You know you’re in for a treat when the opening Broadway-type song makes fun of the fact that sequels aren’t as good as the original. Yes, folks, the Muppets are back! Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, et al, and a plethora of celebrity cameos everywhere all wrapped in a loopy story that is reminiscent of their latter years. Plus some terrific music and songs by Christophe Beck that are funny enough to be sung over and over again.
Held captive in a Russian Gulag under the heavy hand of ruthless officer Nadya (Tina Fey), is Constantine (voiced by Matt Vogel), an exact double for Kermit (except for a black lip mole) and the world’s #1 most dangerous villain. His #2 secret co-hort is Dominic Badguy (“It’s pronounced “Bad-gee”. It’s French”) and played by Ricky Gervais. Dominic’s convinced the Muppets that he is a world tour manager when really he’s setting them up as fall guys for multiple international thefts that he and Constantine are planning.
Constantine escapes and switches places with Kermit, who gets thrown into the Gulag with the likes of Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, and Stanley Tucci. Once inside, he convinces everyone he’s NOT Constantine, despite the obvious error (that black mole fools everyone!). But Kermit is stuck there anyway since Nadya is a secret Kermit and Broadway musical lover.
Meanwhile, Constantine (posing as Kermit by covering up that mole), infiltrates the Muppet Show tour throughout Europe as he and Dominic steal various museum artifacts from show to show to get to the grand prize: the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. His sudden and lackadaisical approach to the show leads the others to wonder what’s up with Kermit and why does he have such a weird new attitude towards the group. Animal is the only one who’s figured out that THIS Kermit isn’t THE Kermit, but who listens to him?
On the case in Europe is French inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) and CIA special agent Sam the Eagle who are trying to track down either the dastardly Constantine, or another nefarious criminal called “The Lemur” who keeps leaving gold coins as calling cards at each of the crime scenes. Both are suffering from “badge envy”, it would seem.
Back at Muppet rehearsals, things aren’t going well, and in an effort to appease the gang (especially Miss Piggy), Constantine actually proposes to the pompous pig and the wedding below the Tower of London is set. . .just as Walter and Fozzie figure out Kermit and Constantine have switched places. The third act is the best with a race to free Kermit from the Gulag and get him to London to stop the wedding and arrest Constantine!
Written this time by Nick Stoller and James Bobin (who also directed), there’s no Segel or Adams in this picture, but there is a better story, better music, and the patented Muppet nonsense (and cameos) peppered through the movie. Vocal talents, although they’ve changed in the years, remain the same with some of the core actors providing the multiple key voices for the characters. Steve Whitmire still does Kermit, Rizzo, and Beaker with Dave Goelz speaking for Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and Waldorf. But Muppet co-founder Frank Oz stopped voicing Miss Piggy in 1999 and that’s gone to Eric Jacobson, who also voices Fozzie, Animal, and Sam the Eagle.
Even with the vocal changes (and you don’t even notice it), the real difference here is the more complex story, the traveling to other countries (Spain, Ireland, Berlin), and the always nudge-and-a-wink to the audience to let them in on the joke. And, once more, writing to cater to the kids AND adults is a brilliant move and one that I personally hope this current trend in movies continues. The Muppets are back, baby!
Let’s take a trip down nostalgia lane and look back at the history of the Muppets in cinema. Some good, some bad, but always led by a frog, a pig, a bear, and a whatchamacallit.
The Muppet Movie (1979)
This started it all with Kermit the Frog singing in the swamp the “Rainbow” song with his trusty banjo, which has since gone on to be his trademark. The plot, filled with every imaginable pun, sight gag, and zinger possible (a fork in the road really IS a giant fork in the road!) tells of a ruthless fast food kingpin, ala Colonel Sanders, called Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) who owns a chain of french-fried frog leg outlets and wants Kermit as their new mascot to boost their sagging sales!
Essentially a road trip picture, Kermit picks up his friends to help him elude capture from Doc Hopper and the hi-jinks ensue along the way as the celebrity cameos pop-up here and there. The end scene in a warehouse boasts over 250 singing Muppets and one’s even performed by director’s Tim Burton and John Landis themselves! There’s even been some recent controversy with Disney cutting and re-dubbing (how they LOVE to do this!) certain scenes to make this more a kids marketable feature VHS/DVD product than when it was originally put into the theaters.
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
I love this one! Two twin brothers (Kermit and Fozzie–yes, I know, I said “twin brothers”) are newspaper reporters who investigate the theft of the valuable “baseball” diamond necklace from fashion designer, Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg). They travel to London, England to interview her and have to stay at the Happiness Hotel (filled with the Muppets gang).
They later meet the receptionist, Miss Piggy (who they think is Lady Holiday) and the shenanigans begin. Again, the cameos abound (even Jim Henson!) and a fine script by Jerry Juhl, Tom Patchett, Jack Rose, and Jay Tarses. The plot, which had a more complex story, finally had a chance to stretch the Muppets “acting” talent, so to speak, and thus began a lucrative movie franchise.
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
Another winner here with Kermit and his small circle of “college” friends leaving school for the Big Apple to get his musical, “Manhattan Melodies” on Broadway. . .but, as Kermit kept saying, “It’s not ready yet. There’s something missing”. Just as he finds a backer, he gets hit by a taxi and boom! He gets amnesia and thinks he’s an Ad-Man named Phil who pitches soap! Will the musical get up and running on time? Will he remember who he is?
A great movie that’s not only funny and filled with celebrity cameos (of course!), but actually one-upped itself by being better in it’s storyline and characters than it’s previous movies! How tough is that? The ending Broadway musical is, as Kermit said it would be, a show-stopper and incredibly complex and dazzling to watch. Remember. . .no CGI here, folks!
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
This was it. The end-all, beat-all, best of the best. They peaked with this one. Paul Williams singable music, Jerry Juhl’s screenplay from Dicken’s immortal story, NO cameos, and an almost straight-through storytelling plot that was grounded enough in the “A Christmas Carol” lore, but silly enough to be Muppet-ized. Michael Caine as Scrooge (perfectly cast) and almost the only human here with Kermit as his downtrodden employee, Bob Cratchit. Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat serve as lovable narrators to great effect as the Ghosts lead us through Scrooge’s timeline with song, pathos, and Muppet wit. Damn good movie. Except for one thing….
True to form, Disney CUT the hauntingly beautiful love song “Where Love Have Gone” from the movie on certain DVD’s/Blu-rays (without director Brian Henson’s permission, mind you) because they said it “slowed the tempo and kid’s wouldn’t like the sad tone”. They’re insane. You can see the movie INTACT on certain VHS and DVD’s if you buy the (*cringe*) pan and scan versions of the movie, which I abhor. I personally have the original widescreen laserdisc UNCUT version.
Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
Hiccup! Thinking, “Y’know, we took a famous story and added Muppets and made a fortune, why don’t we do it again?”. And they did… and they didn’t. Taking a Robert Louis Stevenson book and adding Tim Curry as Long John Silver was a grand idea, but the screenplay suffered with unfunny jokes, music that wasn’t catchy or hummable (no Paul Williams music this time), and our beloved Muppets just looking (if this is even possible) bored. Yes, this is where the Muppet movie franchise ‘jumped the shark’, and fittingly so, since this was a pirate picture and I’m guessing someone told this movie to ‘walk the plank’.
Muppets in Space (1999)
A rousing chorus of “what the hell’s??” went up after this movie was released. An utterly forgettable movie that nailed the coffin shut on Muppet movies. It singled out Gonzo and his attempts to find out whether or not he was an alien. Yeah. Ho hum. Sure, it introduced a few new Muppets into the chorus line, but it wasn’t a musical and it wasn’t funny.
All when silent in Muppetdom until. . .
The Muppets (2011)
After a string of straight-to-DVD releases and some so-so TV shows and bland made-for TV movies, Jason Segel of “How I Met Your Mother” fame (and Muppet fan-atic), convinced Disney to make another feature film with a script that he and Nick Stoller wrote, even introducing a new Muppet named Walter as Jason’s brother. And it worked! Big time!
Based on the simple idea of “getting the gang back together” and combining some dazzling musical numbers with Segel and the delicious Amy Adams, you couldn’t go wrong. Winning the Academy Award for Best Song (“Man or Muppet“) didn’t hurt either. It was funny, clever, and lacked what the two previous films didn’t have: that old Muppet crazy humor and wild abandoned lunacy. Thank you, Jason Segel!