THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: Muppets Most Wanted

4 May, 2019 at 9:04 am (film, muppets)

Title card: Muppets Most Wanted

The second of the pure-Disney release Muppet films and the most recent theatrical Muppet Movie, we begin our peeling back of the Muppet onion with a great opening: the ending of the previous film. I’m not often a fan of “five minutes later” continuity (one of my main problems with The Incredibles 2), as it tends to mean that characters are plunged back into the waters of conflict after we’ve just reached some sort of catharsis and reconciliation, even if it was actually several years ago from the audience’s perspective. However, it’s hard not to be charmed by the audacity of beginning a film with fireworks and a “The End” card. (Especially as that’s the opening of my own unfinished screenplay…)

The film then charges into choppy waters. The very first scene is promising, in that it establishes that the end of the previous movie is the end of the filming of that movie, tapping into a conceit that is long rumored to be a key aspect of Muppet Movie-making: that all of the Muppet movies after The Muppet Movie are the movies that the Muppets made as part of their deal with Lew Grade. (Listen to film nerd and Muppet fan Griffin Newman speak on this as a guest on the No Excuses podcast.) The Muppet Movie is, after all, a screening of the Muppets watching “The Muppet Movie”, an “approximately how it happened” biopic of how The Muppets really got started. It’s an A Star Is Born narrative with the Muppets playing themselves, and most of the rest of the films are supposed to be films of the Muppets continuing to play the Muppets in various scenarios. The Great Muppet Caper perhaps does this metafiction best, with The Muppets Take Manhattan blurring the line the worst, but providing an explanation as to how Kermit and Piggy get married at the end of that film and yet remain romantically separated for the rest of their careers.

So this first scene starts in line with the metafictional expectations of certain Muppet fans — so far, so strong — but then immediately wrong-foots itself by launching into a backlot song-and-dance number. The song is moderately catchy but a little flat. I found the Hollywood backlot stuff confusing, as I didn’t click with the decision the grips and wardrobe people performing in a vaguely ’40s atmosphere, which serves as homage, but adds little else. The main problem is that the dancing line of the main Muppet cast is stiff, and lacks depth or interesting choreography, and the stilted Singing in the Rain antics of the humans does not make up for it, especially as the action is so obviously segregated on two planes. The film satire montage is fun, but both it and the retro heart of dance number seem to essentially misjudge the audience.

Thank goodness for the insane cut to Constantine: The World’s Most Dangerous Frog.

CONSTANTINE: The World's Most Dangerous Frog

“It’s like ’83 all over again. Out of the shadows and, ‘All right, squire?
Trust me.’ and gone before you know it. Christ, that was a laugh…”


Who escapes from a Russian gulag in a mildly clunky CGI puppeteering fight scene that’s a solid parody of the opening of Ghost Protocol. (And, obviously, other things, but it felt pointedly aimed at that film’s opening and only the addition of a Rat Pack soundtrack would have firmly cemented the reference.) Which leads to the confirmation of the presence of Ricky Gervais, who’d made an odd cameo in the opening number. I don’t have a lot of exposure to other works by Gervais, as the cringe humor of The Office made me stab the eject button on my DVD player in 2005, and I never revisited it or his larger career. But he does slimy deadpan extremely well in this film, and consistently nails the tone as he manipulates the Muppets and simultaneously tells them (and the audience) that he’s doing it.

BUSINESS CARDS IN CINEMA: Dominic BadguyThis introduces four narratives into the film. The first is the essential plot: a mild satire on the traditional sequel trope of going international (q.v. Pitch Perfect 2, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, The Karate Kid Part II, The Hangover: Part II…), of taking your small-town, local act from the first film on the road which will dovetail with the art heist plot, itself a nod to sequels by paralleling Muppet Caper. The second narrative is Kermit’s character arc of feeling isolated and abandoned by his fellow Muppets. This is initiated by establishing Kermit’s realistic goals of needing to work hard to achieve solid, sustainable success in contrast with the snake oil/ego trip that Gervais’s character is allowing the other Muppets to indulge in. When Kermit is then arrested and imprisoned due to the confusion generated by Constantine’s fake mole, it moves his isolation from thematic to concrete.

The third and fourth narratives are related to this mechanic. The third is Gervais’ secret role as The Lemur, trying to advance to being the number one criminal and not remaining as Number Two to Constantine. His arc of trying to undermine his boss is supposed to vaguely parallel how Kermit feels being undermined by Gervais in the first place. This isn’t entirely successful, but there is a lot going on in this movie, and to truly want to sympathize with Dominic Badguy as he gaslights the figurehead of a forty-year film franchise feels like an impossible ask.

The fourth is the Piggy/Kermit marriage. This is a strange emotional beat, as it’s not something I ever was particularly invested in. Part of this likely comes from a traditional childhood squeamishness in relation to all things romantic, but I think has more to do with the essential duality of Miss Piggy’s character. Sometimes she is goopy “Oh, Kermieeeeee…” feminine, and sometimes she is strong, “Hiiiii-yah!” action pig. I always preferred the capable, strong “Pigs In Space” Piggy, the one that drove a motorcycle through a window. The way she would go all weak and feminine over Kermit bored me and felt beneath her powers and scope. I’ve already referred to the Take Manhattan trick marriage, but apparently that was the second time Piggy resorted to scamming Kermit with a real proceedings, the first occurring on a third season episode of The Muppet Show I’ve never seen. (A solid timeline of the nuptial and romantic bindings between Kermit and Piggy can be found on Insider.) So to once again have the climax of the film centered around their wedding did not interest me.

However, the way in which the film used Constantine’s obliviousness to Piggy’s feelings as a lever to raise suspicion felt successful. Especially as it culminates in the final emotional beat of Piggy realizing which is the real Kermit because of his ambivalence toward committing to marrying her. Her joy in embracing him and his reticence was a nice bit of character work. It confirmed — for me, at least — that part of what she loves about Kermit is their lack of official attachment.

GONZO: We Convinced ourselves that evil frog was you because he gave us what we thought we wanted.The fourth song in the film, “I’ll Get You Want You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)” is by far the catchiest number, and also serves as the heart of the conflict between the Muppets and their criminal representation. As Gonzo plainly states at the conclusion of the film, there’s a difference between what one thinks one wants and what one actually wants. Bret McKenzie’s bopping little number here is an amusing laundry list song — almost always a successful way to entertain, and definitely a solid twenty-five percent of Weird Al’s best output — that serves to let the air out of Piggy’s attachment to the trappings of a glitzy relationship. Constantine says yes to everyone so that no one questions what might actually be going wrong. It’s a good trick, and a good observation about how one could actually be manipulated into backing a horrible shell of an imposter with no actual interest in your success or well-being. Insert West Wing Weekly hashtag “Trump Ay-ay-ay…”

“Cockatoo in Malibu” appears thirty-eight minutes into the film. Despite being pretty damn catchy, it is also a fairly uninspired visual confection. It echoes the kind of lounge-y, disco romance number that was successfully satirized in Airplane! in 1980, and it was boring and slightly overlong then. This song would also be slightly better if it hadn’t come so hard on the heels of the previous musical number, “The Big House”, which ended a scant five minutes prior. The songs come roughly at the following intervals:

  1. 1 minute, thirty seconds: “We’re Doin’ A Sequel”
  2. 19 minutes: “I’m Number One”
  3. 30 minutes: “The Big House”
  4. 38 minutes: “I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)”
  5. 46 minutes: “Interrogation Song”
  6. 59 minutes: “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line
  7. 1 hour, 8 minutes: “Something So Right”
  8. 1 hour, 16 minutes: “Workin’ In A Coal Mine”
  9. 1 hour, 48 minutes: “Together Again (Again)” reprising from Muppets Take Manhattan

And that doesn’t even include the little twiggy bits of music from the Waltz with Christoph Waltz and the Electric Mayhem jam session and the excerpt from Piggy’s Celine Dion tribute and the other bits of performance all along the international tour. There’s a lot of music in this film. Most of the songs are short and punchy, but some of them have that unfortunate Nightmare Before Christmas quality of making the audience feel, “Wait, didn’t we just have a song? Do we need another one? Already?” In the heart of the movie, there’s an average of just under seven minutes between the start of a new song, and with the songs running between two and a half and three minutes, that’s not much of a palate-cleanser between tunes.

What works slightly better is the series of cameos, which also come hot on the heels of each other, but which are much less likely to distract. Some of the celebrity appearances are underscored with a dramatic flourish that can be dumbfounding if the person is not immediately recognizable (Usher, Ross Lynch, Josh Groban), but many of the other one-line appearances just seem to be random human beings who might as well be extras or day players their roles are less tied to a gag and more to a tiny moment of plot or action (e.g. Tony Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Hugh Bonneville, and Tom Hollander… incidentally, also all faces that — sorry, gents — might not have registered to anyone but critics and film nerds as people who genuinely weren’t actually day players or extras). In addition to those mentioned parenthetically above, I also noticed Rob Corddry, Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Peter Serafinowitz, Dexter Fletcher, Miranda Richardson, Til Schweiger, Christoph Waltz, James McAvoy, Salma Hayek, Sean “P. Diddy” Holmes, Saoirse Ronan, Céline Dion, Chloe Grace Moretz, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hiddleston, Russell Tovey, a quartet of seemingly uncredited Disney kid stars, Frank Langella, and Zach Galifianakis. And that doesn’t include featured players Ty Burrell, Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo (playing Danny Trejo, always one of my favorite gags), Jemaine Clement, and Tina Fey.

For future reference, that brings the Celebrity Human Score to 35 for Muppets: Most Wanted. We will see how that stacks up as we go. We will also check to see how the billing works in previous movies, because I was truly surprised when we got to the credits that the featured humans got top billing over the Muppet performers. That makes sense in terms of The Muppets, when Jason Seigel and Amy Adams’ characters are as integral to the plot as any of the traditional Muppeteers, but I have a hard time believing that, say, Juliana Donald or Charles Grodin got higher billing than Dave Goelz in Muppets Take Manhattan or Great Muppet Caper, despite being human actors with some key importance in their respective stories.

But speaking of mostly useless appearances by vaguely human figures, let’s talk about Walter. Walter was a new Muppet in The Muppets, and, if memory serves, his newness and optimism were the point of his existence. He was an identification character, a blank slate (almost a What-not) that young audience members could project on to if they didn’t grow up steeped in Muppet culture. As a comedic concept — it’s basically Twins, except with the mismatched Siegel and Walter instead of Schwartzenegger and Devito — it’s fine, if nondescript. Which describes Walter’s character as well. While many of the Muppets can be described as characteristic of a certain kind of excess, Walter isn’t. The IMDB description of his character in The Muppets is “a Muppet fanatic”, but to say that is a summation of his core character would be stretching a point. His love of The Muppets or of wanting to be part of the troupe doesn’t exactly parallel Gonzo’s fierce yen to be a radical performance artist or Fozzie’s fruitless desire to be a comedian. Walter lacks immoderation. He is hyper-nebbishy, but not in a root, descriptive way.

And his role in Most Wanted is miserable. He starts off trying to be the voice of compromise, but then becomes the voice of doubt. He just embodies indecision, initially to the detriment of Kermit, but then slowly, slowly uses his doubt to help turn everything around to the benefit of justice. But as personality traits go, being hesitant is pretty terrible. It may be a plot and character engine for Hamlet, but Most Wanted is not Strange Brew, and Walter’s lack of animus or agency is not part of a structural satire.

The only thing Walter prompts is a piece of accidental meta-commentary and the film’s best/dumbest joke.

CONSTANTINE: The Lovers, The Dreamers, and Cheese.

Who do I talk to about enforcing the Oxford Comma in film subtitles…

Because Walter asks if anyone thinks that anything’s weird about Kermit, Constantine watches a series of videotapes to get his voice and behaviors correct, and the gag is, as above, despite having direct access Constantine still persistently muffs it. It’s a simple running gag that follows on from Constantine’s introduction, but it still made me cackle like a madman.

Steve Whitmire and the author, Sept. 2018Steve Whitmire is playing Kermit in Most Wanted, and while he had been doing so since 1990, more than a quarter-century at this point, the archive footage used by The World’s Most Dangerous Frog to finesse his impersonation is only footage of Jim Henson. On the face of it, this is a simple homage, a way of working Jim into this movie. It’s a sweet reminder. But it creates strange echoes in retrospect. Three years after this film, after the creation and cancellation of the ABC television show The Muppets, Whitmire was fired from playing Kermit after reportedly being intractable and difficult about the way in which the character was being written and reimagined. Matt Vogel, who voices Constantine, has gone on to voice Kermit in any future appearances of the character. Which means that this may be the only production to feature three people to play Kermit playing Kermit: past, erstwhile present, and future on tape, in character, and as impostor.

It is absolutely a coincidence, but the strange quirk of Constantine never reviewing, say, any footage from Muppet Christmas Carolinadvertantly gives an editorial cast to this scene and Vogel’s eventual succession in the role of Kermit. I don’t believe it, but it feels like the kind of thing that a conspiracy theorist would point to as evidence of a long-planned Deep State forecast of Whitmire’s eventual ouster. I hope no one actually believes that, but there must be a kind of variation of Rule Number Thirty-Four of the Internet that if you’ve conceived of it, there already exists a YouTube channel about how that conspiracy theory is evidence of The Cabal that runs everything/all media/our lives. To which I say only, I find the legalize copyright wording in the credits, that this film is “based on Disney’s Muppet Properties and Characters” to be slightly stomach-churning. Ugh.

RATING: The Lovers, The Dreamers, or Cheese? DREAMERS. Makes for an enjoyable rewatch, has solid aspirations, a clever script, good nods to continuity, and lacks only the inventive filmmaking chutzpah to overcome some of the essential issues involved with filming humans and puppets together.

NEXT: Jason Segel takes his Vampire Puppet Musical from Forgetting Sarah Marshall and parlays it into a successful reboot of the Muppets, dispelling the public’s dissatisfaction with the Muppets Tonight-era attempt to revitalize the franchise.

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