March 17, 2014

"It's the Muppets again! It's the Muppets again! It's. The. Muppets. Agaaaaain!"

That's right!! They're back (for the eighth time, in case you're keeping count) and not only most wanted, but most welcome. Putting yet another song in your heart and smile on your face with MUPPETS MOST WANTED, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Walter, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Gonzo and the rest of the gang (yep - almost all of the Muppets get some face time in the sequel) are now joined by the evil amphibian and criminal mastermind Constantine, Muppet CIA Agent Sam Eagle and human friends and enemies like Nadya, headmistress of the local Gulag, Dominic Badguy (that's pronounced "Badgee") who offers to manage the Muppets and handle them on a world tour while really serving as Number Two to Constantine's Number One criminal sidekick, and of course Interpol's best operative Jean Pierre Napoleon who teams up with Sam Eagle to solve a European crime spree. The result is a fun-filled whodunit crime caper through Europe filled with singing, dancing, fabulous sets, fabulous and not so fabulous locations (the actual Tower of London and a Siberian gulag/prison) and divinely stunning haute couture costume for the divine diva herself, Miss Piggy. Oh, and did I mention a cameo cast of hundreds? This is Muppet Madness!

Having just saved Muppet Theater from an evil oil baron, thanks to the devotion of Walter and an all-singing, all dancing finale on Hollywood Boulevard, the gang now wonders what to do next. With many less than stellar ideas bandied about, the one that everyone likes comes from a new player in the Muppet world - "super talent agent" Dominic Badguy (more like super shyster, if you ask me). Convincing the Muppets that he can restore them to their all-time glory and take them on a sellout worldwide tour to the greatest theater houses in Dublin, Madrid, Berlin and ultimately, London. Of course, what the Muppets don't realize is that Dominic is really Number Two bad guy to Constantine, Number One bad guy in the world who just happens to look an awful lot like Kermit!

Thanks to a cunning escape from a high security Soviet gulag by Constantine and a covert switcheroo with Kermit, who ends up in the gulag in place of Constantine, the plan to steal the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London is afoot with the Muppets no wiser. While Kermit is being wooed and fawned over by gulag guard Nadya (who is his biggest fan by the way), the Muppets soon find themselves on the wrong side of the law and the target of an international manhunt as priceless artifacts are being stolen from art museums around the globe; with the museums located next to the theater venues in which the Muppets are appearing AND on the same nights. Hmmmm.

Things don't look good for the gang as Jean Pierre Napoleon and Sam Eagle, CIA, interrogate and investigate. And one telling clue that something smells rotten in the world of Muppets - Constantine, under guise of being Kermit, proposes marriage to Miss Piggy AND sets the date!!!! Seriously? Kermit proposing?

Will the Muppets be found innocent? Will they discover Constantine's deception? Will they find Kermit? Will Kermit and Miss Piggy tie the piglet knot??

As Dominic Badguy and Nadya, Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey give solid, and solidly hysterical, performances but as we quickly see, with the film's design, director/writer James Bobin never lets them be center stage in a scene. Muppets are always the main focus with Gervais and Fey as supporting players that feed off the dialogue and action of the Muppets. Whereas in "The Muppets", Amy Adams and Jason Segal felt on "equal footing" with the Muppets themselves, the darker notes of the storyline in MUPPETS MOST WANTED as opposed to the upbeat perpetually perkiness of the former, the second bill nature of the humans plays extremely well. Joining in the human fracas is Ty Burrell who, as Jean Pierre Napoleon, gives us a spot on homage to Peter Sellers' beloved Inspector Clouseau character in "The Pink Panther" movies.

Cameos abound and often beyond outrageously funny and none moreso than Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo. Delightful is Josh Groban as a ghostly singing voice emanating from a solitary confinement cell. Too funny! Eclectic diversity is an understatement for the plethora of cameos with something for almost anyone, among them, Tony Bennett, Frank Langella, Liotta, Stanley Tucci, and even Christoph Waltz and Celine Dion for the "older" audience; Groban, Usher, Diddy, Zach Galifianakis, Salma Hayek will certainly appeal to pre-teens and up.

And as for the Muppets themselves? Over-the-top excellence. Or, as a nod to another Disney fave - practically perfect in every way.

Directed by James Bobin and co-written by Bobin and Nicholas Stoller, MUPPETS MOST WANTED finds that sweet spot of laughter and love with a solidly written story centered around a good caper! The script not only shows a maturity of story, but adds some darker notes that, thanks to some smartly written double entendre, tongue in cheek dialogue, will entertain adults while the more visual slapstick elements (a fusion of films like "The Pink Panther", "Kelly's Heroes", "How to Steal A Million" melded with Road Runner ACME product explosives) will delight kids and kids of all ages. Key is that the story stays true to the emotional core of the Muppet message of friendship, loyalty and fun.

Particularly joyous are the musical numbers. However, while kids are in it for Muppets, Muppets, Muppets, I wonder if scenes like the gulag numbers, and particularly the nod to Broadway, will be lost on that younger audience and make them fidgety. On the A+ side is music and lyrics of Bret McKenzie who will have you tapping your toes and singing in the aisle with songs like "We're Doing A Sequel!", "I'm Number One" and "Working in the Coal Mine". Trust me, it won't take long before every kid out there (uh, including this big kid) will be mimicking one of the best lyrics of the film in a Russian Constantine voice - "Dance, Monkey, Dance!" - and doing their own slapstick vaudeville routines. One disappointment is the finale number which feels a bit slow in tempo and didn't have me leaving the theater tapping my toe as in the finale of "The Muppets". However, MUPPETS MOST WANTED gets off to a more than toe-tapping start with an Old Hollywood MGM-style musicale number guaranteed to have Busby Berkeley, Arthur Freed and Flo Ziegfeld dancing in the clouds of heaven!

I'm talking about "We're Doing A Sequel!" (Academy members, get your Oscar votes ready now!) This song kicks off the film with exuberance and effervescence! Talk About A Number!!! Move over Gene Kelly and Busby Berkeley! As director Bobin states, "When you do a musical number it kinda has to be Busby Berkeley." Fantastic choreography, Ziegfeld-esque use of a proscenium for the "beautiful girls", an Esther Williams swimming pool, eye-popping hot pinks, feathers, sequins, breathtaking kickline costumes (check out the gold top hats, white tails and canes - Piggy looks lovely dripping in gold) and all capped with Miss Piggy rising from the sea in an oversized pearl donned in a breathtaking mermaid-esque costume mirroring one of Esther Williams' most iconic scenes - TALK ABOUT RAZZLE DAZZLE!! WHOO HOO!!! I admit - I was dancing in my seat! And if that's not enough, Bobin and cinematographer Don Burgess continue the sensory feast with patented Berkeley overhead lensing capturing the geometric beauty of song and dance. Hands down my favorite scene in the film and one of my favorite musical numbers of all time.

According to James Bobin, "I always believed the Muppets have a great place entertainment history. They kind of live in that world. 'The Muppet Show' was filmed in an old theater and it works for them. So generally, I love the idea of making a movie with huge number of references... just things that you may remember from other movies. It plays so well for them that when we put this together, you have this leeway to do that and it's very rare to have a chance to do that and make reference for the movies you love. . .You see Fozzie and Walter in the desert. It's like a David Lean shot. . .We have Swedish here from the 'Seventh Seal'. . .It's very much a conscious choice."

The pairing of McKenzie and Bobin is flawless with story and song, harkening the musicals of MGM with the song lyrics integral parts of the story and dialogue. As noted by McKenzie, "Those years are so influential on us now because of what they did with the videos and the films for musical numbers." As we are seeing more frequently from Disney, the musicality of the film is getting increasing complex while retaining celebratory, simple, thoughtful and fun lyrics. The musical scoring itself is more complex, textured and thematic; something I relish. McKenzie together with composer Christophe Beck develops some wonderful thematic notes which I am sure were aided by the very nature of the film - travelling through Europe. He infuses cultural flavors not only in specific city performances, but also within the thematic music and songs for characters such as Nadya and Constantine. Exemplary work.

Eve Stewart's production design is not only mind-bogglingly detailed and fantastic, but truly immersive, transporting us in time and place along with the Muppets throughout Europe and into the Siberian gulag. With only a few key exteriors to set the stage, the action kicks into play on a train (which is a great tool to give you the feel that the film, the story and the characters are all continually moving and not stagnating), backstage in theatres and, of course, in the gulag. A big "hats off" to Stewart who does an incredible job of transforming and creating the gulag. Marvelous design and use of grey scale color that captures the look and tone of vintage 40's and 50's films. But the real coup for Bobin, and particularly those gosh darn big kids and miracle workers, producers Todd Lieberman and Dave Hoberman, is shooting in the Tower of London itself - something that has never been allowed and never done in any film until now. Talk about the magic of the Muppets! Sadly, though, not only do we not get to see the Crown Jewels, but Miss Piggy doesn't get to wear them.

Speaking of the porcine Diva herself, don't miss a single stitch of her haute couture fashion, compliments of Rahel Afiley. While Afiley dresses everyone in the film, it is the costuming for Miss Piggy that is stand out. As McKenzie does with integration of different eras of music (disco, big band, 40's, pop, 60's, Philly soul, and patented 50's MGM musicals), so does Afiley as she designs classic styling from the 20's, 30's and 40's for the porcine princess. But when it came time for designing "the wedding gown", Miss Piggy was dressed in nothing less than a specially commissioned "Long Ivory Court" couture gown by Vivienne Westwood. Breathtaking. Westwood also designed a lux Harris Tweed houndstooth coat with matching beret for Piggy's trip to the Tower of London as well as a shimmering silver hand-embroidered floral lace for Piggy's duet with Celine Dion. After seeing the fabulous fashion of MUPPETS MOST WANTED, it's obvious that Miss Piggy needs her own clothing line - or at least a clothing line to go with some of the stuffed toy Miss Piggy's. But beyond Piggy, Afiley achieves a fine balance of color with the Muppet costumes in terms of their human co-stars with attention to blend and insuring the humans don't clash with the Muppets natural colorings and whatever costume they are wearing.

And while I find the finale a little less exuberant than what I would like to see from the Muppets, not to be missed are the end titles during the final credits. Stay through the credits folks! Absolutely fabulous, you will find yourself feeling like a kid on the Fourth of July, all agog as fireworks explode onscreen depicting each of the Muppets. With wide-eyed wonder, your heart and face will smile with happy tears at the simplicity, elegance, beauty and fuzzy nostalgia.

We wanted them. We got them. The Muppets are back with a vengeance with MUPPETS MOST WANTED. Please sirs, I want some more.

Directed by James Bobin

Written by James Bobbin and Nicholas Stoller

Cast: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell

Muppets Cast: Kermit, Miss Piggy, Constantine, Fozzie Bear, Walter, Sam Eagle, Gonzo the Great, Animal, and a Muppet cast of hundreds

Cameos: Who doesn't have a cameo?


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