It’s time to play the music. It’s time to light the lights. Everyone’s favourite felt-made, hand-operated, chaos-beleaguered variety act is back. Following the surprise success of the 2011 reboot, its follow-up – Muppets Most Wanted (2014) – reaches DVD and Blu-ray this week in a slicker, vaster, if marginally less satisfying caper. Just as Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 22 Jump Street (2014) made a wryly meta song and dance about how sequels are never as good as the originals, the Muppets make an actual song and dance routine on the same theme. “All we need is a half-decent plot,” Kermit opines candidly and a half-decent plot is exactly what they get here. But will more potentially follow?
The Muppets are launched on a tour of Europe, organised by Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), but the tour is merely a cover for a daring series of robberies carried out by Badguy and his criminal boss, Constantine – the most dangerous frog in the world who bares a striking resemblance to our own humble Kermit. The coincidence has already been noted and a dastardly plot hatched, as Constantine swaps identities with Kermit, who is promptly carted off to the Gulag. Tina Fey plays camp commandant Nadya, with Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo cameoing as inmates (perhaps delighted to finally be making a film suitable for their grandchildren). As Kermit learns to adapt to his new surroundings and is roped into organising the end of year show, the rest of the Muppets unwittingly carry on the tour.
The Muppets were the originators of the kind of double-barrelled children’s entertainment which managed to hit the kids with the fun zany stuff and the parents with some knowingly clever-than- they-have-any-right-to-be gags, a trick Disney Pixar and DreamWorks have since cottoned on to and made their own particular province. Here the wealth of talent might paradoxically make for a less exuberant product. It was the cobbled together charm of amateurishness that pervades earlier successes. Here the song and dance routines are fine – from original songs written by Flight of the Conchords’ Brett McKenzie (his comic partner Jemaine Clement also pops up in a cameo, while director James Bobin was also part of the Conchords creative team) but there aren’t any stand out tunes.
The celebrity cameos are classier and more numerous, while Fey, Gervais and Ty Burrell (as a French Interpol agent) are arguably more high-powered comedy performers as well this time out, but the laughs aren’t quite as hearty and the film compares unfavourably to earlier films harked back to for inspiration, such as The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). One particular niggle – true of both new films – is the continued belittling of poor Miss Piggy, who has gone from a karate-chopping prime ham to a needy pushover, defined purely by her wish to marry Kermit. That said, if you count yourself a fan of the Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted offers enough zingers and gags to have all but the most cynical Waldorfs and Statlers holding their sides.