Fox Business made itself too easy of a target by accusing 2011’s “The Muppets” of being anti-capitalist for making its villain a greedy oil businessman named Tex Richman – an allegation that attracted the mockery of everyone from Jon Stewart to the Muppets themselves. Those who get bent out of shape about the politically incorrect (yet also dumb, in a good way) humor in “Muppets Most Wanted” – out this week – likely will meet the same fate.
Along with reveling in the usual joyous antics of a gang of lovable felt puppets, “Muppets Most Wanted” gets many of its laughs by profiteering off obvious cultural stereotypes, with the Muppets having decided to take their show on a tour of Europe. There are gags involving minuscule European cars, antiquated Interpol technology, French laziness, lots of accents and Berlin being “the world capital of comedy.”
Meanwhile, an evil Kermit look-alike – Constantine, a frog fashioned like a Cold War-era Bond villain – has broken out of a Siberian gulag, and Kermit is mistakenly sent there in his place. Before the current geopolitical crisis with Russia, all the time spent on a Soviet-stained set piece would have felt odd. Now it feels oddly well-timed.
Let’s be clear: This is a Muppets movie, not a Wes Anderson film. Most of the humor is geared so a 10-year-old could get it, and much of it is making fun of the Muppets themselves – in a loving, gentle way, of course.
Which is partially how it gets away with all its nation-mocking in an era when every ounce of cultural appropriation is picked apart endlessly. Muppet jokes are rarely, if ever, mean-spirited, and the most stereotypical “Muppets Most Wanted” characters are also the most endearing, be it Tina Fey as the sympathetic gulag officer or Ty Burrell as the tiny, espresso-drinking French Interpol detective.
These jokes – like most Muppets humor – also are extremely obvious, lowbrow and goofy. Muppets films are aware of their silliness and are willing to double down on it in a way that still comes off as completely earnest. It's the kind of humor that allows the film – the sequel to the wildly successful 2011 franchise reboot – to kick off with the musical number “We're Doing a Sequel,” which includes the line, “That’s what we do in Hollywood/ And everybody knows the sequel is not quite as good.”
They’re right, it’s not. But with this technically being the seventh Muppets sequel – as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew reminds his Muppet friends – it at the very least has a little bit of an edge.
Corrected on March 21, 2014: A previous version of this story mischaracterized a joke in "Muppets Most Wanted."