When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.
5 Things You Need to Know About…
MUPPETS MOST WANTED
1) Nostalgia for pop culture can be a tricky thing. Formidable memories and experiences from an early age (or at least an earlier age) retain a certain degree of romantic appreciation and unavoidable bias. We remember all of the good, barely any of the not so good, and see the given movie, television series, franchise, or album through an impenetrable lens of celebratory devotion. While both our tastes and preferences evolve with the inevitable progress of a given medium, our most beloved entities are captured in time, protected from objective critique and heightened discernment. This is not to say that by looking back in a haze of rose-colored love, what we remember is somehow lesser than. As objectively considered as possible, The Wizard of Oz will always be great, The Godfather and The Godfather II remain pillars of film history, and The Wire still holds the “best television series I have ever watched” crown (Breaking Bad‘s final season had more than something to say about this). Greatness is greatness in any context, era, or through any cloud of nostalgic bias. It was of tremendous and satisfying relief last April when my Jurassic Park 3D experience held up against that voracious fandom of my youth. Jurassic Park remains a phenomenal cinematic experience, whether 1993 or 2013. As “they” (people who consider these kind of things) say, it has aged well. It is through this starry-eyed vision that I consider the Muppets. The Muppets are my original, longest-standing, and most beloved franchise. I have been a consumer of their blissful humor and irreverent joy since before I could read the opening credits of their movies. There is a video recording that exists showcasing my four-year-old self’s voice acting and singing prowess on the song “Saying Goodbye” from The Muppets Take Manhattan (I was particularly good at Floyd and Gonzo and particularly challenged by lyrical accuracy). Jim Henson’s tragic death in 1990 remains one of the handful of saddest days of my life and still, all these years later, is one of my profoundest “I remember every detail of that day” experiences. I even have recordings of every Muppets Tonight! episode on VHS (not the most successful or well-received of ventures with Muppets in the title), my apartment is adorned with Muppets figures and replica models of Kermit, Animal, and Gonzo, and I sometimes watch the DVDs of Jim Henson’s funeral as a reminder for what it really means to creatively collaborate (as becomes abundantly clear through the inspirational and beautiful tributes by the other Muppet performers). The Muppets are ingrained in my consciousness, imbedded in my psyche, and central to the development of my soul. Jason Segel’s 2011 Disney restart, The Muppets, a nostalgic ode and love letter to fans brought to fruition by one of the biggest out there, put Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and the other Jim Henson furry creations back on the map (as unrealistic as traveling on a map in the movie may be – we have to move right along with travel time exposition, naysayers). It was at times inspirational and muppetational, although often more for its existence (a new Muppet movie in 2011!) and awareness of fan desires (renewed focus on classic characters like Rowlf, Scooter, and Dr. Teeth who had been sidelined or retired after the deaths of Henson and RIchard Hunt, another core Muppet performer), than for its storytelling prowess. It was still the Muppets and as musical numbers like “Man or a Muppet” proved, the Muppets can still be amazing. When I spoke to Jason Segel a few months ago and asked him why he would not be returning for the sequel (there was disappointment from this fan), he intimated that his intention was always to facilitate a Muppet return and cultural rebirth, but then hand the property to others (fueled by the power of the Disney marketing albatross) to tell subsequent stories.
Nostalgia can be a tricky thing, and, fully (and admittedly exhaustively) acknowledging the hyped-anticipation and blinders of adoration that surround my viewing, Muppets Most Wanted was a neatly packaged, cleverly executed, mostly enjoyable ride of a movie that certainly quenched my Muppets thirst, but still left me ravenously hungry for the days of Jim Henson.
2) There is a lot of wonderful to take away from the Muppets Most Wanted movie experience. Walter is already fully immersed in the Muppet world and feels like he has been around a lot longer than three years. With Kermit separated from the gang for most of the movie, Walter fills in the sentimentality gaps quite nicely. Constantine, through an awesome performance from Matt Vogel and a series of great bad Kermit impressions, is one of the movie’s great successes. He is not a good frog, but through a campy, villainous persona, he is a joy to root against. Core Muppet characters are featured once again (Rowlf and Scooter especially) and it seems like everyone this time has at least one moment to shine (One of the best scenes of the movie lets Rizzo and Robin, relegated to sideline status in this Disney reboot after so many years of being featured players, openly vent about their apparent demotion). The pacing never drags, the songs are just the right length and levity, and there are enough mystery plot tropes (albeit predictable) to carry a coherent story. I exited the movie refreshed, amused, and with a smile on my face.
3) In Muppets Most Wanted, Muppets look like the Muppets, they sound like the Muppets (special recognition goes to Eric Jacobson for doing such credible and incredible vocal performances of all of the characters of Frank Oz), but tonally, something feels a bit off. I recognize that the times have changed, that our comedy attention has diverted to a more pithy, sardonic, single-camera sensibility, but there was always a padded layer of warmth behind the Muppet zaniness. There is some of that here, but something just doesn’t feel totally right. It’s almost as if the central conflict of Constantine’s unrecognized Kermit imposter impersonation is a metaphor for the movie at-large. I feel like I am Animal (way to go, old friend), and later Walter and Fozzie, who see through the surface level impression to know that this isn’t the real Kermit. By no means is this a deal-breaker or a lack of appreciation for what is mostly a funny and entertaining experience, but it definitely discolors the post viewing consideration. So, what is missing? And what role is Disney playing in all of this? The answer to the former is on one level quite obvious. Each passing year takes us further from the glory years of The Muppet Show and subsequent three Muppet movies (of which The Muppet Movie is the best). Jim passed twenty four long years ago. Richard Hunt (Scooter, Janice, Sweetums) passed in 1992. Frank Oz is retired and hasn’t performed with the Muppets in over a decade. Jerry Nelson (Robin, Floyd, Crazy Harry) passed last year and hadn’t performed prior to his passing several years before that. Only Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew) and Steve Whitmire (Rizzo the Rat, Kermit and other Jim characters since his death) remain from the original troupe. The new guys (Bill Barretta, Eric Jacobson, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz) are all super talented and give credible essence performances on all original characters, but they are still new guys. The next level answer to the first question may lie with the role of Disney in all of this. If you are marketing a reboot of a franchise, you want Disney on your side. They put out in their marketing onslaught unlike any other big boy at the table (it has been hard to get through a half hour of TV in 2014 without coming across some type of Muppets advertisement or promotional material). Their belief and support in the Muppets has been much appreciated, but at what cost? As just another arm on a tree of Disney properties (Marvel! Princesses! Pixar!), the Muppets lose some of their inherent individuality. Don’t get me wrong – it is much much much better to have Muppets around, even if slightly off, than no Muppets around at all, but I just wish that Animal’s metaphoric drumming was more off the beat.
4) Most of the humanity in Muppet movies usually comes more from the Muppets than the humans, but Muppets Most Wanted, as The Muppets did before it, uses the human characters most effectively. All three human stars – Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and Ty Burrell – fit seamlessly in a Muppet world. Gervais portrays Dominic Badguy, frequently reminded of his “Number 2” villain pecking order status behind Kermit doppelganger (add the mole) and “Number 1” villain, Constantine, with a fair share of David Brent cadence whimsy. I do wish he were given more improvisational freedom (the plotted script seems very deliberate), but his onscreen time is always comedically appreciated. Tina Fey’s Nadya character, a Gulag guard turned variety show supporter, gives this modern comedy heavyweight some fun material. Her burgeoning crush on the mistakenly incarcerated Kermit is a lovely B plot. Ty Burrell’s Interpol agent, Jean Pierre Napoleon (Inspector Clouseau inspired), odd couple with Sam the Eagle, playing a CIA agent, is a wonderful conception. Their interrogation song may have been one of the movie’s best moments. The random collection of other Gulag prisoners (Ray Liotta! Danny Trejo!) and their “A Chorus Line” aspirations is a whole bunch of funny fun. The incessant line of cameos is the one major misstep of the human experience in Muppets Most Wanted. Each inclusion (especially Salma Hayek, Lady Gaga, Usher, and P. Diddy) seems a little bit desperate, a little bit pandering, and a little bit unnecessary (another downside of the Disney commercial train). I have been trying to erase the closing musical number (in which the human cameos all come back in the worst display of CGI in the history of cinema) forever from my memory. I am just going to pretend that it didn’t happen.
5) Muppets Most Wanted is a movie that taps into our collective nostalgic heartstrings, but plays an everso slightly different melody that’s enough to keep us both satisfied and wanting more. It is a privilege for new audiences to be able to experience the Muppets for the first time in a 2014 movie theater and Muppets Most Wanted will be a serviceable entry point, it is just hard for those of us who have been devoted fans not to actively reminisce about the good old times.