Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: Ten Things That Made Me Deliriously Happy About the New Muppet Movie

You want a unicorn? I’ll give it to you.

Critics have been, to put it kindly, mixed in their reactions to the new Muppet project, Muppets Most Wanted. One of my favorite critics, Dana Stevens from Slate, writes, "there’s something sour and strained about this movie that’s at odds with the usual Muppet ethos of game, let’s-put-on-a-show cheer. Maybe that’s because of the inordinate amount of screen time spent on the rivalry between two villains who are as uninteresting as they are unpleasant.” This is a shame because, in my opinion, this film is one hell of a lot of fun, and “evil Kermit” Constantine is a hoot and a half. I liked it better than the Muppet movie from 2011!

NOTE: Nothing is better than The Muppet Movie from 1979.

WARNING: This is not a review of the movie; you’ll be treated to a real review later in the week from Patrick, the Kermit to my Constantine. I just wanted to explore a few things about the movie that I liked, taken in context of the Muppets’ film oeuvre (and I challenge you to find ANY film website that can use a phrase like “Muppets’ film oeuvre” with less irony.) If you want to see the film, do it BEFORE you read this column. To say that it contains MAJOR SPOILERS is putting it kindly.
I had so much fun this past weekend seeing Muppets Most Wanted that I was disappointed (but not at all surprised) when I read about its low box-office total: 16 million dollars, about half of what 2011’s The Muppets took in on its opening weekend. I am getting used to this. When it comes to children’s films, if I love it, it tanks. Witness the recent ParaNorman.

What’s that? Give you ten reasons I had fun seeing Muppets Most Wanted? I thought (feared) you’d never ask:

1. The film is really funny. Obviously, humor is very subjective, but for me this film ties The Lego Movie for the funniest so far this year. Either this says something about the dire state of American movie comedy in 2014 or, when it comes to things to laugh at, I am still ten years old.

2. Big stars in little cameos have always been hallmarks of Muppet adventures, and The Muppets Most Wanted might just set a record for the sheer number of these things at 24. I am sure that I missed some of them (apparently, one of the flower delivery boys is somebody famous on the Disney channel.) I had to smile when one of the ushers in a wedding scene is deemed a terrible usher, and the little girl sitting down the row from me exclaimed with glee, “but that IS Usher!”

3. I have reconciled myself to the fact that most Americans judge a film on a single criterion: to what extent the film in question is “realistic” enough for the audience to mistake it for actual reality. Because of this, we are now only allowed movie musicals that feature puppets or cartoons. Most people know that puppets and cartoons are not real to begin with, so they can suspend their disbelief to sit through the musical numbers. (I said MOST.)  From the original Muppet movie’s terrific Paul Williams to Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, who did original songs for both the 2011 and 2014 movies, the Muppets tend to choose talent that actually seems to “get” the whole… Muppet thing. The songs in MMW are inventive and catchy.

4. MMW contains some nice messages for the kiddies, but in true Muppet style refrains from beating them over the head. Friends are important. Family is important. My favorite, though, is how the film makes the subtle point that we should always be suspicious of someone who will “give us anything we want.” The evil frog lets the Muppets do anything they want, and it spoils their show. Later, some prison inmates want the same thing and only Kermit has the sense to draw the line. The film seems to be saying that constantly getting everything a person wants turns that person into a sociopath.

5. The film travels all over the world, using movie magic to show us London, Madrid, Siberia, Dublin, and Hollywood. It is like taking a mini-vacation without leaving the theater.
6. I like when the evil frog, Constantine, dances on Ricky Gervais’s head and messes up his hair. Kermit would never do that.
7. I think Tina Fey (like Brad Pitt) should play to her strengths and take more character parts in crazy comedies that work, as opposed to lead parts in romantic comedies that fizzle.

8. MMW comes with a delightful Disney short (remember that Frozen was proceeded by the delightful Get A Horse) featuring the Monsters, Inc. gang!
9. I think fake French accents are a hoot (I’m looking at you, Ty Burrell.)

10. Another Muppet movie hallmark? Too many jokes to catch in one sitting. For instance, I noticed that in MMW’s wedding scene, the Swedish Chef is wearing a black chef’s hat, of course, because one does not wear white to a wedding.

There is a trend in the kids’ movies I’ve seen over the past few years, and I think it’s worth talking about (if it were a Glossary entry, I might call it “the tuna net.”) Instead of fishing for one audience, some movies cast a net so wide—encompassing everything from fart jokes to political satire— the filmmakers are clearly hoping to catch parents, little kids, and anyone in between. I’m sometimes confused about just whom the film was made for. One of things in MMW that made me laugh the loudest was an Ingmar Bergman reference. INGMAR BERGMAN. What seven-year-old on earth is going to get that?

In the very cool Sesame Street-behind-the-scenes book Street Gang, the show’s producers talk about their reason for booking guest appearances by celebrities not well known to children—it’s the “is that who I think it is?!” factor designed to draw parents into the room to watch with the kids. Certainly that’s a factor with kids’ movies today too; the references and cameos are to keep parents from checking out, checking phones, or just plain falling asleep (as I did during 1998’s less-than-compelling Pokemon movie.) Pixar’s good at it and was one of the first outfits to do it consistently, but even the original Muppet movie used parent-friendly cameos to add to the fun (the withering disdain of Steve Martin’s lederhosen-clad waiter still cracks me up.)

But where is that line? There were times during MMW when I felt that perhaps the Muppet Organization may have erred on the side of adulthood by including too many jokes that will sail over children’s heads and a PG rating that might keep very small children from attending. As I said, I loved LAIKA’s 2012 ParaNorman, but our own Patrick Bromley made a good point when he said it was really a film for no one—too scary for kiddies, but too much like a kids’ movie to attract any adults. Maybe it was a movie made for a very select audience of just me. BECAUSE I DESERVE MY OWN MOVIES!

I’m looking forward to getting PB’s take on MMW, to see if he feels that it dwells in that same grey area. Until then, I leave you with this: like the Oscar-nominated “Man or Muppet” from the 2011 film, Muppets Most Wanted contains one of the catchiest songs that I have heard in a long time. Watch it below and JUST TRY to get it out of your head!


  1. So should we save our comments about the movie for the full review post?

  2. I would love to hear what others thought NOW.

  3. Glad to hear some positive feedback for the Muppet's latest adventure. I wasn't over the moon about the movie, but it was a genuinely fun time with some terrific laughs. My main problem with the movie is that I think it uses the line from the opening song regarding how the sequel is never as good as the original to heart and uses it as a crutch rather than a challenge to rise above. I felt that Most Wanted was just as funny as the 2011 film, but that it seemed to have a tiny bit less faith in its sincerity. But I'm glad that a musical can still get a theatrical release, and I thoroughly enjoyed the celebrity cameos. Ty Burrell and Sam Eagle's chemistry was by far the best thing about the movie, but Ricky Gervais played the humbled buffoon beautifully; I felt bad that TIna Fey wasn't given as good of material to work with as those two. I didn't love the movie, since I actually felt there were some dry spells with very few laughs, but it's definitely worth the price of a matinee ticket, especially when you consider that it's paired with that AMAZING Monsters University short. I'd see this a dozen more times before I coughed up the dough for 300: RIse of an Empire.

    SPOILER: My favorite joke in the movie was one Muppet's puzzled inquiry "Wait, you can just leave the Muppets!?". Burrell's work ethic is fantastic as well.

    1. Yes! The Monsters U short is awesome :-)

  4. Glad to hear you liked it more than The Muppets, which I felt was marred by an uninteresting self-insert character and his fictional alter ego, an etiolated story hook, and a truly hideous caricature of a grown human woman from Amy Adams. If I had a daughter, and if I'd brought her to that movie, I would've been deeply saddened.

  5. I'm glad you liked it, JB. I must admit I was left a little cold by the movie: the jokes were frequent, fast and funny, but the whole thing felt oddly heartless. I think they spent too much time shifting focus onto the guest stars (including Constantine) and away from the muppets we know and love. And I disliked how a major plot thread absolutely depends upon Fozzie, Piggy, etc. being remarkably unobservant. The muppets were the butt of the joke far too often for me.

    If you told me that this movie was written by people who wanted to tell a lot of jokes but didn't care one bit about the muppets, I would believe you. Despite the previous film's problems (and there are a few big ones), Jason Segel's obvious affection for the material was sorely missed this time out.

  6. After reading JB's enthusiastic thoughts yesterday, I decided to bite the bullet and see MMW. I never got around to seeing the first film, so I didn't know if the sequel would work on its own merits. Thankfully, it did. MMW is just as much fun as JB suggests. Constantine is an especially great addition to the Muppet-verse and has most of the film's best lines (my favorite being "You waka-ed your last waka, bear.").

    I wouldn't say the film quite stacks up to The Lego Movie-- the frenetic pace of the gags becomes kind of exhausting toward the last act, and the film's reliance on pop culture references for humor seems considerable-- but on the whole MMW is a very fun time at the movies. Not to mention less unrelentingly grim than competition like 300, Non-Stop, Need for Speed, Divergent etc. Oh, and the Monster's Inc. short is also hilarious and inventive and sets the mood nicely. Nice going on that one, Pixar.

  7. I really enjoyed MMW and it really feels like the crew behind this movie where really let off the leash in this film, getting to be more of a wacky adventure where as the last movie was very heavy on the nostalgia. I personally prefer this film to the last Muppet feature (although I really liked The Muppets as well).

    This was such a great Family movie which are in extremely short supply these days (just take a look at the Rio 2 trailer that unfortunately you will have to suffer through before MMW) and its low box office totals does make me so sad, not so much cause I need The Muppets to make dumptrucks full of money but unfortunately since it will make it that much harder for fun charming movies like this to keep getting released.

    I would like to put some of the blame on parents who I believe aren't doing ANY research on what movies they should take their kids to. While I know Peabody and Sherman took some of the crowd I know a lot of people took their way too young kids to see Divergent last weekend, I am sorry but if you took your 6 year old to see the dystopian Divergent last week you are a bad parent.

    To end on a positive my fav song in the movie was actually the interrogation number with all the fun wordplay and use of the cast.

    My favorite little moment was Constantine falling through the Muppet Show O and dropping like a sack of potatoes, a little dark but so wonderfully ridiculous.