I liked The Muppets, directed by James Bobin and starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams, so much that it made my list of the top ten movies of 2011. As a lifelong fan of Jim Henson and all of his creations, I was absolutely ecstatic with the creative success of a movie that would introduce Kermit and the gang to new audiences, and most importantly, make me able to see more productions involving these characters that I love so much. Most of the creative team from The Muppets comes back for Muppets Most Wanted. Bobin directs again, he co-writes the script with Nicholas Stoller (who wrote the previous movie with the curiously absent Jason Segel), and Bret McKenzie, from Flight of the Conchords fame, comes back as composer of seven new songs. These people nailed the anarchic yet warm spirit of the characters so well in The Muppets that it is with deep grief that I have to announce that Muppets Most Wanted just doesn’t work nearly as well.
The movie picks up at the exact moment where The Muppets ended, as the Muppets realize they have just finished their first movie in years, and don’t really know what to do next. The answer comes fairly quickly, and our heroes engage in a song number called “We’re Doing a Sequel”. This song (which is the best of the original compositions) starts the movie in a very welcome and faithful note to the characters’ nature, harking back to the meta-commentary at the beginning of The Great Muppet Caper, where Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo interact and read the opening credits. The plot of the movie also suggests that Most Wanted would like to be the Muppet Caper of this new generation of movies, as it features the Muppets embarking on a mysterious and action-packed adventure through Europe.
It also takes inspiration from The Muppets Take Manhattan, separating Kermit from the rest of the Muppets, so that they can be wild and unrestricted without his voice of reason. In Manhattan he got hit by a car and got amnesia, in Most Wanted, he is kidnapped, sent to a gulag, and replaced by his doppelgänger: criminal mastermind, and most dangerous frog in the world, Constantine. That is a dynamic that has worked before, since there is inherent drama in putting Kermit in danger, considering he is the only Muppet with a strong enough personality and set of skills to keep the band together. With this foundation, the movie can have as much fun as it wants. There is some genuinely hilarious stuff going on in Muppets Most Wanted, but it is also a movie plagued with problems.
The first problem is a tricky one to talk about, since it might not even be the movie’s fault. It might have been something that just happened in the theater where I saw the movie, but the sound mix was awful. The music and the sound effects were too loud, and the voices too low, I had to really force my hearing to understand what the characters were saying. It is well known that one of the first things you learn at film school is that bad audio will throw audiences away much faster than a low quality image ever will, and in the case of Muppets Most Wanted it threw me immediately. I would like to know if anyone else had this problem as to be sure it wasn’t something that happened only at my screening. Curiously, I had the same problem when I saw The Muppets in theaters. As I did with that movie, I will rewatch Muppets Most Wanted when it comes out on DVD to see if the problem persists.
In any case, that audio problem got me off to a rough start, but it’s something that could potentially be fixed in future viewings. There was still something bigger that bothered me about Muppets Most Wanted. First, I thought it might be that the humor was a little bit of a letdown. For every moment when I laughed at loud, there were a lot of jokes that didn’t land, or that were perfectly funny… until they go on for too long, or are punctuated by another comment that just ruins the flow and the humor. A very clear example involves Gonzo’s idea for an act called the “indoor running of the bulls”, which only gets the green-light when Kermit is absent, and is a total disaster. “Who could have foreseen this?” asks Gonzo, a pretty ridiculous and funny line that is ruined when Salma Hayek, in one of the many celebrity cameos, adds an “I did. I saw this coming”. There is an irritating amount of this going on in the movie, but at the same time, Muppets Most Wanted features three of the funniest moments I’ve seen in a movie so far this year, so I can’t really fault the movie for trying too hard with its comedy (If you’ve seen the movie and are curious about which they are: one involves the swedish chef, another a cameo by Danny Trejo, and the other comes midway through Miss Piggy’s big song).
After a lot of thinking, though, I landed on what exactly kept me from embracing Muppets Most Wanted: it was missing Jim Henson’s touch. The emotional attachment the talented people behind the camera had towards Henson’s creations worked wonders in The Muppets because it was a movie all about the nostalgia and love Jason Segel and Walter felt for the Muppets. Now that the items of nostalgia themselves are at the center of the movie, it’s starting to show how understanding, and even love, for the material doesn’t equal passion. Bobin, Stoller and McKenzie know these characters, what works comedically and tone-wise, but there is just something missing, and I think it’s Henson’s passion for his puppets and the art of puppeteering.
When Henson and his colleagues made the original trilogy of Muppet movies that came out between 1979 and 1984, they knew what kind of filmmaking was required for making a movie featuring puppets. There is a level of technical expertise that is not present in this new movie. Thanks to the development of green screen technology, it is now relatively convenient to shoot a movie featuring puppets. The trade off, however, is that a lot of what happens in Muppets Most Wanted looks fake, or heavily produced. I salute the fact that the filmmakers decided to go on location for a lot of the scenes, but when we see Constantine hopping and fighting jailguards, or dancing on Ricky Gervais’s head, we know that that isn’t really happening.
Henson used to revel on the idea of making people wonder how he achieved his puppeteering effects (you might think of Kermit riding a bike in The Muppet Movie, or remember that the first episode of The Muppet Show features Kermit drinking a glass of milk), but also understood that in order for the muppets to be truly magical, there is a certain level of tactile realism that must go around them. The appeal of puppets is that they stand at the edge of the division of what is real and what is fake. Bobin is simply not as experienced at working with puppets. While he gets the anarchy in the humor of the characters, his style is also too frenetic. Everything is too loud, and big, and relentless, and his blocking, framing and editing of the characters is so overstuffed all the camera angles and quick cuts made me kind of dizzy.
To Bobin’s credit, though, he knows that not all of the movie can be so frenetic, and he gives us some quiet and small moments that work really well. As a matter of fact, after a somewhat rough beginning, the movie really settles into an interesting pace towards the midpoint and works towards an effective final stretch. Even though there are major problems in the execution, the movie’s heart is in the right place, and there are enough funny moments to call it a bad movie. My thoughts on the movie might get warmer with further viewings, but for now, it’s just ok.
Grade: 6 out of 10