Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

Call me crazy but I found the new release MUPPETS MOST WANTED far more consistently enjoyable than 2011's THE MUPPETS, which was a reboot of the beloved franchise that was based on the beloved TV program created by Jim Henson. While I was delighted by parts of the earlier film, too many musical numbers and story ideas fizzled. And fart shoes?!  C'mon, guys! Much of it felt like a half-hearted attempt to reignite the magic for new generations, while desperately trying to keep their parents - many of whom grew up with those fuzzy crack-ups  - from relentlessly checking their wristwatches. This time, the gags mostly fly, and the songs are great fun. This is despite that much of the film takes place in a gulag in Siberia.

After a self-referential opening, where the Muppets sing that sequels are never as good as the originals, the story follows the gang on a world tour to continue their hot streak after the comeback that closed the last movie.  Ricky Gervais (somewhat restrained) plays Dominic Badguy, a persuasive manager who convinces Kermit the Frog and company to take advantage of their reemergence from obscurity.  But Dominic is actually the world's Number 2 Criminal on the Most Wanted List. Number 1 is Constantine, an amphibian who looks just like Kermit save for a birthmark on the right cheek. After breaking out of said gulag, Constantine manages to ambush Kermit and plant the incriminating distinguishing mark on him, leading authorities to think he is the bad guy, and to throw him in the Russian prison, where Tina Fey plays a warden named Nadya. Meanwhile, Constantine poses as the Muppets' leader and secretly plans a series of heists. He and Dominic schedule shows at venues that are conventiently right next door to art museums.

On the case is Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burr) and Muppet Sam the Eagle, playing a CIA operative. And what an inspired pairing! From their first scene, they prove themselves to be one of the most entertaining crime fighting teams in mainstream movie history. I kid you not.  My favorite bits involve their repeated efforts to show each other up with the size of their badges and Napoleon's constant interruptions of his work with those European workday siestas Americans covet.

The hit to miss gag ratio is quite favorable for MUPPETS MOST WANTED, with the expected pop culture quips and even an Ingmar Bergman reference (with the Swedish Chef, or course). The biggest laughs for me came late in the movie, with the introduction of a gang of infant burglars, a truly hilarious and imaginative creation for the Muppet team. I was in tears. Also, that drummer Animal is integral to the movie's plot doesn't hurt one bit.

As has been the case since the original MUPPET MOVIE back in 1979, there are numerous star cameos, and to reveal them would spoil many of the movie's pleasures. Some are blink-and-you'll-miss 'em. The pop stars featured do some amusing send-ups of themselves.  And look carefully at those gulag prisoners; at least three of them should be familiar to many viewers.

And the songs. Far better than from THE MUPPETS. This time out, I didn't want to slink under my seat in embarrassment during any of them, as I had during Amy Adams' and Chris Cooper's big numbers (possible career nadirs for both). MUPPETS MOST WANTED in fact seems to be offering a commentary, having a bit of fun with that, as when Tina Fey's Nadya (more than once) attempts a solo of her own.

NOTE: Prefacing the Muppet feature is the Pixar animated short "Party Central", featuring Mike, Sullivan, and some of the other creatures from MONSTERS, INC. It's a raucous, fun 10 minutes that seems to be inspired by the idiotic 2012 movie PROJECT X! I enjoyed the short, but, er....maybe parents can weigh in on this one, uh....
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