Monday, March 24, 2014

'Muppets Most Wanted' (2014) directed by James Bobin

Pixar spent years wrestling with millions of polygons and complex shaders to get their characters to emote believably. Jim Henson did it with some felt and a ping pong. In a digital era the Muppets are fiercely analogue, somehow intrinsically nostalgic.  Admittedly I've never been a huge Muppets fan myself; I enjoy The Muppet MovieThe Muppet Christmas Carol and though I never technically saw the 2011 revival, I did watch half an hour of the French dub while drifting in out of consciousness in a Dutch flophouse and from what I can remember it looked pretty fun. Even so, something about these characters never quite did it for me.  But after watching Muppet Most Wanted I think I'm finally coming around.

This is an old-fashioned caper comedy with a great gag every few seconds that just about manages to sustain a snappy momentum until the credits finish. The plot revolves around the machinations of Constantine, "most dangerous frog in the world". Escaping a Russian gulag he sets out to steal the British Crown Jewels with the help of his number 2, the mysterious 'Lemur'. Meanwhile the Muppets have just taken on slick new manager, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais).  Soon Constantine and Kermit have switched places; the slimily violent criminal in charge of the Muppets and our loveable frog hero thrown into a dingy gulag hellhole populated by the likes of Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo and run by Nadya (Tina Fey), an icy Russian dominatrix type. 

Naturally none of this guff is taken at all seriously, the plot functioning as a vehicle for a series of brilliantly written songs, top jokes and decent enough action sequences. There's a Simpsons-esque devotion to ramming as many jokes in as the film can take without collapsing under its own weight. The jokes range from simple (but well-executed) slapstick to cutaway parodies of Ingmar Bergman, or split second appearances from celebrities ranging from Lady Gaga to Russell Tovey.

I know Kermit's director costume is a reference to somebody.. but who?
Going in I had my misgivings - primarily Ricky Gervais-based. Though I enjoy The Office I find pretty much everything he's done since annoyingly ingratiating. There's only so much infuriatingly smug "isn't this silly" mugging to the camera I can take. That all said I've got to admit that Gervais is damn good here, fitting snugly into the Muppets universe and, by and large, taking his character as seriously as he needs to.  In musical terms the showstopper is the excellent I'm Number One, a duet between Gervais and the evil Constantine, a beautifully constructed piece of musical cinema between man and muppet.

Similarly excellent is Tina Fey as the buttoned up Russian prison guard with a secret soft spot for Kermit. Though stern, domineering and faintly scary she's somehow loveable, managing to make her admiraiton and growing infatuation for a felt frog puppet weirdly believable.  Also (and I hesitate to mention this), Fey looks totally bombin' in the vaguely Soviet uniform she wears, the outfit pushing hidden buttons hitherto unknown in my psychology.

But good though the human characters are, this is very much the Muppet's movie. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest all getting their individual moments in the spotlight - and it's their emotional development that anchors the film.  It's a testament to the skills of Jim Henson that it's so easily to get wrapped up in his idiosyncratic universe, instinctively buying into the love between a pig and a frog and really, genuinely caring about these Muppets staying together.

Damn that uniform is fine.
While the classic Muppets are all well-served, the villainous newcomer Constantine is a highlight. I think he's simply a Kermit puppet with a mole on one cheek, but whoever's got his hand stuck up his arse does a great job of making him physically distinctive from Kermit. Constantine scowls, curls his lip in disgust and generally evils it up throughout the film - all conveyed through a slightly different way the puppeteer moves his hand. He's deftly, quickly and humorously drawn - simultaneously laughable, an obvious threat and makes the idea of "the most dangerous frog in the world" strangely plausible.

And now onto the geopolitics of the film.  Obviously.  During the gulag scenes (which take up a sizeable portion of the film) it's easy to let your mind wander to the letters written by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot about her experiences inside a Siberian prison camp.  While these scenes are lighthearted there's a kernel of accuracy to them, and though there's (probably) less impromptu dance numbers and comedy slapstick inside a real gulag, the casual sadism that Kermit endures probably isn't a million miles from reality.

Kermit & co in the gulag.
These sequences are intercut with images of London, the glittering buildings of the City carefully framed in the background of shots.  Bobin dissolves from one to the other in such a mannered way, that, as loopy as this sounds, I began to suspect he was drawing a pointed connection between the opulence of London and the human rights abuses of modern Russia. After all, it's the City that launders Putin's crony's money - even seeking exemption from current economic sanctions.  The main plot is Russian criminals seeking to seize the symbolic heart of the British nation! Am I reading too much into this?  Is Muppets Most Wanted really an subtle indictment of Putin's Russia?  Ordinarily I'd think not, but then I remember the last Muppets movie was pilloried in the right-wing media for criticising the oil industry and I wonder...

Vladimir Putin aside, Muppets Most Wanted is really really good (whether you buy the geopolitical allegory or not).  You can't really go wrong with this one. Great gags, great songs, great Muppets.  


Muppets Most Wanted is on general release from 28 March

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