Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Muppets Most Wanted (Bobin, 2014)

I have already seen a number of truly great films this year, and there are several I am really excited to see in the coming months (Godzilla, Interstellar, Hobbit part 3, Calvary, X-Men and Fury to name but a few). However I’m not convinced I will leave any film this year, happier than I felt at the end of The Muppets Most Wanted.

I’ve always loved The Muppets, their version of Treasure Island was one of my most watched videos growing up. Before my long hiatus from this blog, my final post was a review of the 2011 film, starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams, that brought The Muppets back into the public eye. I went into this sequel already braced to be disappointed, deliberately lowering my expectations.

I was in hindsight wise to do this, as the film doesn’t quite live up to the standards of the first, but is still a fantastically enjoyable 90 minutes, filled with exactly the kind of anarchic plot, genius cameos and lovable characters that you would hope for from a film involving Kermit and co.

In a masterstroke the film picks up right where the first one ended, with the muppets on the street outside the theatre and launches into probably the strongest musical number of the whole film, irreverent and self-deprecating. It sums up one of the things that I’ve always loved about the muppets; they were meta before it was cool, existing in some bizarre fourth wall-less reality where logic and physics can be abandoned at will if it furthers the plot.

The first film succeeded because it combined four factors to great effect; music by Brett McKenzie, entertaining cameos, a fairly straight-forward plot and shed-loads of heart. On the first two counts this film delivers, with a prison number delivered by Tina Fey, backed by a bizarre combination of familiar faces, standing out as a superbly surreal highlight of both elements.

Where it falls down is the story. I must concede that for almost any non-muppets film, I’d be implying a much stronger criticism with that comment. As it is I accept that plot has always been a secondary concern behind having fun with whatever concept they’ve chosen to shape the film. The film has a lot of fun with the genre of the police investigation, Ty Burrell (Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy, enjoying himself as a Clouseau-esque Interpol agent) and Sam the Eagle making for a great parody on the buddy cop format. However the heists that are central to the story are underwhelming, each feeling like a missed opportunity.

The plot revolves around a master criminal who looks almost identical to Kermit pulling off heists, using the Muppets as an alibi, but too many of the scenes progressing that central storyline fall flat, feeling like fillers between the scenes involving the real Kermit.

Even that though would be OK if the heart that drove the first film was there but it isn’t. It aims for a message about the importance of friendship but that’s something the first film explored more effectively. There’s another element that I will talk about below in the spoiler section (yes I treat The Muppets seriously enough to merit a spoiler section).

For the spoiler free section, I will end this review with the conclusion that while it is not quite as triumphant a success as the 2011 effort, it is a respectable entrant into the Muppet back-catalogue and filled me with a level of child-like enjoyment that is all too rare in the majority of my visits to the cinema. If you have kids take them to see it (lord knows it’s a better option than the awful looking Postman Pat film coming out soon).

However If you’re looking for a child friendly film from the first half of this year I have to recommend the  Lego Movie ahead of this, because it is at least as fun as Most Wanted but has a more compelling message, delivered with greater confidence and style.

Spoilers below this point.

One of my very slight issues with this film, and I fully acknowledge that it is perhaps an unrealistic criticism of a kids film, is that it suggests a more interesting moral message then fails to deliver.

As mentioned earlier, the film revolves around the idea of Kermit having an almost identical twin who is a master criminal named Constantine. While Kermit ends up thrown in a Siberian Gulag, Constantine (with the help of Ricky Gervais’ Dominic Badguy) uses the Muppets to stage a series of art heists designed to lead to stealing the British crown jewels. The rest of the Muppets blindly follow Constantine’s leadership, accepting he is Kermit despite the evidence to the contrary.

For a large chunk of the film we are presented with the dangers of unquestioningly following a charismatic leader.  Sadly the finale only suggests that as long as you’re following the “right” person, you’ll be fine. Kermit’s return and exposure of the imposter is entertainingly done, but instead of leading to some questioning of doing exactly what they’re told, the Muppets just pass the mistake off with a collective ‘oops’ and commit to following Kermit, even if that is to a Siberian gulag.

Themes of family and togetherness have always been central to The Muppets appeal and rightly so. However the first film conveyed that message so much more effectively, whereas ending with this seems a bit of a cop out here.

I can imagine many of my readers arguing that I’m reading far too much into a Muppets film, but I feel they failed to follow through on a plot they chose to set up. We live in a world where Pixar & Disney have changed what we can expect from a “kids” film, but this film in the end fails to commit to any particular message. There’s a vague affirmation of the values of friendship and loyalty, but by establishing how easily a look-alike can trigger loyalty, that value is called into question by the film itself and never really answered.

The 2011 Muppets film had a clear message about the value of belonging and identity, but this effort, while fun throughout, suffers for having a much vaguer sense of what message it hopes to convey.

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