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Dustin's Review

Muppets Most Wanted  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by James Bobbin.
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, Tony Bennett, Hugh Bonneville, William Brand, Andres Cantor, Jemaine Clement, Kenneth Collard, Sean Combs, Rob Corddry, Mackenzie Crook, Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, Zach Galifianakis, Josh Groban, Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Hollander, Toby Jones, Frank Langella, Ray Liotta, Ross Lynch, James McAvoy, Aleksander Mikic, Chloë Grace Moretz, Fleur Poad, Dylan "Hornswoggle" Postl, Usher Raymond, Miranda Richardson, Saoirse Ronan, Til Schweiger, Russell Tovey, Danny Trejo, Stanley Tucci, Christoph Waltz.
Vocal Cast: Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Peter Linz, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Louise Gold.
2014 – 112 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for mild action).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 17, 2014.
"Everybody knows that the sequel's never quite as good!" sing the Muppets during their mischievously self-deprecating opening musical number in "Muppets Most Wanted." Beginning chronologically at the very second 2011's series rejuvenation "The Muppets" concluded, this new big-screen caper brings back director James Bobbin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (but not human leads Jason Segel and Amy Adams). Although Segel was imperative in giving a much-deserved second wind to Jim Henson's puppet creations, he has opted to step away for this continuation, believing his work to be done. Viewers might miss him for about a minute at the onset, but will likely be having too much fun thereafter to think about it. In terms of plot, pacing and even the eclectic, toe-tapping original songs by Bret McKenzie, "Muppets Most Wanted" is the superior effort. Kermit and Miss Piggy, who were almost supporting players in their own movie last time around, have returned to the forefront where they belong.

In a case of meta storytelling, "The Muppets" told of the title gang's journey to reclaim the popularity and fanfare they had seemed to lose during the previous decade. Now that they are back in the limelight, it's time to start spitballing ideas for a sequel (among them, an existential study of life's greatest conundrums, a 'la Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal"). When manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) approaches them about representation, Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmire) is skeptical about committing to overseas concert playdates before they've honed their material, but goes along with his friends' wishes. What none of them realize is that Dominic is in cahoots with "the world's most dangerous frog," Constantine (voiced by Matt Vogel), the two of them plotting to steal a famous painting from Berlin's National Treasure Museum that reveals the location of the coveted crown jewels of England. A dead ringer for Kermit, Constantine promptly frames the innocent amphibian for his crimes and takes over his identity on the Muppets' European tour.

"Muppets Most Wanted" is bursting with sharp witticism, the breezily caustic script always one step ahead. Dominic Badguy (pronounced "Bad-gee") performs alongside the treacherous Constantine in a duet called "I'm Number One," having to settle for number two, while a German-language sign out front of the Berlin National Theatre reading, "Die Muppets," forebodingly gets misinterpreted upon arrival. Attempting to lure Kermit away from the pack, Dominic suggests he take "a quiet stroll along a foggy, deserted Berlin canal." When Kermit finds himself entrapped at a Siberian gulag, Russian prison guard Nadya (Tina Fey) welcomes him with a soulfully sung, rhythmically upbeat, lyrically dismaying tune called "The Big House." All the while, much clever hilarity ensues as Constantine desperately tries to keep up with his charade posing as Kermit while the eternally love-struck Miss Piggy (voice of Eric Jacobson) struggles to plan her wedding to a frog she barely recognizes anymore. The romance between these two opposites has always been a little questionable from an interspecies perspective, but here it grows into more than simply a gimmick or punchline, with one musical montage glimpsing into a future where they have a family and grow old together. It is very sweet and surprisingly touching, a welcome moment of levity amidst the Muppets' usual hijinks.

With Jason Segel and Amy Adams out of the picture, the Muppets themselves carry the film. Kermit, villainous-double-with-a-mole Constantine, the sensitive Walter (Peter Linz), the high-spirited Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobson), pun-loving critics Statler (Steve Whitmire) and Waldorf (David Goelz) and an especially feisty Miss Piggy are all joyous creations with every bit—if not more of—the charisma of human actors. Ricky Gervais (2009's "The Invention of Lying") gamely plays the put-upon Dominic Badguy, henchman of Constantine, while Ty Burrell (2014's "Mr. Peabody & Sherman") is Interpol officer Jean Pierre Napoleon, joining forces—and kicking off a contentious rivalry—with CIA agent Sam Eagle (Eric Jacobson). Running off with her every snappy moment, Tina Fey (2013's "Admission") is an easy standout as lonely, gruff, soft-inside prison guard Nadya. Adopting a Russian accent while showing off her pleasing singing voice ("The Big House" might be the movie's best musical interlude), Fey provides a steady string of laughs while putting a stop to Kermit's escape attempts, hiring him to train the gulag's choir group, and forming a certain affection of her own for this new green inmate. Oh, and let's not forget Christoph Waltz (2012's "Django Unchained") appearing long enough to perform an actual waltz with Sweetums (Matt Vogel).

It is a near impossibility to stop from smiling during "Muppets Most Wanted," the charming feel-goodness of its spirit spreading to viewers like a particularly enchanting airborne virus. There is something comforting about the almost homegrown practicality of watching live-action puppets spring to life rather than a bunch of computer-generated creations filling the screen. For a few hours, the illusion is in full force that Kermit & Co. are real rather than fictional figures made of artificial fur and cloth, and it is doubly gratifying when the script is as quick-witted and full of heart as this one. While a little on the long side—the 112-minute running time could have afforded a few snips in the third act set in London—the film's energy remains pertinent, not losing the creative steam that "The Muppets" ultimately fell victim to in its respective "let's-put-on-a-show" climax. With "Muppets Most Wanted," the beloved, generations-spanning Henson characters have caught their stride once more. They're as relevant as ever.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman