Sunday, April 6, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

2014, d. James Bobin -- in theatre

I'm an unabashed Muppets fan.  They trigger something very deep within me such that not only do I excuse the hacky jokes, the overt sentimentality and the evermore dated nature of their very being, but I embrace it all.  That being said, I understand full well how, in our lifelike computer generated entertainment culture, the Muppets seem remarkably limited on-screen, low-tech (no tech, actually) and that their appeal outside of wonton nostalgia is a challenge for the kids who didn't grow up with Kermit and the gang on their TVs or their dinner wear or their lunchbox.

The first movie traded in on the idea of this fading nostalgia exceptionally well, and by confronting it so fully, it's afforded the Muppets (as a commodity) some renewed relevance, allowing it to move past the mustiness and shake off the cobwebs.  In the wake of the Jason Segel/Nicholas Stoller/James Bobin "relaunch" the Muppets unfortunately didn't trade in on the film's success as much as they should have.  A one hour special during the Montreal Just For Laughs comedy festival, a wickedly confusing Lady Gaga/Muppets holiday special on Netflix, and the odd appearance on late night television and awards shows.  Strangely the viral videos that had launched the Muppets into renewed relevance in the first place started to slow in the film's wake.  It's almost as if the focus was all put towards doing a sequel.

Muppets Most Wanted picks up literally at the end of the previous Muppets feature with body doubles standing in for Segel and Amy Adams shot from behind.  Embracing their ability to pierce the fourth wall without utterly destroying it, they address that the previous film had wrapped, all the "adoring fans" seen in The Muppets closing number were all extras, and their triumphant return the previous film postulated wasn't their reality.  They then notice that one camera is still trained on them, which means that they must be doing a sequel.  Cue the film's first musical number "We're Doing A Sequel".

The Muppets exist in a strange reality. Though they never break the illusion that they're puppets, or acknowledge their operators, beyond that everything else is fair game.  The "story" of the Muppets is a non-linear and equally nonsensical one, which sees them performing as characters in films like Muppet Treasure Island or A Muppet Christmas Carol, and equally performing as themselves in The Muppets Take Manhattan or Muppets From Space, but this isn't their reality either.  They acknowledge at least half a dozen times that the preceding film was indeed a film, and not their actual reality, but at the same time they carry forth that same reality into Most Wanted of the struggling group of weirdos and anthropomorphic animals performing for a society that once-but-no-longer cares for them.

This leads them under the sway of Ricky Gervais' Dominic Badguy who promises them a successful European tour, offering much and undermining Kermit at every turn.  Dominic is partners with the world's most dangerous frog, Constantine, a thief who just escaped from a Russian gulag and who happens to look  just like Kermit, but with a mole on his face.  The scheming duo manage to replace Constantine for Kermit, who gets escorted off to the Russian gulag under the watchful eye of Tina Fey's doting warden, Nadia.  Then, while on tour, Constantine and Dominic (whose criminal nom-de-plum is The Lemur) use the cover of the Muppet Show to bust into museums and vaults neighbouring the theatres they perform in.  This brings together FBI agent Sam the Eagle and Interpol Agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell in a fantastic Clouseau-inspired performance) in an awkward partnership to follow their trail, the only real hurdle to solving the crime being Napoleon's excessively liberal European work schedule.

The comic conceit of the film, that this thick- and unruly-accented frog could believably replace Kermit is probably it's most delightful aspect, is a great use of the classic absurdity of mistaken identity.  Yet the script twists it wildly with the cast of the Gulag (including, prominently, Ray Liotta, Jemaine Clement and Danny Trejo) recognizing rather quickly that Kermit is not Constantine.  Meanwhile, with promises of creative freedom and sellout shows (and giving them all what they want), the Muppets buy into Constantine-as-Kermit.

Constantine is the film's biggest treasure.  Despite my affection for the previous Muppets feature, I found its new character, Walter, a bit dull, so it pleases me that this film's new Muppet is so delightful.  Constantine's butchering of the English language, his terrible Kermit impersonation (which he believes is spot on), his elaborate but passionless wooing of Piggy, and his overbearing relationship with his Number 2 are ceaselessly entertaining.  Thanks to the work of Matt Vogel, Constantine may look exactly like Kermit (with a mole) but his physicality is altogether different and it really builds a new character beyond just the voice.

Flight of the Conchord's Bret McKenzie deservedly won an Oscar for one of his original songs from the previous film ("Man or Muppet").  My daughter has played the soundtrack endlessly in the intervening years and (beyond the unfortunate placement of Starship's "We Built This City (on Rock and Roll)") it's a great soundtrack with fabulous original and Muppet-ized songs.  The new soundtrack tops it.  McKenzie's 6 new songs are each infectious gems, better in context, but great on their own.  They genre hop from ragtime to doo wop to soul culminating in the over-the-top ballad "Something So Right" featuring Celine Dion.  The songs manage to hit the irreverent humour the Conchords are known for but also carry the story of Muppets Most Wanted forward and even tossing some emotion and character development in there.  They are a feat and should likely net McKenzie another Oscar.

I should note that my four year old reacted rather negatively to the film.  There was a lot of crying and a general anxiousness as she watched the movie.  It was largely a result of Constantine, she said, and I think more than the performance of the character it was the effectively intense score from Christophe Beck (another little girl in front of us was also notably frightened by the film), leading to two restless nights.  So this one, strangely, may not be for all young viewers.