In his 2013 biography of Jim Henson, Brian Jay Jones notes that early in the cultivation of the Muppets, the creative team struggled to write for Piggy because "[t]he whole Muppet Show conceit is based on [the] concept of family," but Piggy had a tendency to "demand things that are quite outside of the family." Henson's team did, of course, eventually figure out how Piggy's character could be held in tension with the show's guiding metaphor.
But since seeing Muppets Most Wanted, I've been considering this as a starting place for viewing the latest film. The Muppets have always been about family—a group of dreamers bound by misfit bloodlines. But as with any family, it's worth asking what holds it together.
Near the beginning of Muppets Most Wanted, all of the recognizable Muppets have a meeting with a talent manager named Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) about how their next career step might be a world tour. Badguy assures the group that it's pronounced bædgee ("It's French! Meaning: 'good man!'").
It's a setup scene that includes some clever exposition, but that's also enjoyable for what the image's composition conveys. Badguy sits alone on one side of the table, attempting to lure the Muppets to accept his representation; the other side of the table is overrun with Muppets, sitting together and hoping to interact in unison to make a collective decision. That visual incongruence suggests that the Muppets think of themselves as family, and also implies the plight and manner of the Badguy.
Yes, Badguy is a bad guy—the #2 to his boss, Constantine, who is not only the world's number one criminal, but also Kermit's doppelgänger. If Badguy can convince the Muppets to follow his lead, then the two villains can use the tour as a cover to steal an enormous diamond.
Kermit is initially skeptical that Badguy's promises will be ultimately helpful. But, easily manipulated by Badguy's sweet-talking, the rest of the group resists Kermit and are hooked into committing to a world tour.
Trying to ensure that the first show in Berlin is a success, Kermit has to turn down most of the Muppets' bad ideas for comedy sketches and performances. Frustrated, he goes for a walk (at Badguy's leading request) and is confronted by Constantine, who puts a fake mole on Kermit in the midst of an assault.
With the mass on his right cheek, Kermit becomes indistinguishable from the world's most-wanted criminal and quickly finds himself imprisoned in a Gulag under the watchful eye of a guard named Nadya (Tina Fey). Meanwhile, Constantine colors over his mole and replaces Kermit in the Muppet Show. The family of Muppets is steadfastly unsuspecting, in part because Constantine allows them to do whatever they want—something that should be a dead giveaway.
In several senses, Muppets Most Wanted is a fitting sequel to The Muppets and, by extension, The Muppet Movie. Most Wanted knows it's a sequel and announces as much with its opening song ("We're doin' a sequel!"). This opening number makes it clear: this movie knows its movie history. It visually references the rainbow connection, a vital part of the Kermit-inspired Muppet identity: inspired lovers and dreamers. And Walter—the central protagonist Muppet introduced in The Muppets—is an active presence here. A couple of jokes are also made at his expense (and at the first movie's expense, too).
And it wouldn't be a proper Muppet movie if the gang wasn't on the move. So getting mileage out of the heist genre ("Is this going to be one of those comedy heist bits? I hope not—those never work!") makes good plot sense for a Muppet sequel.
Muppets Most Wanted is also a sequel in another sense: it has the same sense of humor. Jones' biography notes that Jim Henson insisted that the Muppets' comedy was, at its core, visual. This had to do with how the puppeteers played a punch line, but also the ways the design of the Muppets could be manipulated as well.
This may help explain why Tina Fey is so great in this movie. As a Saturday Night Live veteran, she's well versed in sketch and variety comedy. She is an excellent comedic performer, in a physical sense. The sketch—the short comedy scene—depends on the actor's ability to embody a joke the whole way through to the punch line.
Muppets and SNL cast members are doing much the same thing, in a lot of ways (and Henson was in fact a frequent visitor to SNL). So it's natural to pair Kermit and Nadya together to create a talent show, and it's funny, to boot.
The doppelgänger villain seals the deal, locking in this installment's absurdist, burlesque, and self-referential humor. The Muppets can't recognize Constantine isn't Kermit; Constantine's attempts to imitate Kermit play on a self-referential exaggeration of Kermit; or Constantine's fugitive heisting gives the movie ample opportunity to caricature the heist genre itself. Constantine looks exactly like Kermit in one sense, but his behavior—including his posture and gestures and mannerisms—is wholly unlike Kermit.
This all hits its peak when Constantine practices his best rendition of Rainbow Connection, but can only muster this imitation: "the lovers, the dreamers, and cheese" ("nailed it!"). The qualities that define Muppet comedy are all bound up in the moment. Constantine is the alter-Kermit.
If The Muppets might be considered a variation on Henson's intention to intermix man and Muppet in new ways for the movies (best summarized in "Man or Muppet?" and the eventual resolution for Walter), then I think this sequel focuses on being a sort of answer to that first question: what holds the Muppet family together?
And Kermit is its way of answering that question.
Jones notes that from the early days Kermit "was the sun around which the entire Muppet solar system revolved," and (quoting head writer Jerry Juhl) goes on to say, "More important, [the other Muppets] have to relate to him. Without Kermit, they don't work. Nothing could happen without him. The other characters do not have what it takes to hold things together . . . . Kermit's the organizer, always desperately trying to keep things going while surrounded by all these crazy nuts."
When Kermit is framed and imprisoned—interchanged with Constantine—the Muppet Show world tour slowly begins to erode, because the family loses that essential linchpin of what makes it hold together. When they lose Kermit, the Muppets lose their way. They become selfish dreamers who don't play to their strengths. They lose the blessed purpose underlying their foolishness.
But it's not just what happens to the Muppets in Kermit's absence. Don't forget: Kermit ends up in the Gulag. He attempts to get out of prison and is forced by Nadya to take charge of the prison talent show, but he still manages to make order out of chaos, arranging talent so it shines as brightly as it can, and earns the most happiness from the audience for whom he happens to be performing.
Even in the Gulag, Kermit can make stars out of the incarcerated marginalized.
For me, this Gulag moment comes closest to reaching the heights of 1979's The Muppet Movie. But Muppets Most Wanted lacks a certain vitality embedded in the maxim that "life's like a movie."
Jones notes that while Henson was hesitant to allow critics to compare him to Kermit, it was more than a little true that Henson was the creative dreamer and lover who held things together. I can't help but sense in these recent Muppet films that, while enjoyable enough, they don't quite have a spiritual gravitas about them that should underwrite the mixture between humor, song, and puppeteered animation.
You might say that while this film is about the absence of Kermit and what that means for the Muppet family, it's also, in an unintentional sense, a story about the absence of Henson—though the spirit of what he created lives on well enough to make a trip to this latest Muppet Show worth your while.
My young toddler watched and enjoyed The Muppets Movie (1979) and The Muppets (2011), but I'm glad I didn't take him with me to see Muppets Most Wanted. That's not because of any specific mature content that I wouldn't want him to see (not any problem here), but more because of some of the darker tones of the movie, when it is caricaturing the heist/prison break themes and the toddler may not register the light hearted intent of the depiction. This is a warning for very young ones, though, and I'd generally recommend the film for all audiences.
Nick Olson is Assistant Professor of English at Liberty University, a regular contributor to Filmwell, and co-editor of the upcoming third volume of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema. He tweets at @Nicholas_Olson.