. It’s not the least bit funny to watch, either. The whole confrontation is so raw that it’s really uncomfortable to sit through.

Mercifully, Bret McKenzie is still on hand to provide some solid work. Nothing in this film comes even close to the heights of “Life’s a Happy Song,” but I’m guessing that has more to do with the substandard plot than anything else. McKenzie did the best he could with what he had, we’ll put it that way.

…Oh, and Tina Fey is in this movie. Not much to say about that, except that it looks like she’s having a good time.

Pictured: Having a good time.

Muppets Most Wanted never stood a chance. The moment they handed the plot over to a couple of hardened criminals, free to run unchecked with the plot and dilute the Muppets’ silly, lighthearted tone, this picture was DOA. The lazy storytelling hardly helps matters either, of course. Still, the film does offer a few good jokes, some passable songs from Bret McKenzie, and a halfway-decent third-act rally. It’s not enough to save the movie, of course, but it is enough to preserve some glimmer of hope for the franchise. Heaven knows the Muppets have come back from worse in the past.

There’s no way I can recommend this to anyone but Muppets completists, but I still look forward to the sequel.

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