‘They weren’t kidding when they sang that the sequel’s never as good’ – MacDara Conroy on Muppets Most Wanted
It takes some neck to kick off the sequel to what was a well-received cinematic comeback for Jim Henson’s beloved creations with a song-and-dance number poking fun at its own sequel-ness, and the inevitability of its diminishing returns. But that’s the Muppets for you.
High off their successful return to the big screen, Muppets Most Wanted sees Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the gang take their show on the road with the encouragement of slimy theatrical agent Dominic Badguy (it’s pronounced Badgy, says Ricky Gervais, playing/being his usual self). Unknown to them, he’s an associate of Constantine, a master criminal with an unfortunate predisposition to stage fright, and who just so happens to bear a strong resemblance to everyone’s favourite amphibian.
It’s not long before Kermit’s mistaken for this ‘evilen froggen’ and dragged away to a Siberian gulag, under the watchful eye of Tina Fey’s obsessed Nadya, while Constantine assumes Kermit’s identity (quite badly, with genuinely amusing results) and leads the Muppets on a tour of Europe’s finest theatres (Dublin included, for a bit of the aul’ Oirish craic) while sweeping Miss Piggy towards the altar (doesn’t that sound familiar?) – both jobs providing the perfect cover for his elaborate plan to steal Britain’s crown jewels. As you do.
It’s also a great excuse to stretch a conveyer belt of cameos throughout a film that, at its best, harks back to the Muppets’ early ’80 screwball capers, with the odd scene managing to recapture that zany spirit. But they weren’t kidding when they sang that the sequel’s never as good.
The biggest problem with Muppets Most Wanted is that it’s sorely lacking in laughs. There are plenty of jokes, or what are supposed to be jokes, but which come over so half-assed it’s almost cynical. Even Statler and Waldorf, usually the go-to guys for some delightfully painful punnage, are tired and played out here; it’s easy to imagine them heckling themselves from the balcony.
One exception to the rule is the buddy-cop routine that pits Sam the Eagle’s gruff, no-nonsense FBI agent with his snooty Interpol counterpart Jean Pierre Napoleon (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) on the bad guys’ trail. The set-up here is your usual French stereotype shenanigans, so it really shouldn’t work, but Burrell’s hammed-up work-shy libertine take on the Inspector Clouseau trope is pitch perfect, and he and Sam (performed by Eric Jacobson) play off each other with such chemistry and impeccable comic timing that their scenes seem spliced in from a different, much funnier movie. They also get one of the better tunes in ‘The Interrogator Song’, even if the humour is more in their tongue-twister delivery than any proper gags in the lyrics.
And that’s the other problem with Muppets Most Wanted: the songs forgot to be funny. Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie returns from the first movie (or seventh, depending on where you start counting) where his tunes mostly got by on meta-references or their surreal situationism. This time round, we’re simply expected to find, say, a doo-wop number in a prison funny, because it’s doo-wop in a prison? And one of the prisoners is McKenzie’s Conchords partner Jermaine Clement? And sure weren’t those Filipino prisoners doing ‘Thriller’ on YouTube just hilarious?!
The song in question, like most musical numbers in the film, falls flat on the funny front because it’s frankly too good, and played far too straight (Tina Fey sadly checks her comedy credentials at the door). That’s not to say there aren’t some real stinkers, too; one particularly cringe-worthy frog/man duet seems contrived purely to let Gervais revisit his Seona Dancing days. Never again.
While there’s some kicks to be had picking out the famous (and not so famous) faces clearly having a ball hanging out with their felt ‘n’ foam friends, and Burrell’s stand-out turn lends more credence to the notion that he’s a secret comedy genius, there’s little else to recommend here. In hindsight that title seems more like a question. Most wanted? More laughs, please.