‘Muppets’ plays to laughs from parents, not kids

by Varun Bhuchar | 3/23/14 6:01pm

The Muppets puppet characters, a mainstay of American pop culture long before current Dartmouth students were born, were effectively rebooted with “The Muppets” (2011). Infused with meta-humor and modern sensibilities, the film brought the lovable scamps back into the cultural zeitgeist.

The film’s follow-up, “Muppets Most Wanted” (2014), seems to have done away with all of that. The half-hearted effort relies too much on the reputation of its main characters and lacks any attempt to build on established tropes.

Movies “for children” have to walk a fine line between entertaining youngsters and appealing to their wallet-wielding chaperones. It is a symbiotic relationship — you cannot get to the former without appeasing the latter — and as such, most weave in elements that appeal to either audience, so that parents don’t treat trips to these movies as $10 two-hour naps.

“Muppets Most Wanted” appeals to parents all too well, with nary a joke except some slapstick humor for the kids. The bulk of the humor derives from the movie’s elaborate plot, which involves skewering European politics and power norms as well as various identity crises.

Picking up right where the last movie left off, “Muppets Most Wanted” begins as the fuzzy gang hires Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) to manage its international tour. True to his name, Badguy is working with Constantine, the world’s most dangerous criminal and a doppelganger to Kermit the Frog. In a devastating mix-up, Constantine frames Kermit for his crimes and takes his place in the Muppets’ troupe, Meanwhile, the real Kermit (Steve Whitmire) is sent to a Gulag in Siberia and guarded by the increasingly obsessive Nadya (Tina Fey).

Indeed, “Muppets Most Wanted” seems to deal primarily with issues of identity and self-worth, topics that are surprisingly deep and not necessarily welcomed by the film’s audience. Up until viewers meet Constantine, Kermit is locked in an internal struggle, wondering why the troupe won’t follow his lead and stressing over Miss Piggy’s push for marriage.

While not exactly comparable to Ivan Denisovich, Kermit is a sad, sad frog when he is abandoned by the friends who cannot tell him apart from Constantine — despite it being very, very obvious — and sent to the Gulag. This contrasts with Kermit’s straight man role in past films — it isn’t easy being green, after all.

The film also takes potshots at Europe via Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell), an Interpol detective stuck in an office straight out of a John le Carré novel and about as French as La Tour Eiffel. Jokes concerning Napoleon’s extensive train travel, absurdly small cars and government-mandated paid vacations went over the heads of both children and adults in my screening. The film’s best reference of this kind, however, is an allusion to Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957), complete with the Swedish Chef, who plays chess with Death.

Otherwise, there is something empty and nihilistic about “Muppets Most Wanted” that not even a score by Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords” or a procession of celebrity guests can reconcile. Expect appearances by McKenzie’s “Conchords” counterpart Jemaine Clement, Christoph Waltz, Salma Hayek, James McAvoy and Tom Hiddleston.

As ill-tempered Statler and Waldorf might say, “The movie isn’t half bad, it’s mostly bad.”

 

Rating: 4.6/10

“Muppets Most Wanted” is currently playing at the Nugget.