I know, that headline is trouble. You're always treading dangerous ground when you insist on defining what makes a good this or the right kind of that, as if there is no room for change or improvement when it comes to classic properties. Of course there is — Jason Segel's 2011 Muppet film approached the concept from an entirely different direction. It didn't hit all of its marks, but it prevailed overall in its conceit: make a movie not about Muppets, but about Muppet fandom. But Muppets Most Wanted, in absence of a clear mission statement and fueled largely by the monetary glimmers of the sequel game (the film's opening number admits this outright), has fewer marks readily available to hit. Landing in the ambiguity between the classic Muppet adventure formula and Segel's post-modern Henson appreciation party, Most Wanted feels like a failure on both counts. It doesn't know which kind of movie it wants to, or should, be. So it doesn't really be anything.
On the one hand, there's the half-cocked "get-the-band-back-together" through line, mimicking but not quite accomplishing the spirit of the 2011 picture. None of the Muppets are particularly likable or charming in this turn, and even fewer of them actually given anything to do. Kermit loses his s**t in the first act after a spat with Piggy and a barrage of insubordination from his troupe (provoked by the nefarious Dominic Badguy, Ricky Gervais), storms off in a huff, and gets swept up in a case of mistaken identity when his criminal doppelganger Constantine pulls the old switcheroo, landing Kermit in a Russian gulag. You'd think this would be a good opportunity for the second tier of Muppet favorites — Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo, Scooter, Rowlf, et al — to go on a search and rescue... but save for a very brief sequence at the tail end of this achingly long film, none of the other Muppets are giving anything to do. They just hem and haw and perform the occasional "Indoor Running of the Bulls" while Dominic and Constantine scheme, rob banks, and bicker.
Meanwhile, Kermit has some fun in prison — a far more endearing plot that sees him befriending the merry convicts, organizing a penitentiary revue, and even winning the heart of the vicious warden Nadia (Tina Fey). If only we could spend more time with real Kermit and less time with fake Kermit and his second banana Gervais, an effectively boring pair.
On the other hand, though, there's the Muppet shtick that fans of The Great Muppet Caper and Muppet Treasure Island — and yes, The Muppet Show itself — will deem the movie's best material: CIA Agent Sam Eagle and Interpol Agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) hot on the trail of Constantine and Dominic. Here, we get a different type of Muppet movie entirely from what Segel and the A-plot in Most Wanted are opting: the old fashioned vaudeville act, with Sam standing as an independent entity from his googly-eyed brethren, on a goofy, musical prowl with Burrell that fuels the film with its best and most consistent chuckles. Their "Interrogation Song" number is outstanding, exemplifying the many talents of Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, who wrote all the music for this and the previous film.
The best player in the World for movie trailers, Hollywood interviews and movie clips.
Unfortunately, Muppets Most Wanted isn't sure that it wants to be The Great Muppet Caper, beheld so stubbornly to its Segelian roots. There's a palpable compulsion to stick with this agonizingly self-aware, nostalgia-crazy, brimming-beacons-of-the-past-in-a-callous-today theme that doesn't work a fraction as well as it did in the 2011 film. Without a legitimate celebration of any of our favorite characters, how could it? With so much going on in this movie, and such a lengthy runtime at just under two hours, it's a sure sign of failure that we walk away feeling like we spent barely any time with the Muppets.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
A family headed for a weekend in the backwoods is stranded when a wounded deer jumps in front of their car and sends them into a ditch. A posse of threatening rednecks appears and the ringleader Otis (John Speredakos) shoots the wounded deer point blank as the child in the car looks on. This is how the filmmakers establish Otis as the bad guy--and this will also create dramatic tension later between Otis and the Wendigo monster so you never quite know which one's actually terrorizing the family throughout the film. Once it's painfully clear who the bad guy is the trouble begins in earnest. When dad George mom Kim and son Miles finally arrive at the country house where they're staying they realize that someone's been shootin' up walls and windows. By now everyone in the theater knows it must be Otis. He certainly reappears soon enough--and now the big mean deer killer "knows where we live!" You bet he does Miles and he's watching your parents have sex right now. But that just makes him a pervert--not a psycho killer. Or does it? You'll spend the rest of this nightmare movie waiting to find out the answer to this and other compelling questions. Like what the hell is a Wendigo anyway?
When little Miles' head first appears in the back seat of the car you can't help but gasp. It's Dewey--oops Erik Per Sullivan--with hair and playing about three years younger than he looks like he really is. Yes Malcolm in the Middle fans your dear hamster-toting pal has finally hit the big screen. The filmmakers probably told him that he'd be the next Haley Joel Osment: "Wendigo is the next Sixth Sense. You just have to be in it!" Poor kid. It's not and he didn't. Still he does well enough with material that calls for him to do little other than look vacant and cry. Patricia Clarkson as Kim and Jake Weber as George are vacuous and their performances utterly forgettable. Of course the utter crappiness of the script doesn't help and since they have most of the lines they come off the worst.
There's a certain '80s charm to the wintry look of this movie which is probably more to director of photography Terry Stacey's (Spring Forward Trick) credit than to director Larry Fessenden's. Credit Fessenden who also wrote and edited and designed the Wendigo creature with well the Wendigo mostly. Because the sheer stupidity of this completely non-frightening creature pretty much nails exactly why this movie is as awful as it is. The Wendigo looks kind of like a deer standing on its hind legs with um hands. Yeah that's right. Hands. The creature might be the stuff of Miles' nightmares--there's certainly that possibility--but surely it should be at least a little scary. It's a joke as it's incarnated here. This is also the case with any number of scenes that are supposed to be scary but just aren't: at Otis' place the hangin' deer meet is supposed to spook ya; it doesn't. Dad and Miles chop wood with an axe? Come on. Chopping wood is only a frightening event if your daddy slices his leg open with a chain saw. When George falls off the back of a sled leaving Miles to torpedo down the hillside and later flee on foot as a smoke-thing (Wendigo spirit perhaps?) roils after him you're not frightened. You just want to cry "Run Dewey run!" The biggest joke is the ghostly Native American guy who appears at key moments (and once in a Quickie Mart) never speaks but manages to deliver voiceovers like "Wendigo is a mighty powerful spirit…part wind part tree part man part beast shape shifting." He also gives Dewey--oops Miles--the little carved statue that will play a key role in the plot's twist.