The new Muppet movie, Muppets Most Wanted, is basically 1981's Great Muppet Caper if you make Kermit self-pitying, Piggy helpless, and Russia the villain. Also, there are several gulag dance scenes.
The Great Muppet Caper is my own favorite Muppet movie: a thoroughly entertaining, refreshingly messageless slab of '80s cheese, whose dashing villain Nicky the Parasite made my little heart go pit-a-pat. So I wasn't sure how much I wanted a new film with self-aware framing-device songs, international travel, jewel heists, and Muppets in prison. Haven't we already got one? Muppets Most Wanted even has a quick clip of Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming, in homage to the wonderful “Ah, Miss Piggy, it's you!” sequence from Caper. But the opening of Most Wanted had some charming jokes, including a great Swedish Chef/Ingmar Bergman gag, so I settled in and hoped for the best.
There's some fun to be had in Muppets Most Wanted. The main villain is Constantine, “the most dangerous frog in the world,” a Kermit lookalike with a Boris-and-Natasha accent. He and his henchman Dominic Badguy (“It's pronounced Bad-jee. It's French”) share the movie's best song, in which Constantine takes great pains—Dominic's pains, specifically—to make sure everyone knows which one is archvillain and which one is henchvillain. Constantine tap-dances on Dominic's head, and it's glorious.
I love Miss Piggy's costumes, I love that Dominic gets the Muppets to agree to his evil plan by asking, “All those in favor of believing in ourselves?”, I admit that I love the jabs at the French vacation ethos, and I love that the Russian prison camp has a recycling bin.
Okay, now I've listed all the good things. Well, all save one.
The biggest problem is the characterization of the two romantic leads, America's favorite frog and pig. This is a classic problem for serial entertainment: How do you prolong the will-they-won't-they without making audiences hate both characters? Previous Muppet movies often solved this problem by sidelining the whole Kermie/Piggy thing entirely, as in the literary adaptations, or simply rebooting the romance: In Caper Kermit and Piggy meet for the first time, as if The Muppet Movie never happened. This allows them to have a complete romantic arc.
Most Wanted, by contrast, has Piggy propose to Kermit in the first five minutes of the film. And he spends the entire rest of it waffling and shuffling his feet, refusing to say yes or no, for no actual reason. I'm pretty sure frogs are vertebrates, but Kermit acts pretty spineless. I don't want to watch Muppets modeling responsible communication or having a Defining the Relationship talk, but also, I don't want to watch Kermit the Frog stringing along a pig who's worth five of him.
Or maybe three and a half of him, in this movie. Because Miss Piggy's characterization also falters. She's never been perfect: She's temperamental, somewhat materialistic, flighty, and vain. But she's also street-smart, daring, ambitious, and persevering. She's a ride-or-die pig. The fact that she spends Most Wanted either throwing herself at Kermit or singing duets with Celine Dion is the Muppets' real crime. Comparing Most Wanted to Caper in this respect is just depressing: The earlier movie had Piggy scaling walls, fast-talking her way into a high-powered fashion job, breaking out of prison, and crashing through a giant museum window on a motorcycle. (All without any self-conscious “girl power” puffery.)
I realize I'm complaining about the characterization of a large felt pig puppet, but come on: We spend a lot of time with Kermit and Piggy in this movie, and they are limp, one-note characters. There are multiple syrupy scenes where Muppets reassure Kermit about how great he is, and while I know it's supposed to be a touching lesson about the true meaning of friendship, I—wait, no, the fact that it's supposed to be a touching lesson is part of the problem. How is this fun?
And then there's the geopolitics. You Only Live Twice had a more sophisticated view of Russian-American relations. Yakov Smirnoff had more pointed and contemporary Russia jokes. Random Cyrillic, “Mahhh-ppets” accents, and lots of gulag jokes, which is rich coming from the world's biggest incarcerator.
The gulag material—at least a third of the movie is spent in a Russian prison camp, which they consistently call a gulag—actually provides the film's weirdest, most horrifying, and most memorable humor. If you let yourself watch this as an absurdist gallows-humor flick rather than a children's entertainment, Muppets Most Wanted is amazing. There's a prison audition, set to “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line. Danny Trejo sings! So does an unseen man inside a sealed solitary-confinement box. The film's big song-and-dance finale is reminiscent of Life of Brian's “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” but with a wall in a Siberian prison camp instead of a line of crosses.
There's a certain demented genius in that. At the end of the film the foxy Russian guard lady (who has a crush on Kermit, because everybody in this movie does) opens up the solitary box and lets the unseen singing convict step out into the sunlight for a brief solo. And then, as a cute little capping-it-off sight gag, she shuts him back in the darkness.
Bring the kids!