Friday, March 21, 2014

The Cinema File #328: "Muppets Most Wanted" Review

If the sequel to a very good movie is still decent, but not quite as good as the original, does it make it better or worse if the film opens with a meta musical number all about warning the audience of this very problem? This is one of the many oddly specific questions that I didn't expect to have to ask myself coming out of the new film Muppets Most Wanted, a movie that defied some low expectations set by some pretty dreadful advertising by being not only not terrible, but for the most part, thoroughly enjoyable. Of course, as that opening song reminds us, this is not the second Muppet movie, but rather the eighth in a much longer series, and as a Jim Henson devotee who grew up during the mid to late 90's downward spiral of this franchise, if they keep making them like this, I'll keep coming. Okay, I'll keep coming anyway. I saw Muppets From Space in the theater, but you get the point.

Muppets Most Wanted is a direct sequel to 2011's The Muppets, literally starting where the last one left off with "The End" flashing in the sky via fireworks, and the whole behind the scenes affair revealed to be just another movie within a movie. Then they proceed to sing a song about how this is just Disney's way of keeping these classic characters relevant until Tom Hanks can make Toy Story 4, and the little Kermit loving child inside me dies a little. This moment reminded me most of the first trailer I saw for the film, predominantly featuring Scooter singing the very dated "Moves Like Jagger" for some reason. It was not unreasonable after this point to assume the worst, that in the absence of Jason Segel and his unabiding love for all things Muppets infusing every moment of this new one, it would quickly devolve into a mess of pandering pop culture references trying to get by on nostalgia. And then something weird happened.

This very scene that so scared me into thinking this movie would suck, featured as an obvious up front gag in the trailer, was (mostly) cut, just seen in the background, as if the people making this movie realized the error and decided to make a better movie at the expense of an easy reference. This stalwart commitment to actually trying to be funny was strangely all over the place, and the more the movie went on, the more it began to feel like old times again, and not in a forced or strained way, but almost as if the people we've lost who dedicated their lives to making these characters great were somehow still around at least long enough to give their blessing to the thing. Its a little scatter shot and rough around the edges, but the love is there, and in a time when movies don't have to be good or honor what came before in order to be successful, this kind of effort is always something that should be appreciated.

Thankfully, not a screen shot from the finished movie.

To SAT this thing, Muppets Most Wanted is to The Muppets what The Great Muppet Caper was to The Muppet Movie. Less complete and certainly less novel than its predecessor, it is no less lovable, even if it takes a little more time to find its footing and get you on board for another ride. For every joke that doesn't land, and there are a few, there are at least three more that do, and once it gets going, it never feels like the soulless cash grab explicitly suggested by the intro. Of course, its hard not to love the Muppets, whether you're just a regular fan, a writer/director, or one of the many celebrities lucky enough to work alongside them, many not even showing up long enough to do anything funny, apparently just there to be able to say they were in a Muppet movie. As always, between the madcap there's a lot of winking and mugging at the camera (Ricky Gervais bless his soul can't help himself), but everybody's having a lot of fun, enough that you likely will too.

The music is once again spot on, and maybe even a touch better than the last one overall, or at least much more integrated into the plot than last time. Bret MacKenzie, one half of Flight of the Concords, returns as the primary songwriter, and while there isn't really a stand out number as fun or as powerful as the Oscar winning Man or Muppet, there are more and more memorable songs this time around, without the odd misstep like Chris Cooper's weird non-sequiter rap. They even get close to heartwarming with the ensemble piece "Something So Right" and an out of nowhere fantasy sequence depicting Kermit and Miss Piggy growing old together that came this close to summoning a few tears. Nothing quite as somber as "I'm Going To Go Back There Someday" or "Saying Goodbye," but more sincere than this series is typically given credit for.

Another one of those nagging questions presents itself near the beginning of the film as the villain, a Kermit doppelganger named Constantine identical save for a characteristic mole, escapes from a Russian gulag. Is it fair to criticize a Muppet movie for bad special effects? I'm obviously not talking about the mechanics of the Muppets themselves, who are just as adorably flimsy as ever, but rather, the way in which they are integrated into the world. The escape scene in the prison, which I swear is a direct reference to Old Boy if you can believe it, is maybe the first appearance of a CGI Muppet since Waldo C. Graphic (look it up!), and it simply does not work. Then at the end, we're treated to some of the most horrifying green screen work I've ever seen, on par with the creepy young faces of Sly and DeNiro in Grudge Match. Its not enough to take me out of the movie, but enough to beg the question of how this got past a major studio.

This is of course a minor quibble, and nearly every problem that presents itself in Muppets Most Wanted is similarly picayune. On the whole, this is another respectable installment in a franchise that really needed to avoid a sophomore slump after the way it crashed and burned before the reboot. Its not quite as magical as the next most recent Disney effort Frozen, which coincidentally is still in theaters and now on DVD simultaneously as of this writing, but its easily in keeping with some of the few family friendly high points this year like The Lego Movie and Mr. Peabody And Sherman, two movies you should also go see after this one if you haven't already (especially Mr. Peabody, because I'm currently in a Fantasy Movie Mogul league and I'd like to make an imaginary profit on it). The joy onscreen is infectious and the flaws are forgivable once the jaunty tunes kick in, which is really all you can ask for from Kermit and company.

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