“Muppets Most…” Disappointing

There was a time I never thought I’d utter “Muppet” and “disappointment” in the same sentence. I’m remiss to say that day has finally come.

Since last Saturday, I’ve been mired in a period of intense and savage reflection. In bearing witness to the most recent Muppet caper, I’ve been saddled with an unfamiliar sense of Muppet-guilt and Muppuzzlement. No matter how many ways I do the math, my impressions of the film all come out to the same disappointing conclusion.

Being the first Muppet feature release since 2011, Muppets Most Wanted was the logical evolutionary step in a franchise that has long thrived on innovation. In keeping with this mission, the Muppets have remained relevant, fresh, and beloved for years—since 1955, to be exact.

Hm. Wonder why the fellow on the top right didn’t make it so far.

It was in 1955 that Jim Henson built his star player out of discarded green felt and a forgotten ping-pong ball. In the years since that simple arts and craft project, the Muppets have established themselves on the forefront of our social consciousness—arguably for longer than any puppet-based franchise should.

Typically, new Muppets, new music, and new adventures hedge our forlornness for the bygone Muppets of bygone eras. Muppets Most Wanted, however, managed to disappoint in all dimensions. While the film did feature a number of fresh faces, most of them were human faces. These served mostly to highlight the devastating absence of any exciting new Mups. The only newly-introduced Muppet was the evil Kermit doppelganger, Constantine, who proved to be an amphibious chore.

Visually, Constantine is identical to Kermit—barring the distinctively nefarious mole that rests upon the Russian criminal’s upper lip. Cute idea, but not the kind of punchline that can carry a film 90 minutes. The Muppets can be—and have been—more creative than this in the past. Besides, who wants some bootleg look-a-like driving the plot while the real deal is rotting away in a Gulag?

Predictably, Ricky Gervais’s big fat head stood in the way of most things that were enjoyable or Muppet-related. Gervais portrays Dominic Badguy, the Muppets’ World Tour Manager who, unbeknownst to our heroes, harbors sinister motivations. While Badguy is in cahoots with Constantine, Tina Fey is also along for the ride, playing the lovesick-yet-ruthless Gulag-warden Nadya. This character’s shining moment came in the form of one second-long, fourth-wall-smashing line: “Goodnight, Danny Trejo.”

While it’s easy to pin the blame on the unavoidable lifelessness of Gervais’s character (not to mention Fey’s), his fat head was representative of the larger problem at hand: Not enough of this film’s humor was Muppet-generated. Muppets Most Wanted relied uncomfortably on human characters who, frankly, felt half-baked.

Name-wise, the human cast is a force to be reckoned with—but an impressive marquee alone does not a great Muppet movie make. In addition to Gervais and Fey, the film boasts appearances from Tom Hiddleston, Christoph Waltz, and Ty Burrell (of TV’s Modern Family). Each of these talents is lovable in his own right, but their combined efforts failed to salvage the sinking S.S. Muppet.

This picture is begging for a Perez Hilton-style makeover.

This photo is begging for a Perez Hilton-style makeover.

All of these humans played the kinds of bit roles or mundane characters you’d prefer to see left on the drawing-room floor—cringeworthy rough-drafts who weaseled their way into the final product.

It could be opined that 2011’s Jason Segel-fueled Muppet vehicle achieved success using a similar formula. But The Muppets (2011) used humans like Jason Segel as accessories to an intrinsically Muppet plot—the heartwarming tale of a lost Muppet, found.

Rather than using Segel as a crutch, though, The Muppets’ action was propelled by the plight of the Muppets’ fading star, interwoven with the unfolding saga of Scooter’s personal identity crisis. Scooter may have been somewhat bland, but this blandness made him less of a threat—competent, likable, and run-of-the-mill, he entrusted the comedy to his capable Muppet elders.

Down to its title, The Muppets was pure. It was Muppet-driven. It was simply Muppet.

Even the poster was more Muppet-centric.

Even the poster was more Muppet-centric.

With the absence of any such characters or engaging plot lines in Muppets Most Wanted, viewers are left heartsick and nostalgic for our old Muppet favorites. Gonzo played a minor role in this film, but was relegated to the background in favor of bores like Constantine. Rizzo made a brief, self-referential cameo about feeling neglected—which more so hit home how bored and saddened I was at that point than providing any kind of comic relief.

For all the sweeping, grievous statements I’ve made so far—the positives did exist.

Muppets Most Wanted’s greatest comedic stroke arrived in the back-and-forth between the oft-underutilized Eagle Sam—my own dark horse contender for Greatest Muppet Ever—and his flamboyant, stereotypical French law enforcement counterpart, Jean Pierre Napoleon (Burrell). Both are glib nationalist caricatures: Eagle Sam reprises his role as a zealous American patriot, in heavy-handed contrast to Napoleon’s parodically laissez-faire Franco-European lifestyle (think five-hour lunch breaks and tiny cars).

These two characters—and their lovable bickering over who has the bigger badge—was almost worth the price of admission. It’s heartening that, while the film did leave me restless at certain points, the brilliance and humor so characteristic of the Muppets was able to shine through at times like this.

A shining Muppet moment.

A shining Muppet/Human moment.

That said, I am a realist. I begrudgingly accept that this Muppet film didn’t have the same entrancing effect on me as its predecessors. As much as the Muppet canon might be a part of my every waking day, I refuse to be blinded by the past.

The movie is bad. But I still love the Muppets, and so should you. They are irreverent, clever, and—best of all—absurd. Jim Henson’s is the kind of slightly-crazy American dream that would do Sam Eagle proud, and that kind of dream deserves its own kind of credit.

Besides, take a look at Hollywood today. I’d wager that Henson’s Muppets are fuller and more reminiscent of vitality than a great many of their human brethren.