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.
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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.
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For the bulk of every Rocky and Bullwinkle episode, moose and squirrel would engage in high concept escapades that satirized geopolitics, contemporary cinema, and the very fabrics of the human condition. With all of that to work with, there's no excuse for why the pair and their Soviet nemeses haven't gotten a decent movie adaptation. But the ingenious Mr. Peabody and his faithful boy Sherman are another story, intercut between Rocky and Bullwinkle segments to teach kids brief history lessons and toss in a nearly lethal dose of puns. Their stories and relationship were much simpler, which means that bringing their shtick to the big screen would entail a lot more invention — always risky when you're dealing with precious material.
For the most part, Mr. Peabody & Sherman handles the regeneration of its heroes aptly, allowing for emotionally substance in their unique father-son relationship and all the difficulties inherent therein. The story is no subtle metaphor for the difficulties surrounding gay adoption, with society decreeing that a dog, no matter how hyper-intelligent, cannot be a suitable father. The central plot has Peabody hosting a party for a disapproving child services agent and the parents of a young girl with whom 7-year-old Sherman had a schoolyard spat, all in order to prove himself a suitable dad. Of course, the WABAC comes into play when the tots take it for a spin, forcing Peabody to rush to their rescue.
Getting down to personals, we also see the left brain-heavy Peabody struggle with being father Sherman deserves. The bulk of the emotional marks are hit as we learn just how much Peabody cares for Sherman, and just how hard it has been to accept that his only family is growing up and changing.
But more successful than the new is the film's handling of the old — the material that Peabody and Sherman purists will adore. They travel back in time via the WABAC Machine to Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, and the Trojan War, and 18th Century France, explaining the cultural backdrop and historical significance of the settings and characters they happen upon, all with that irreverent (but no longer racist) flare that the old cartoons enjoyed. And oh... the puns.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a f**king treasure trove of some of the most amazingly bad puns in recent cinema. This effort alone will leave you in awe.
The film does unravel in its final act, bringing the science-fiction of time travel a little too close to the forefront and dropping the ball on a good deal of its emotional groundwork. What seemed to be substantial building blocks do not pay off in the way we might, as scholars of animated family cinema, have anticipated, leaving the movie with an unfinished feeling.
But all in all, it's a bright, compassionate, reasonably educational, and occasionally funny if not altogether worthy tribute to an old favorite. And since we don't have our own WABAC machine to return to a time of regularly scheduled Peabody and Sherman cartoons, this will do okay for now.
If nothing else, it's worth your time for the puns.
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While ABC is trying its hand at another nighttime soap in Mistresses, the network's two other prime-time dramas are much more serialized and mythology-driven in nature. Red Widow, based on the Dutch series Penoza, stars Radha Mitchell as a woman who becomes a Russian crime boss after her husband is murdered in a drug deal gone wrong. Zero Hour is much more ambitious in nature, and revolves around a conspiracy theory somehow involving clocks, Nazis, and kidnapping.
Stars and producers from both series gathered to discuss their shows at ABC's presentations during the Television Critics Association winter press tour. Here's what they had to say about Red Widow, which premieres Sunday, March 3 at 9 p.m. before moving to the 10 p.m. time slot, and Zero Hour, which debuts Thursday, Feb. 14 in the 8 p.m. hour.
Twilight screenwriter and former Dexter executive producer Melissa Rosenberg adapted Red Widow from Penoza, a Dutch series. "What drew me to the project in the first place was this character," she explains of her desire to do the show. "This is a flawed female character, as all human beings are. It's a very human character. And I think that's something that has been really exciting to bring to network television."
Flaws are usually reserved for males, Rosenberg says, while women are supposed to have it together. "We've had on cable and then on network these male characters that are very flawed and complex, like Tony Soprano [The Sopranos] and Dexter [Dexter]and Vic Mackey [The Shield]. And then we've just begun to have that on cable for women in the form of Edie Falco on Nurse Jackie and [Mary Louise Parker on] Weeds. And now I think this show is bringing that kind of a character to network. It's a very tricky character to sell to an audience, because women are held to a higher standard. But as played by Radha, you have compassion for her. You are with her. Her experience is universal."
ABC ordered eight episodes of the series, something Rosenberg, whose past TV credits are in cable, appreciates. The original Dutch show is "very cablesque in its tone and its edge in terms of the characters and the moves that they make. When I went to meet with Paul [Lee, ABC Entertainment president] and everybody, I was wary because I said, 'I don't want to pull back on the edge for this or the storytelling for network.' I also felt that because this is a very character-driven show that it's not something that lends itself as well to 22 episodes. The one advantage that cable has over network [has] nothing to do with censors or violence or sex or any of that. It is time. If you have time to write a good show and you have time to develop it, you get good storytelling."
While Red Widow deals with more of an overarching story, Zero Hour is a multilayered mystery series with former ER star Anthony Edwards at its head. Edwards plays a magazine editor who must debunk a worldwide conspiracy when his wife (Jacinda Barrett) is abducted from her antique clock shop. But although it is packed with different elements, creator Paul Scheuring says he doesn't think it's too complicated to follow.
"I have a great amount of respect for the audience. Especially the new generations that are coming up beneath us — they're steeped in such narrative. They know narrative construct. They know all the tropes," Scheuring says. "So if you deliver them the cop show where the cop seems to smell odors better than other cops, it's like, nobody cares. If you give them something where they're like, 'Wow, this is different and new and they're treating me with a certain amount of sophistication,' then they're more liable to watch. And I may be wrong about that, but that's my philosophy. I'd rather go down swinging like that as opposed to go to the lowest common denominator and go 'Hey, man.'"
Because of that respect, Scheuring and his team don't plan to leave viewers hanging on for too long. Scheuring explains, "One of the things I've learned from Prison Break and making a serialized show was that if you're a single conceit show — like Prison Break or Lost or such — sooner or alter you star flapping your wings because a story needs to end. ... I kind of applied that wisdom to the construct of this show, which is it's like the 24 model where you reset every year. This entire Nazi conspiracy thing will be done in Episode 13 this year, but we have a group of investigators headed by Anthony at the magazine who can then apply those skills to the next investigation next year."
Adds executive producer Zack Estrin, "We're not going to make you wait until the end of the year to find out your answers. Specifically, Episode Four you know what that thing is that we're saying was hidden beneath the church. That's not the big mystery. That's just one of many mysteries. In each episode you will find out a piece, we will turn a card, there will be a cliffhanger."
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[PHOTO CREDIT: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; Rick Rowell/ABC]
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