If ever there was a brand in family entertainment which crossed generations, it is the Muppets, created by Jim Henson and coming to prominence first in Sesame Street in the late sixties then being given their very own Muppet Show in the mid-seventies with a roster of guest stars designed to draw adult audiences who would appreciate the wit beneath the slapstick which entertained their children, this led to a stream of feature film spin-offs adapting the self-referential theatrical variety show format for the big screen before reinventing themselves in two adaptations of classic stories in the nineties with The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island.
Following the disappointment of Muppets from Space and with the brand fully acquired by Disney in 2004, it was a long time before the troupe returned to the big screen, requiring a realignment to introduce them to a new audience through the eyes of two brothers, Gary, a man, and Walter, a Muppet, who realise their heroes are to be thrown out of the theatre and set about organising a telethon fundraiser. Simply titled The Muppets, it was the most successful Muppet film ever, grossing $165 million worldwide.
Picking up directly after the closing moments of that film with Walter now part of the clan, Muppets Most Wanted knows exactly where it stands, as the opening musical number shows — “We’re doing a sequel, that’s what we do in Hollywood / And everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good” – though as Doctor Bunsen Honeydew points out, “I don’t mean to be a stickler but this is the seventh sequel to our original motion picture.” Hoping to capitalise on their revival, Kermit is approached by promoter Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who suggests an international tour opening in Berlin, world capital of comedy.
Eager to be on the road, Kermit accepts, but Badguy has another plan up his sleeve as he is accomplice to Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog, almost a double for stage manager and emcee Kermit. “It’s time to light the lights,” Constantine says as he blows up the gulag he has escaped from, mocking the theme song to The Muppet Show before intercepting the tour in Germany and replacing Kermit, with only Animal sensing something is wrong, the rest of the Muppets delighted with the freedom they have in the new direction the show is taking.
On their first night Christoph Waltz dances the waltz, an explosive Blue Danube with a little help from Crazy Harry, while in Madrid Salma Hayek assists Gonzo with the indoor racing of the bulls, the explosions and stampedes concealing the real itinerary as Badguy and Constantine steal artefacts from the buildings adjoining the theatres where the Muppets are performing. Investigating the thefts are Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) of Interpol who believes them to be the work of his nemesis the Lemur, while Sam the American Eagle accompanies him on behalf of the CIA.
Remembering their seventies roots in Stick With Me, a disco pastiche with Constantine smearing Vaseline on the camera to soften the focus, any fears that eventually the Muppets will lose their magic are for another day, and with modern puppetry freeing the operators beyond the confines of the studio, the Muppets don’t feel limited by their environment, they’re out and about and touring the world.
The Muppet delight in the incongruous is present throughout the film, from the opening Busby Berkeley style number featuring an Ingmar Bergman homage to Hispanic Hollywood hardman Danny Trejo joining Ray Liotta and Jermaine Clement in a song and dance routine with Barbershop harmonies on The Big House (“It’s no Hilton or no Hiatt / But you will to have a riot”) when Kermit is transported to Siberia under the charge of Tina Fey’s conflicted commandant and aspiring stage diva Nadya.
As ever the parade of big names lining up to make public fools of themselves is worth the admission, including Tom Hiddleston as the Great Escapo, Frank Langella conducting ceremonies at the Tower of London, Celine Dion harmonising with Miss Piggy and Chloë Grace Moretz, James McAvoy and Russell Tovey in walk ons making various deliveries. Surprisingly, the often smug Ricky Gervais isn’t unbearable, participating in the fun rather than presiding over them with his ubiquitous sneer.
With many of the lesser seen Muppets present, Wayne and Wanda, Kermit’s nephew Robin and the sinister Uncle Deadly, only seen in the background in the previous film as an associate of Tex Richman, for the time being they are safe in the hands of returning director James Bobin, happy to continue the traditional forms of Muppetry rather than compromising them by conforming to the current expectation of digital manipulation or 3D conversions.
Muppets Most Wanted is currently on general release