Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Three Days of Sequels, Part 1: Muppets Most Wanted

During my most recent international travels I made use of the in-flight entertainment to watch (amongst others) three films which were sequels to earlier works. The ways in which these films played off their earlier brethren happened to get me thinking; over the next three days, I'll try to sort out my thoughts here on the blog.

First, Muppets Most Wanted, a sequel to director James Bobin's 2011 picture the Muppets.

The Muppets' Budget: $45 million; Rotten Tomato Rating: 96%; Domestic Box Office: $88,631,237

Muppets Most Wanted's Budget: $50 million; Rotten Tomato Rating: 79%; Domestic Box Office: $51,183,113

Three things all three sequels I'm examining have in common (besides a 2014 release) are:

  1. They reported higher costs than their predecessor
  2. Their reviews were less positive
  3. Their domestic box office totals went down

Considering these facts, one wonders why Hollywood bothers with sequels - they cost more, take in less and are generally less-beloved. I imagine there must be someone who does the math on how much more they can afford to spend versus how much less they think they'll obtain.

I think the Muppets are okay, but it would be a stretch to call me a fan; I tuned into 2011's the Muppets not out of nostalgia, but because the filmmakers had successfully marketed it as a picture which was supposedly "true" to the spirit of earlier Muppet pictures, while at the same time "hip" to modern audiences. It was a family-friendly picture that even a single guy like me could enjoy; it essentially lived up to the hype.

I feel Muppets Most Wanted skews closer to family audiences than singles. While the previous picture's plot (save the Muppet theater) was nothing more than a hook to bring the characters together and hang jokes from, the sequel's plot (the Muppets tour Europe) asserts a lot of control over the film. The humour is fairly juvenile: I'm not sure how I feel about the Muppets making jokes about bodily functions (like, isn't that Dreamworks' turf?) and someone thought Ricky Gervais dressed as a lemur was funny - I hope I never have to sit next to that person on a plane.

Muppets Most Wanted has two great things going for it: one is Tina Fey's campy Russian commandant character who forces a mistakenly-imprisoned Kermit to produce a prison talent show for her; the other is Danny Trejo, playing himself as one of Kermit's fellow prisoners (kids love Danny Trejo!).

I was a little dismayed at a subplot involving Sam the Eagle as a CIA agent working alongside an Interpol agent (played by Ty Burrell) while investigating the crime plot which the Muppets have become embroiled in. Many of the gags in Sam's subplots involve typical stereotypes about Europeans (they drive tiny cars and drink tiny coffees! they go about matters at a relaxed pace, finding time for vacations!) which offer absolutely no twists. The gags feel a little xenophobic and won't do the American kids watching them any favours in how they relate to Europeans.

Although the European gags were written by someone in a coma, elsewhere the film leans heavily on the fourth wall, notably in an opening song where the characters confess sequels aren't as good as their predecessors. There's also a gag about how the character Walter (introduced in the previous film) takes away screen time from other popular Muppets (which only serves to point out how useless Walter is as a recurring character, given that his character arc ended in the previous film and his personality doesn't stand out against the others). The film was made by people who were eager both to entertain and to hold on to the reflected glory from their previous outing. They succeeded in crafting an okay film, however, - unlike the previous picture - failed to fashion something worth talking up to your friends.

Tomorrow: 300: Rise of an Empire.

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