The Muppets have been around since the 1950s, and they became household icons in 1976, when The Muppet Show hit the air. Follow that with feature films, Webby-award winning YouTube videos, and a return to feature films with 2011’s The Muppets, and you’ve got more than sixty years of Muppet history. On March 21, 2014, the latest entry into the Muppet canon hit theaters with Muppets Most Wanted, starring (alongside the Muppets) Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, and Tina Fey.
Like the many Muppet films before it, Muppets Most Wanted continues to rely on self-referential humor and breaking the fourth wall, engaging the audience as participants in the story rather than just watchers. Along the way, the film, written before the recent conflict in Crimea, has made a little more charged political commentary than it probably intended. If you are looking for a good research paper topic in literature, film studies, or political science, take a look at Muppets Most Wanted.
Muppets history of self-referentiality
“The series of Muppet movies attests to an advanced degree of self-consciousness on the part of the films’ creators,” Michael Dunne wrote of the original Muppet films in his 1992 book, Metapop: Self-Referentiality in Contemporary American Culture. He noted that the films rely on the outside knowledge of the audience to function: “The famous guest stars who are sprinkled throughout the series of films can operate effectively only when the viewers recognize them.”
The humor behind Ty Burrell playing an Interpol agent (seemingly based on the inept Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther films) isn’t in the role itself, but in the audience viewing the familiar Ty Burrell in that role. Likewise for Tina Fey as a Russian gulag prison guard, or comedian Ricky Gervais as the second-hand man to criminal mastermind (and Kermit’s evil double) Constantine.
The star-studded cameos that audiences expect from a Muppet film only work if the audience recognizes those actors from other projects. This creates a metatext between the film and those other appearances.
The Muppets also have a long history of their awareness that they are in a movie. The original Muppet Movie featured the plot’s reliance on characters having copies of the script. In The Great Muppet Caper Diana Rigg explains to Miss Piggy, “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.”
In the 2011 film, The Muppets, Fozzie declares of a special effect, “Wow, that was such an expensive looking explosion! I can’t believe we had that in the budget!” Muppets Most Wanted continues to break that fourth wall as the film opens with the cast singing the musical number, “We’re Doing a Sequel” (in which Kermit and Fozzie acknowledge that “the sequel’s never quite as good”).
While the Muppets are family friendly, “the wittiest jokes and cameo appearances are designed to soar far over the heads of young filmgoers and into the atavistic pop consciousness of their adult companions,” wrote Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post in her March 20, 2014, “‘Muppets Most Wanted’ movie review: Perfect mix of music, mayhem and celebrity cameos.”
Accidental political commentary
Much of the humor in Muppets Most Wanted relies on jokes about European stereotypes and Kermit’s prison stint in Russia after his evil double has framed him. “With Russian President Vladimir Putin enthusiastically reviving that country’s most oppressive totalitarian past, making light of what now seems all too real may strike adult viewers as, if not tasteless, then at least unfortunately timed,” Hornaday wrote.
Other critics were concerned that the jokes could anger not only Putin, but also European allies whose unflattering stereotypes are mocked. Mike Scollon, a commentator on Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty went so far as suggesting that Ricky Gervais’s character, with his subservient attitude toward villain Constantine, could be directly compared to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his relationship to Putin.
But U. S. News and World Report contributor Tierney Sneed warned not to take the comparisons too far in her “‘Muppets Most Wanted’ is silly, obvious and over the top – even when making fun of other countries,” writing “Those who get bent out of shape about the politically incorrect (yet also dumb, in a good way) humor … likely will meet the same fate” as the universally mocked Fox Business, over their accusation that The Muppets was anti-capitalist in 2011.
Sneed continued, “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.”
What do you think of Muppets Most Wanted and its predecessors? Tell us in the comments.