I wouldn’t have gone to see a Muppet sequel if it hadn’t been for Ricky Gervais. He’s been a fan of the Muppets for years, and the kind of camp-loving glee he has for them is hard to hide. Go back and watch The Office and count the number of Muppets references. Gervais actually does Muppet impressions on-screen. He sings “Mah Nà Mah Nà”! So when I saw the trailers with Gervais actually in a Muppet movie, I knew I was in for a good time. When people are having fun while they make a movie, that good feeling reaches the audience too. How could some of the world’s best comic talent plus the fun-loving Muppets ever go wrong?
The answer is: they didn’t. Muppets Most Wanted is an unqualified success. I left the cinema buzzing from the great jokes and the catchy musical numbers. I’d expected the critics to agree, but what surprised me was that the reviews of this movie were so quick to dump on it. The top reviews from Rotten Tomatoes use phrases like, “the magic is largely missing”, “lacks some of the gang’s usual feel-good joy”, and “[not] as giddily entertaining as its predecessor” — and these are the guys who liked it. There’s a popular consensus: the last one was great but the new one is a bit iffy.
But really? What planet are these people living on? 2011’s The Muppets was a turkey. I saw it with a friend who worships the Muppets, and even he thought it was hard to watch. With The Muppets as their great reintroduction to the public, it’s a wonder they got their sequel at all.
The main criticism against Muppets Most Wanted seems to be that there was a lot of genuine emotion in The Muppets, particularly in the love story, that was lacking from its sequel. Let’s break this down. The Muppets has three attempted tear-jerkers. One is Walter, who is adorably useless and out of place, and who eventually gets invited to join the Muppets. The second is the Muppets attempting to get back together after being separated for the past ten years. The third is this dippy couple who are supposedly having relationship problems. Walter is cute, I’ll grant you, and his story is the most successful of these three. Then there’s the plot to get the felty little fellahs back together. Good good, but that’s all over in about 20 minutes out of a 100-minute movie. Then there’s the romance. Ah. This is the bit that really got my goat. I hate movies that expect me to care about some dippy couple who moan about their relationship that doesn’t have any real problems. The Marx Brothers made the same mistake by shoe-horning a love story into all their movies. We’re not here to watch the white-bread couple dither around before finally hooking up at the end. Either get real problems or shut the hell up.
By comparison Muppets Most Wanted doesn’t make any real grabs at our heartstrings. The Muppets have traditionally had some heartwarming threads in their movies and this has its moments too — Kermit being replaced and eventually needed again is just as sweet as Walter’s story from the previous film. The difference here is the teary stuff doesn’t take center stage. I think this is why critics objected. Instead of spending the whole movie trying to make us cry, Muppets Most Wanted is a free-wheeling, anarchic, fun-loving romp. And what’s wrong with that? That’s surely heaps better than pretending to care about Jason Segel and Amy Adams’ lame relationship. Muppets Most Wanted was a hoot — there were great jokes (and, this being the Muppets, plenty of deliciously bad ones too), there was adventure, there were slapstick and sight gags, and the film was loaded to the brim with celebrity cameos. So where do the critics get off saying, “Well sure it was funny, but where was the ham-fisted, phoned-in love story?” The Muppets might have been just as funny if it hadn’t spent so much of its time being maudlin instead.
Then there’s the music. I just watched it but I can’t remember one original song from The Muppets. The music wasn’t wholly useless — they did a great parody of “Rainbow Connection” sung by the Moopets with lyrics advertising a casino (“Why are there such great deals / On our hotel rooms?”) They also did a very sly joke where the chickens sing CeeLo Green’s “Fuck You”, which I’m sure Kermit would have introduced as “Cluck You” if he could have got away with it. But neither of those songs is new, and I honestly don’t remember a single other song from the movie. No, wait, the bad guy had an excruciating attempt at a rap song. Yeah. Let us never speak of it again.
But make room for Muppets Most Wanted! The soundtrack for this movie was interstellar. I was hooked right from the opening number, “We’re Doing a Sequel”. I left the cinema humming this and I’ve been humming it for about a week now. Throw that into the mix with other equally strong numbers like “I’m Number One” and “The Big House”, and you have a movie that’s already brimming with memorable original songs. I’ve been annoying my boyfriend by playing them non-stop and quite badly on my ukulele. Bret McKenzie contributed the songs to both movies, but it really feels like they let him off the leash in Muppets Most Wanted. Investing in McKenzie’s talent paid off big-time.
The impression I get from The Muppets is that of a very cautious re-launch. Veteran Muppet performer Frank Oz called the movie “a little too safe”, and I think he hit the nail on the head. Disney were petrified of coming on too strong so they turned the volume way down. This was a critical mistake. Nobody goes to see the Muppets to see calm and quiet. We go to see good-natured anarchy. If nothing else the Muppets have bags of personality, and it’s criminal to dial that down. What I liked so much about Muppets Most Wanted was that they hit you in the face with their exuberance in the opening number and they don’t stop. It’s like the scriptwriter and composer and actors thought, “Fuck it, let’s just have fun with this one.”
And that’s exactly what a Muppet movie should be. If the makers are all tip-toeing around cautiously, how is the result ever going to be fun? But if the makers are having the time of their lives (and it’s clear Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey are delighted to be there), then the audience will too. So film critics, please come back from whatever strange dimension you’ve been visiting and appreciate Muppets Most Wanted for what it is, not just to give the cast and crew the recognition they deserve, but because if this movie gets a lukewarm reception they might not make another.