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Non-Review Review: The Muppets Most Wanted

“We’re doing a sequel,” the Muppets sing in the opening number of The Muppets Most Wanted. “That’s what they do in Hollywood. And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good.”

That’s the sort of wry self-awareness we’ve come to expect from the gang, but there’s also a note of truth in the statement. The Muppets was a cinematic highlight of 2011, and the best movie musical of the past decade. It was light, it was fun, it was sweet and it was moving. There was – as with the best Muppets material – an endearing sincerity underpinning all the well-observed gags and broad comedy.

The Muppets Most Wanted falls into the traditional pattern of Muppet sequels. Like The Great Muppet Caper or Muppet Treasure Island before it, there’s a sense that The Muppets Most Wanted has been constructed as a lighter film. The film lacks the emotional resonance of The Muppets, instead opting for high-concept fun. The result is endearing and enjoyable, but doesn’t feel quite as satisfying.

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The Muppets Most Wanted is funny and fast-moving. It revels in its absurdity. The gags come quick-and-fast, and there’s a rake of wonderful cameos for audience of all ages to appreciate. There’s a plot that is really just an excuse for a fun run around, but also any number of hilarious set-pieces and sequences. Like The Muppets before it, it’s very hard to leave the cinema feeling disappointed or let down. The Muppets Most Wanted is very much the work of a revived and re-engerised franchise.

The six Muppets movies preceding The Muppets can be easily broken down into two trilogies, following a familiar arc. The Muppet Movie and The Muppets’ Christmas Carol (and The Muppets) can be seen as emotionally-engaging stories built around establishing character. They are firmly anchored in their lead character (Kermit/Scrooge/Walter) learning important life lessons, and forging meaningful friendships.  In contrast, The Great Muppet Caper and Muppets Treasure Island (and The Muppets Most Wanted) can be said to be a bit more plot-driven.

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So, if The Muppets could be argued to be the strongest film in the franchise, The Muppets Most Wanted might be the strongest sequel in the franchise. The plot is suitably absurd. It turns out that Kermit has an evil doppelgänger named Constantine. (“It’s not easy being mean.”) Constantine escapes from a Russian gulag, arranges to have Kermit deported in his place and sets about using the Muppets to cover for his gloriously evil schemes.

Indeed, this leads to a number of hilarious recurring gags, like Constantine’s absolutely terrible impression of Kermit that fools absolutely everybody. And the movie does try to structure itself to offer some sort of life-affirming moral, with the Muppets discovering that sometimes Kermit has to say “no”, for the greater good the troupe. At the same time, there’s a sense that The Muppets Most Wanted is really a comedy sketch film as opposed to single well-formed narrative.

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While the movie does try to offer an emotional core by teasing the audience with the long delayed wedding of Kermit and Miss Piggy, most of The Muppets Most Wanted is just an excuse for clever gags and fast-paced comedy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The film features the same wry irreverence we’ve come to know and love, but it does lack the weight of its direct predecessor. The Muppets Most Wanted never a moment that is simultaneously as hilariously overblown and strangely moving as Man or Muppet.

(For that matter, despite the return of Oscar-winning song writer Brent McKenzie, the movie’s snappy musical numbers never reach the heady heights of their direct predecessor. We’re Doing a Sequel and I’m Number One are both very catchy pieces of music, and work almost as well as Life’s a Happy Song, but there’s nothing quite as bizarre as Let’s Talk About Me or as downright cheeky as Me Party.)

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Part of the problem might be the supporting cast. The human performers in The Muppets Most Wanted are all seasoned comedic performers, and all acquit themselves well. Ricky Gervais is the cynical talent agent Dominique Badguy. (“It’s pronounced Bad-gee. It means ‘Good Man’.”) Ty Burrell is the snazzy French Interpol Agent investigating the world’s second most wanted criminal, the Lemur. Tina Fey is the Russian gulag commandant tasked with keeping the inmates in line and running the best prison revue in Siberia. All acquit themselves well, earning their share of laughs, with Fey standing out.

At the same time, none of the leads are as straight-up talented as Amy Adams when it comes to song-and-dance. Fey has great timing, but does really get a showcase like Me Party. None of the newcomers are quite as willing to clumsily (and charmingly) go for broke in the same way that Jason Segal did. When Ricky Gervais’ character is required to do some tap dancing, the film uses trickery to pan to a more talented set of legs. There’s no sense that Gervais is willing to try his best to deliver his own dance moves like Segal did. Everything seems a bit more controlled this time around.

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As an aside, it is worth remarking that there’s a disappointing fixation on cameos from British and American performers in the film. The movie is pitched as a “Muppets World Tour”, and the plot involves the ground visiting Berlin, Madrid, Dublin and London. However, barring a token cameo from a local performer at each stop, the majority of the roles go to American and British actors.

At one point, the editor of The Irish Times and the director of the “Irish National Theatre” are portrayed by two recognisable British individuals. Given the care and attention that went into making sure even the train footage of Ireland matches the country’s central railway station, it seems a little weird that the production wouldn’t be able to find a stray recognisable face or two to represent the country on the big screen.

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Still, these aren’t fatal problems. The Muppets Most Wanted is a much lighter movie than its direct predecessor, but it’s an enjoyable and fun piece of cinema.

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