A POSTER advising “Die Muppets” causes con-sternation amongst the fleece and foam gang when they arrive in Berlin for the German leg of their world tour. “Looks like they posted the reviews early,” observes Fozzie Bear in one of this film’s many beat-them-to-the-punchline moments.
Muppets Most Wanted (PG)
Director: James Bobin
Running time: 112 minutes
Star rating: * * *
In 2011, The Muppets, Jason Segel’s tribute to Jim Henson’s TV troupe, was a global hit, and you don’t have to be Harvey Weinstein to figure out what that means in Movie World. “Everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good,” sing the Muppets in their opening number – and, well, they should know, having chased that truth down to Muppets From Space.
The paradox of most sequels is that studios realise they have something unique, then try to replicate it. In Muppets Most Wanted, however, there’s a tacit acknowledgement that they have to find new territory, whilst cleaving to the ancient Muppet spirit. The result may not be as great a sequel as The Godfather: Part II, but if our typesetting would allow it, I’d mark it up as a half star more entertaining than Captain America: The Winter Soldier this week.
Fundamentally, Most Wanted gets its strength from the Muppets as first conceived by Jim Henson: a chaotic, dimwitted vaudeville troupe who would be lost without their MC. That’s what happens when villainous showbiz agent Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) promises them a world tour, then secretly replaces Kermit with Constantine, a doppelfrog and jailbird from a Siberian gulag, who plans to use the Muppet tour to access art treasures and bank vaults.
Powdering over the large mole on the left side of his face is all it takes to fool the Muppets, even though the new Kermit now sounds East European, has developed a different way of holding his mouth and, above all, finally agrees to marry Miss Piggy.
Meanwhile, Kermit has been transferred to Constantine’s old prison, where the commandant (Tina Fey) orders him to organise the camp’s annual variety show, a thin excuse for the film to offer us veteran film heavies Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo performing a number from A Chorus Line. It’s a reminder of the days of the Muppets on TV, where their weekly guests were usually overripe showbiz names such as Zero Mostel, John Denver or a post-ballet Rudolf Nureyev performing Swine Lake with Miss Piggy.
The cameos in Muppets Most Wanted are briefer and glitzier, but still bewildering for kids, unless they listened to Tony Bennett in the womb. Gervais’s extended role must be another puzzler for small fry, unless his book Flanimals became the new Harry Potter when I wasn’t paying attention.
Also fundamental to the Muppets is a love of groanworthy puns, both verbal and visual. Thus Christoph Waltz performs a waltz, and the Great Gonzo stages running with the bulls onstage in Spain, with Salma Hayek dressed in a red costume with a bullseye on the chest.
You may wonder if there’s an additional joke here about Muppet unworldliness, since they appear to have booked an Austrian actor to appear in Berlin, and a Mexican actress for Madrid. I have no idea. I hope so.
• On general release from Friday
THIS WEEK’S OTHER FILM RELEASES
Yves Saint Laurent (15)
Star rating: * * *
Pierre Niney plays the tormented fashion designer from the start of his fashion career, aged 24, into middle age, when he retreated from public view to fight chemical addiction and depression. Guillaume Gallienne plays his supportive life partner Pierre Bergé and Moritz Bleibtrau Karl Lagerfield in an elegant, stylish piece of material, which never reveals anything of substance or much interest. The authentic Laurent creations on show may entrance fans of haute couture, but dramatically it’s haute air.
Glasgow Film Theatre from Friday until 1 April; Edinburgh Filmhouse until 3 April
20 Feet From Stardom (12A)
Star rating: * * *
Documentary about some of the extraordinary singers who provided the soaring backup to the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, David Bowie and dozens of Phil Spector hits. Eventually Morgan Neville’s profile becomes an enjoyable wallow in stories of the overlooked, rather than a propulsive narrative, but Mick Jagger’s face as he relives Merry Clayton’s late-night vocal contribution on Gimme Shelter is show-stopping, goose-pimpling stuff.
Glasgow Film Theatre from Friday until 1 April; Edinburgh Filmhouse from Friday until 3 April
The Past (12A)
Star rating: * * * *
After A Separation, Oscar-winning Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi returns with a portrait of divorce, with a French woman, (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) keen to end her marriage to her Iranian husband (Ali Mosaffa) and move on with her new, younger lover (Tahar Rahim). It’s not as skilfully nuanced as his last drama but the storytelling remains precise, surprising and compelling.
Edinburgh Filmhouse from Friday until 3 April
The Legend Of Hercules (12A)
Star rating: *
Kellan Lutz stars as the brawny Greek demigod in Renny Harlin’s epically dull spectacle. The CGI does most of the heavy lifting, and acting-wise there’s nothing legendary going on here.