OH, KERMIE

03.28.14

Bad Jokes and Silent Kids: How You Know Something Is Very Wrong With Muppets Most Wanted

How could they have gotten it so wrong? It should be impossible to make anything other than a brilliant Muppets film. But the latest is a fail. Our 3-year-old critic delivers the most damning verdict.

The highly anticipated Muppets Most Wanted has turned out to be the movie no one actually wants to see.

The box office earnings were a disappointment. Most Wanted came in a distant second to the young-adult dystopian flick Divergent, pulling in $17 million on opening weekend, a little more than half the earnings that had been projected. The much-better 2011 Muppet relaunch movie, The Muppets, brought in twice as much as Most Wanted, while similarly contending with a tween blockbuster (Breaking Dawn Part 1, in the “Twilight” series) and an animated feature, Happy Feet Two. That film, like this year’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman, was blamed for eating into Muppet profits.

Don’t believe it. These puppets have no one to blame but themselves for their poor performance.

The new Muppet movie betrays its lack of ambition from the very first scene. In the opening number we’re warned, “We’re doin’ a sequel!/There’s no need to disguise/The studio considers us a viable franchise!” Yet somehow, even with our expectations managed so blatantly, my family, and presumably the others that half-filled the small Brooklyn theatre, left disappointed.

To be sure, there were bright spots. Good luck getting composer Bret McKenzie’s songs out of your head. Especially brilliant is Constantine’s “I’ll Get You What You Want,” sung to seduce Miss Piggy before she gets wise to the Russian frog’s switcheroo. It’s campy, steamy, and has been on repeat at our nighttime kitchen dance parties all week.

Several of the cameos are absurdly charming: Celine Dion shares a perfect diva moment with Miss Piggy, and Kermit’s exile to the Gulag  is made more bearable because of the endearing inmates played by Jemaine Clement, Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo. And the Muppets are an institution, a national treasure, so any chance to see them in a new film is a treat. But our nostalgia can only take it so far.

There’s a lot wrong with this movie and no shortage of critics to weigh in with their grievances, though most of them have done so with a curious politeness. Disliking the Muppets feels like a betrayal of one’s childhood, so even the bad reviews are sprinkled with guilty excuses for what’s really a pretty terrible film.

Bilge Ebiri at Vulture qualified his meh review with, “It’s not bad, exactly; the songs are catchy, the cameos are okay, and some of the jokes work fine.”

The human characters, with the exception of Tina Fey who played an adorable Gulag camp guard with a dream of Broadway (and Kermie), fell flat. It was almost unbelievable how the non-Muppets failed to really interact with their felted costars—relationships which often prove to be the funniest and most memorable.

When you take kids to the movies, you go aware that you’ll be missing a lot of the dialogue. I heard every word of The Muppets Most Wanted.”

In The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), it was real person waitress Jenny whose friendship with Kermit brings the show to Broadway. It also leads to roller skating Gregory Hines’ amazing short-shorts clad cameo where he scolds Kermit for neglecting Miss Piggy and turning his affection to a human. “You gave Jenny the huggies?” Hines memorably chided.

The enthusiasm of Jason Segel and Amy Adams in the 2011 reboot was infectious, and their presence is central to getting the gang back together. But the only other Muppet-to-human relationship we see this time apart from Fey’s is between Sam the Eagle and Ty Burrell, who share one dry joke between the pair (Spoiler: Europeans take a lot of time off).

With the noticeable lack of good guys to interact with in the latest movie, screen time is devoted to the half-hearted villains, unlikeable for all the wrong reasons. Not only did it feel like Ricky Gervais had somewhere else to be the whole time, the writing itself didn’t give the one-note character much of a chance to perform.

Even in the end, when Gervais’ Number 2 had the perfect opportunity to grow from an always second-fiddle criminal into a decent guy (or part of the show, even!), he was bested again by bad-frog Constantine and thrown out of the getaway helicopter while wearing a lemur suit, a stunt that got no laughs in our theater.

“What do we care about the power struggles between a greedy showbiz manager and a psychopathic frog crime boss who happens to resemble Kermit?” Dana Stevens asked in Slate. “Or about the fake Kermit’s struggle to disguise his Russian accent, or to convince Miss Piggy that he’s the same simple frog she once fell in love with?”

The success of the Muppets’ “let’s put on a show” formula, was strangely disregarded this go around. Kermit is actually sent to Siberia. He literally couldn’t be further from the crew he’s meant to direct. To make up for it, we get a prison revue with a few enjoyable moments, including a stirring tryout to A Chorus Line’s “I Hope I Get It.” But we came to see the Muppet show, not Ray Liotta singing Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine.”

The New Yorker’s Michael Schulman most accurately diagnoses the missing pulse of Most Wanted. “The more important smell test is one of tone: that cocktail of cleverness, warmth, and mania that marked the Henson years.” Schulman writes. “‘The Muppets’ (under the creative stewardship of James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller) had it; ‘Muppets Most Wanted,’ less so.”

He goes on: “Children, if they have any taste, will eat it up, but their chaperones will know that something is missing.”

He’s half right.

Children are arguably not the Muppet’s target audience. But almost every review echoed the sentiment, “It’s not great, but your kids will like it,” so it’s important to note: Kids, the one I have, the ones I know, and the ones I shared a theater with, had little appetite for the new Muppets caper.

Video screenshot

My son, Sky, is young, but has seen a lot of movies: about ten in the theater and on “movie night” Fridays. Not only is he obsessive when it comes to finishing a film (we have to stay until the final credit rolls and the lights are up), during the movie, he doesn’t squirm, or ask for a snack or to go to the bathroom. He watches, he devours.

But for the first time, he looked bored. And he wasn’t alone.

See, when you take kids to the movies, you go aware that you’ll be missing a lot of the dialogue. The laughter of little people comes at unexpected times, is heartier, and goes on for longer than it should if we’re measuring purely by the strength of the joke.

I heard every word of The Muppets Most Wanted.

There were no belly laughs and no talking. Kids weren’t turning to their parents or siblings to share “Can you believe that just happened?” moments. They ate their popcorn, chuckled sporadically, and shuffled out quietly into the bright light of the afternoon, probably wishing, like I was, that they had seen Peabody and Sherman instead.