Friday, March 21, 2014

Moonlight Movie Reviews - Muppets Most Wanted

 What's this?! What's this?! A timely review?!

Yes, actually got out to this one the night before the official release date! So I'm sacrificing sleep, as usual, to get a review out to you guys! On time this time! So, enjoy! But before I forget, also take note that I have added a feed from my Instagram to the sidebar on this page! Go follow me there if you do Instagram! And now...

So, someone let me know about this early showing of "Muppets Most Wanted" today at the Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline, and being a huge Muppet fan, you know I just HAD to go! Unfortunately, I had already eaten dinner, so no Carnivore pizza for me. Epic sadness!

As usual, before the movie was an awesome Alamo Drafthouse preshow of clips and commercials, and other such related materials. Here are some snapshots I took of some of the highlights...

After that came the previews, including one for that gorgeous looking "Maleficent" film, and that "Rio 2", which I don't know what to make of since I haven't seen the first (but the villain's sidekick in the trailer, ugh..., this is the kind of humor that I think hurts the reputation of animated films...).

After the previews came, yes, YES!, a PIXAR animated short! That was a nice surprise! And it was a Monsters University short!

Yes, "Party Central" was very enjoyable, at least for those of us who enjoyed the feature film that inspired it. It was a similar sorta thing, but it was very funny (much better than the short I saw with Peabody and Sherman).

Next, of course, came the Feature Presentation, "Muppets Most Wanted". A highly anticipated movie for some of us, and one that many of us were going into with no small amount of uncertainty.

The Plot: Kermit the Frog and the Muppets, immediately after shooting their previous, megahit, comeback movie, are informed that a sequel has been ordered! A song follows about making a sequel, including jokes mentioning that sequels are rarely as good as the first film. This was a ballsy joke to make, because you know that it's going to get thrown back at them hard by any reviewers who didn't like the film. Having said that, it was a damn funny thing to hear admitted at the beginning of a sequel! Though, "sequel" really isn't the right term for this film. It is actually, for the most part, a completely separate Muppet movie. There are a couple of references to the previous film, "The Muppets", and Walter is a significant (to an appropriate degree) member of the gang now (80's Robot is there too, yay!), but it is really a totally separate film, and this is made evident by this one's acknowledgement that its predecessor was indeed a movie they had just finished making. Wow, ha, I overexplained all that. Sorry, that's something I do a lot in real life, so you just got a taste of one of my most annoying qualities.

Anyway, so now the Muppets have to decide what to do in this sequel they are now basically living in rather than shooting (somehow, this odd reality is something you don't even think about while watching the film). Enter Ricky Gervais as Dominic Badguy, a tour manager who convinces the Muppets to take their show overseas. But Dominic has a more sinister agenda, as he is actually the number two man for a master criminal frog known as Constantine, who happens to look exactly like Kermit except for having a mole on one side of his face. Constantine is being held in a bleak, Russian prison from which he immediately escapes in order to trade places with Kermit and go on a European crime spree culminating in a plot to steal the Crown Jewels in London.

And that's the basic setup. It's a European crime-caper film (not the Muppets' first) that focuses on a few different situations: One, Kermit having to deal with being locked away in the previously mentioned Russian prison in place of Constantine under the watchful gaze of GULAG officer Tina Fey...

Two, thick accent bearing Constantine attempting to keep up the charade that he is Kermit in front of the other Muppets as they attempt to perform the Muppet Show on a tour across Europe and the U.K., simultaneously conducting their high profile robberies along the way.

And three, French Interpol Agent Ty Burrell teaming up with C.I.A. Agent Sam Eagle in a hilarious attempt at discovering the master criminals behind the crime wave that suspiciously coincides with the Muppet World Tour.

Okay, enough plot info. Let's get to it. We Muppet fans were very concerned when the previous film came out. There was a lot riding on it. A LOT. Since the death of Jim Henson, the Muppets had a couple of great but not so original films that were actually just Muppet versions of classic books. Then, they had a movie about Gonzo that I seem to be the only person who liked. Okay, I'll admit that in the cannon of Muppet films, it's the oddball, but on its own, it's very fun and enjoyable. Aside from that though, well... The Muppets made some okay Christmas programs and a botched Oz TV movie that could have been great. Too much attention was paid to Pepe (don't get me wrong, I LOVE Pepe), and when Disney first bought them, they just kept using them to promote Disney Channel TV shows, which seemed very degrading to the Muppets, in my opinion. Sadly, they still do that every chance they get, but I digress. With the previous film, huge Muppet fan Jason Segel set out to turn things around for the Muppets, to give them a big comeback that took them back to their roots of musical comedies loaded with heart. His plan was a huge success with the film that he also starred in. But with him not being on the team for the first follow-up to that film, "Muppets Most Wanted", we all got a little nervous again.

So, was that nervousness justified? Afterall, much of the rest of the team that made the previous film was back! Including director James Bobin and Segel's writing partner on the previous film, Nicholas Stoller. And, one of the biggest reliefs to my mind, Flight of the Conchords member Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for his songwriting on the previous film, was back to write the songs for this one.

Well, the verdicts are coming in from all over, and here's mine. This film is great! It's excellent! BUT... But it's different from the previous Muppet films in that it IS something different. It is a musical comedy, and that's strictly what it is. What I mean by that is, well, there's A LOT less sentiment in this one, and that's okay, but that's a very noticeable issue in a Muppet film, because all the previous ones have some very emotional moments, some very sentimental stuff going on here and there. There's a bit of that in this film, but it isn't dwelt on to the level that it is in previous Muppet films. This one has a wild and wacky premise, and it is a wild and wacky comedy throughout, and a great one! It is for sure a really good time with characters we love, but it doesn't do a lot to try and jerk tears out of you as the other films always did so effortlessly (maybe not "Muppets from Space", admittedly, though it had its sentimental moments too, but I admit that I haven't seen it in a while, so I'm not going to mention it again in this article). "Muppets Most Wanted" is also a good example of how we've entered a new era with the Muppets, and it's one that adapts to the modern audience, though thankfully not in the really tragic ways it could have. This Muppet film is faster paced, and as mentioned, it's more focused on comedy than sentiment (though maybe that's because the previous film had tons of that), and, oh yeah, the gang sounds less like their original selves with every film I see. I admit, I bitch about that all the time, but yeah, the current voices could certainly be better matches. But I guess it must be hard to try to fill those voids since the people who do so must also be selected from the professional puppeteer pool.

If I wanna nit-pick (and I really don't), I could add to that stuff that the differently voiced characters also could work a bit more on acting like their old selves. I can't help but feel that Fozzie is far dumber now than he ever used to be. Maybe that started with his mentally challenged Muppet Treasure Island character, but I would like to see Fozzie in particular acting more like his old self in future films. On the upside though, Rowlf is back in business, and I'm so glad about that! And I GREATLY appreciated the bit in this new film about Robin and Rizzo and their absence in the previous film. Well, actually, I could swear Rizzo was at least present in the previous film, but this character that had grown to be one of the main gang had certainly been demoted, and Robin I don't recall seeing in "The Muppets" at all! So, yeah, so glad that was acknowledged in this film.

Anywho, aside from, well, more pointing out rather than complaining about the less sentimental style this film takes (though it is not completely lacking in that department, it's more a comparison thing), as I said, this film is a real hoot! I find myself wanting to quote some of the funniest lines to you, but I'd rather not spoil them for you! I WILL say that everyone is super funny, humans and Muppets alike, and I particularly enjoyed the pairing of Sam the Eagle and Ty Burrell, who is quickly becoming one of my fave actors (Sam was already one of my fave Muppets). The songs are hilarious as usual, but I suppose the lack of a really sentimental one is probably the biggest part of this whole "where's the sappy stuff" complaint you'll be hearing a lot in the reviews for "Most Wanted". Again, there is enough sappy stuff in the film to make it a solid Muppet story, so I can't truly fault them on that, but yeah, one expects to hear the next Rainbow Connection, Saying Goodbye, or Pictures in My Head. But, hey, ya know what? I just realized something! There wasn't any song in "The Great Muppet Caper" that was all THAT sentimental! I think we've all forgotten that! And certainly, this film was going for that film's style more than anything! Though it is not a copy by any means. I think to some degree the sense that Most Wanted is less sentimental than all the previous Henson-era films has a lot to do with the faster pacing. Now, admittedly, I was okay with the pacing here, considering the type of film they were going for, but yeah, it might have been an even better film if they had taken that back a couple of notches and had some lower key moments, like the old films. But, that probably makes me sound like an old fuddy duddy, and I am too single to want to sound like that... Because I am only comfortable dating much younger. I'm sorry, where was I?

 As I mentioned, the songs are all top notch, classic Bret McKenzie (incidentally, Bret's Conchords bandmate, Jemaine Clement, has an acting role in this film that is awesomely hilarious, as usual), though I don't know if I would call any of the new songs particularly Oscar worthy this time out. Actually, I take that back, there are a couple of truly unforgettable ones. I think Man or Muppet is just such a hard act to follow. In fact, I think that's going to be an issue for this film all around. I'm very curious to see how well it does, and I hope for the best, because it is a really great, fun film! But I think "The Muppets" is just such a tough act to follow, because it was a film that shockingly managed to live up to the hopes of most of us who were greatly anticipating its release. That sorta thing, well, it's a gold star on that film that this second one can't really aspire to. It can only aspire to being excellent in its own right, and for the most part, it is. Yeah, it COULD have probably been a bit better with some more heartstring pulling as only the Muppets can do (there is SOME, don't get me wrong), and yeah, it could have relaxed its pacing just a bit. But, for me personally, I'm more bugged by off voices and Fozzie being perhaps a bit TOO stupid than by anything else. And not enough to prevent me from loving this movie. I also think this is one of those movies that's going to get better with repeat viewings. That's something I'll definitely test when it comes out on Blu-Ray later on.

Well, before I start talking in circles and lose another hour's sleep before work in the morning, I guess it's time to sum this up. "Muppets Most Wanted": It's a hilarious follow up to "The Muppets". In many ways, it lives up to its predecessor, but it's a very different story, and while they could have gone a route to being a bit more artistic and sentimental with it, they instead decided to go full comedy. In that way, it is a big success, but in choosing that road, it has a bit less impact than previous Muppet outings, and if you hear any complaints about this one, that's probably what they'll mostly be. Regardless, it is a great time, and I highly recommend it! It IS what it aspires to be, and I think that was to be more funny and less sappy than "The Muppets", for a change of pace, and a perfectly acceptable one to me. Less grand, yes, but no less delightful! Two claws up! Go see it! Let Disney know we want more of The Muppets!

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