When Disney bought the Muppets back in 2004, many feared we were in for a non-stop barrage of relentless repacking and previous product reconfiguration. True, almost immediately upon their purchase, the House of Mouse went through and rereleased all the previous Muppet movies, giving them a bit more respect than their previous owners had (product wise) and their theme parks and mall outlets remain overloaded with merchandized mock-ups of Kermit and the gang. But it was the new direction, and the films/TV/etc. that would come with same that concerned most fans.
Luckily, Walt’s workers turned over the rebooting of the beloved Jim Henson creations to two hardcore fans – Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller. In fact, for those who remember it, the pair more or less pitched their place in the Muppet menagerie when they made ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall.’ There, in between all the sex comedy and RomComing, Segel tried to sell the audience on a puppet-based rock musical about Dracula. It had Henson and his characters written all over it. Fast forward a few years and the duo delivered a rock solid hit ‘The Muppets’ for Disney in 2011, turning the characters into something they haven’t been in a long time – bankable at the box office.
So it’s with a bit of disappointment to announce that ‘Muppets Most Wanted is a bit too much “business as usual” when it comes to everyone’s favorite fictional frog and company. Remember, back in the ’80s, the follow-up to the first Muppet movie was indeed an international thriller, a mystery entitled ‘The Great Muppet Caper.’ Fast forward 32 years and we get ‘Muppets Most Wanted,’ an international thriller revolving around a rogue Russian amphibian named Constantine – whose a dead ringer for Kermit – who plots an escape with the help of a friendly foreign promoter named Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais).
Switching places with our web-footed hero, the villain plans on using the Muppet world tour as cover for a country by country crime spree. Kermit, on the other hand, it locked in a Gulag and must convince his captor (Tina Fey) as well as a nosy French INTERPOL agent, Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) that he is not his diabolical doppelganger. Even Miss Piggy falls for her faux favorite frog, not realizing his evil intentions.
It’s safe to say, then, that ‘Muppets Most Wanted‘ is a relative letdown. ‘The Muppets’ did such a great job of reinvesting the character with a kind of irreverence sadly missing from most kids films that to go back to the pattern from before seems counterproductive to what that revamp had in mind. Thankfully, it’s a mere footfall backwards, not a full blown major league misstep. By placing them within a recognizable narrative type, the Muppets lose a bit of their luster. Instead, they seem like the kind of critters who would take the piss out of such international intrigue and be damn happy doing so. However, this is the House of Mouse we are talking about, and Segel and Stoller’s foundation was about as outlandish as the Mickey brand was going to get.
Still, there is a lot of fun to be had here, especially for the wee ones. Gervais is always good for a giggle and Constantine is a considerable baddie, but both are serving a story we’ve seen done before, and in all honesty, better. Indeed, because of how fresh and new ‘The Muppets’ felt, the higher than usual expectations just can’t be met here. Kermit, Piggy, and the gang are often set aside for more human-oriented material, and while compelling, people just can’t compete with the Great Gonzo or Sam the Eagle. These are iconic characters, figures we grew up with over the years and fell in love with. The first new Muppets film understood this, and played right into it. ‘Muppets Most Wanted‘ just wants to make its sequel statement.
Director James Bobin (returning from the first film as well) tries to enliven the material with a twisted outlook or take, but the script lets him down. Segel is MIA here, leaving Stoller to stretch the premise with the help of his helmer. The cameos here are also a bit weird, with Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Josh Groban, Tom Hiddleston, and dozens more intermingled with our familiar felt faces. There are so many, in fact, that they frequently distract us from the main Muppet action. Still, this movie is a lot of fun and argues that, even in 2014, there is still a place for characters created nearly 50 years ago.
The new Blu-ray from Disney starts off with a bit of cheek. The cover art proclaims this to be the “unnecessarily extended” edition of the film, and for once, this is not a joke. Instead, we get two versions of the film – one at 107 minutes, and the other extended by 12 minutes more. There are some funny bits in the new cut, as well as some clever character beats. Either is an excellent entertainment. We also are treated to a bunch of outtakes (Gervais’ laugh, as always, is infectious) and a couple of additional fun featurettes. The movie itself looks and sounds great, the high definition transfer really enhancing the film’s colorful concoctions.
Considering the challenges it faced and how successfully it circumvented them, ‘The Muppets’ remains the standard bearer for aesthetic post-modern reinvention. ‘Muppets Most Wanted‘ goes back to the basics of the sequel situation and, with luck and some loony fun, it turns out quite enjoyable indeed.