Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

I, as you probably know, am an unashamed Muppet maniac. I vehemently defy anyone to tell me they aren’t funny. It was a bleak world when the Muppets ceased to appear on the big screen. Thankfully I was not the only person who thought so and back in 2011 Jason Segel and his co-writer Nicholas Stoller set out to reintroduce the Muppets to a modern family audience. Their resulting film proved to be a hit with both critics and audiences alike and Disney swiftly signed up the furry stars for a sequel. This sequel has been hotly anticipated and, for a time, it seemed that a week didn’t go by without another big name star signing up for to play a role in the second part of Kermit and co’s comeback. The first real piece of news was that Jason Segel wouldn’t be returning and, to be honest, I couldn’t be happier. Don’t get me wrong Jason Segel did a great job with the script and is a decent enough actor but I was kind of bored by his whole romantic plot. I’m a bit traditional when it comes to my Muppets and I prefer hilarious chaos rather than romantic comedy. However, I did enjoy the film and felt it was as successful a comeback as everyone else. Unsurprisingly, I have spent the year eagerly awaiting the release of the follow up: if only to experience more of Bret Mackenzie’s sensational compositional work.

The major thing to realise upon the opening sequence of the follow up to 2011’s rebranding effort, The Muppets, is that both Kermit and Miss Piggy are present. If my memory serves me correctly this is the first film in which everyone’s favourite diva swine is present from the get go. After the success of their first (ok their 8th) outing the Muppets realise that they have been rewarded with a sequel so set about trying to find a decent plot. Handily the Muppets use their opening number sets out to lower the expectations of its audience by explicitly stating how disappointing sequels usually are.

Wondering about the best way to build on their recent success they decide that the only way is to embark on a World Tour. Joining them is the mysterious Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) who cunningly takes control of the gang and leads them to various European capitals. Along the way he orchestrates a plan to replace Kermit with the newly escaped Russian villain, Constantine, whilst shipping Kermit off to a Serbian gulag run by Tina Fey.  Constantine and Badguy plan a series of thefts in order to pull off the greatest robbery of all time. A plot that leaves plenty of room for typical Muppet hi jinks.

However, unlike the first film Muppets Most Wanted ultimately lacks narrative structure and focus. The various plot lines meander along too slowly and drag out any dramatic or emotional potential. Rather than having a main aim (i.e. getting the gang back together to save the studio) and having smaller subplots along the way, you might be hard pushed to pick out one specific story as the main focus. We have the mistaken identity between Kermit and Constantine, Serbian prison, a series of robberies, the CIA and Interpol investigation, Walter’s rescue plan, Miss Piggy’s attempt to get Kermit to commit, and gulag’s annual revue. Phew. As if that wasn’t enough, the hotchpotch of stories is littered with as many pointless celeb cameos as Disney could possibly afford. (Now y’all know by now that Tom Hiddleston can’t do anything wrong in my

Any excuse…

eyes but his seconds long part was both unnecessary and so built up in the marketing campaign that it’s laughable.) It lacks the heart of the previous film and, at times, just feels pretty shallow and desperate.  

I guess, despite my initial celebration, this film misses Jason Segel: not on screen necessarily but certainly behind the computer. The script isn’t as tight or clever and ingenuity is replaced with spectacle. The reason The Muppets worked so well was because Segel was so utterly invested in bringing the group back onto our screen. His emotional connection was evident throughout his script and in his performance. His interaction with the puppets was amazing: certainly much better than Ricky Gervais who seems to carry everything out with an ironic or knowing glint in his eye. There is none of the tenderness that either Segel showed or Gervais has been known to show in other projects. His performance is an underwhelming, self-conscious show of the comedian at his most gurning.

To make up for this downfall the other two significant human roles are both memorable and joyous to watch. Tina Fey brings out her best dodgy Russian accent to play a character so dripping in stereotypes that it sort of becomes ok again. The scenes set in the gulag may be distracting to the plot but they are packed full of great Muppet-y humour. Even if the cameos from Jermaine Clement, Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo weren’t used to their fullest potential. However, it is Modern Family’s Ty Burrell is the most prominent performer 
and, spectacularly, has the most amazing chemistry with Sam the Eagle. Burrell plays a Clouseau-esque Interpol agent alongside Sam’s CIA agent as the pair follows the clues to find the burglar. He brings about some of the biggest laughs and turns a song written as exposition into one of the stand-out numbers.  

Great musical numbers is something this film offers in spades thanks to more sterling work from Bret Mackenzie (one half of comedy duo Flight of the Conchords). Mackenzie was the person who brought the Muppets their first Oscar thanks to his incredibly well written song ‘Man or Muppet’. That song aside, I felt the soundtrack was a bit hit and miss though. There weren’t too many original songs and most of them were good but forgettable. This time around Mackenzie hardly ever falters. It is thanks to the musical numbers and their routines that the audience are able to stick with the hodgepodge that is the plot. I downloaded the OST as soon as I’d watch the film and I’ve not been able to stop singing them since.

Yes, Muppets Most Wanted may not be as accomplished or as neat a film as The Muppets was but, if I’m honest, I enjoyed it just as much (if not more). I can’t deny that this is probably mainly down to the Mackenzie but this feels like any other Muppet film. It’s silly, chaotic and feel-good. The Muppets are true to form and, Gervais aside, their human counterparts breathe life into the dwindling narrative: Tina Fey and Ty Burrell work well with the puppets and serve to highlight their co-stars instead of drawing focus. Of course, in my heart I know that I would have been happier if there were fewer shameless cameos and a tighter script but, as for showing the Muppets’ continued potential, I’d say Muppets Most Wanted does well enough.

Although, if Beaker, the Swedish Chef and Fozzie are doing what they have been for years then I guess I’ll always be easily pleased.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

In mid-November I had a dream. It was a crazy, naïve dream that came out of my guilt surrounding my failure to update this thing very often: I told myself that for every day of advent I would write something Christmas related for this blog. These ranged from the mundane (and lazy) top 10 lists to the more ambitious reviews and general musings. Considering this is my first Christmas themed post and we’re already in mid-December I think it’s safe to say I failed to live up to my expectations but better late than never I say. Oh and quick warning, I’m about to write about a film that is probably my all-time favourite Christmas film so be prepared for it to get a bit sentimental.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has become a favourite and reliable yuletide tale. Without meaning to sound like an awful literary hipster, I would suggest that, whilst everyone knows the narrative, fewer people have experienced the novella itself. This is perfectly understandable (I’m actually all for people ignoring Dickens as I feel his fifteen minutes of fame should have ended long ago) but it is unfortunate. The tale is one of the only works by Dickens that I genuinely enjoyed reading and the only one I have wanted to read multiple times. The book is a much more Gothic and disgusting tale than many adaptations have made it out to be. It is well worth a look and, unlike most of his literature, ends up being both a quick and easy read.
Of course if you can’t be bothered with all of that reading you could always check out one of the many features that have adapted it or, at the very least, taken inspiration from the novella. For their 1992 adaptation, and in a shrewd attempt to make the dark tale more child friendly, Disney placed the tale into the expert hands of the Muppets. For some unknown reason, I find that I am friends with quite a few people who, in their own words, “don’t get the Muppets”. Every time I got overexcited after seeing the trailer for the most recent film they would just ask me what the point was. The point? To paraphrase my old buddy Charlie Bucket, ‘the Muppets don’t have a point. That’s why they’re the Muppets.’ I can’t think of anyone better to tell this chilling tale.
With a little help from Michael Caine that is. Caine steps into the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly old man who benefits from other people’s hardship. When faced with a supporting cast of colourful animal puppets, Caine doesn’t make the mistake of trying to play the role for laughs. He plays it as straight as he would do if this were a traditional adaptation of Dickens’ work. He is an astounding performer and he always hits the right dramatic and emotional notes. I also find it odd that, in a film where rats can get turned into icicles and frogs and pigs can mate, I can still be found tearing up as Scrooge is forced to remember his past.
At a recent screening at the BFI, producer Martin Baker suggested that Caine often found the technical side of working with a bunch of puppets fairly tedious. Whilst I can imagine that being the case, the finished article doesn’t show any negative of handing over the majority of the novella’s characters to the Muppets themselves. They fit into their respective roles incredibly easily and, thanks to a fantastic group of puppeteers, there are no glaring signs of their limited field of movement. Everything fits together and ends up looking great, even 10 years on.
We are lead on our journey by the blue alien Gonzo who takes the role of Charles Dickens’ himself. His narrative remains faithful to the original story and much of his dialogue is taken straight from the novel itself (although with a few necessary changes here and there). It is a tale that most will be fairly familiar with: a bitter and hateful man is visited by the ghosts of his ex-partners who urge him to change his ways before promising three more spirits will turn up to guide him on his journey of redemption. Add into that a poor and desperate set of employees and we have a happy look at a traditional Victorian Christmas. Yes the story has been plumped out with humorous Muppet specific sections to keep the children interested but I don’t think the screenplay fails to get the message across. Scrooge’s change may happen quickly but, despite the fact we are dealing with the suffering of Muppets rather than people, I think there is enough emotional resonance there. Many of the reviews that were written when the film came out suggested that it was only suitable for its child audience. As a 24 year old myself I’d have to disagree. At the screening I mentioned earlier, the audience mainly consisted of people over the age of 18 and most of the kids in the audience had clearly been dragged along by their overly keen parents.
As with the majority of their feature films, The Muppet Christmas Carol is, in part, a musical and we are treated to a few original songs written by Paul Williams. The soundtrack is fairly hit and miss but there are some great pieces in the mix. In keeping with the tale they are of a more classical bearing rather than attempting to reflect a more modern sound. The opening track ‘Scrooge’ is a truly amazing composition that perfectly fits into the Victorian environment that is being recreated. Hearing it on the big screen genuinely sent shivers down my spine. With its use of brass and harpsichord, it sounds exactly like the kind of piece that Bach could have written… well on one of his off days maybe. Not all of Williams’ efforts stand up though. I personally find Tiny Tim’s ‘Bless Us All’ to be annoyingly schmaltzy and the Marley brothers’ ghostly introduction is fairly forgettable. Unfortunately, the lyrics are at times questionable but I don’t think that really matters. I defy anyone to watch the gigantic Ghost of Christmas Present and Michael Caine bopping along to ‘It Feels Like Christmas’ (my favourite Christmas anthem) and not feeling warmth spreading from their soul. This film isn’t about being perfect and it is not pretending to be the best film ever created. It’s about the heart and fun that is so easily associated with the studio and well-known characters. It’s even easy to forgive Michael Caine’s fairly abysmal singing towards the end because at Christmas who the hell cares.
The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first film produced by the studio after the deaths of the Muppets’ creator Jim Henson. Brian Henson stepped into the director’s chair and created an admirable homage to his father’s legacy. It certainly carries on the good work that the studio produced during his father’s days and the creature workshop continued to get better in bringing everything to life. If I’m honest, I can understand why people are so quick to criticise this film. It is not a masterpiece. It doesn’t break new ground as far as the material is concerned and it is a very basic children’s film. To see it in those terms is missing a major factor. It’s got heart and passion. The people involved with this film loved what they were doing and it shows. It’s an entertaining and colourful look at a story that had arguable already become stale. If nothing else The Muppet Christmas Carol is fun and, let’s be honest, if the Muppets have to have a point then I’d say that was probably it.