The Muppets vs Wes Anderson

Muppets Most Wanted and The Grand Budapest Hotel both have plots that involve wrongful imprisonments. I know who I felt most sorry for, and it wasn’t Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave H., a hotel concierge turned convict in Wes Anderson’s latest concoction. No — like Tina Fey, my heart belongs to Kermit the Frog.

Fey plays Nadya, a prison guard at a Siberian gulag where Kermit is held for most of Muppets Most Wanted’s running time. She’s tough on the outside, but her locker is a shrine to the green amphibian, and why wouldn’t it be? Kermit embodies the strange magic of puppetry. He’s human and animal; real and make-believe; the most iconic of Jim Henson’s Muppet creations and, since Henson’s death in 1990, an avatar for the joyous, unfettered imagination that Henson brought into the world. Kermit is the heart of every Muppets film, because his own heart is so generous. No other Muppet can really live without him, least of all Miss Piggy, who has been pursuing her dream frog for several decades.

The Muppets staged their mainstream comeback in 2011’s The Muppets, a film for which I was well and truly the target market. I was reared on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and repeated VHS viewings of the Muppets’ late 70s and early 80s films. In 2011 the Muppets didn’t shy away from the fact that, even to their fans, they were a pop-cultural hangover from an earlier era: their dagginess was the basis of that film. There were jokes about Molly Ringwald and dial-up modems, and a barbershop quartet version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. I don’t mind admitting that when Kermit reprised his great hymn to daydreaming, ‘The Rainbow Connection’, I got a little teary.

The song surfaces very briefly in Muppets Most Wanted, alongside blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Salma Hayek, Ray Liotta, Stanley Tucci and Usher — playing a wedding usher, naturally.

Guest appearances are no less frequent in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and include Anderson regulars Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Willem Dafoe. Saoirse Ronan appears in both films: in Muppets Most Wanted as herself, and in The Grand Budapest Hotel as a young baker, with a birthmark the shape of Mexico on her cheek.

Such whimsical detail is Anderson’s stock-in-trade, and over the course of eight feature films since 1996 he has gained a large and devoted fanbase. No one could deny Anderson’s visual inventiveness as a director, and like the Muppets, his style harks back to a pre-CGI cinema. He favours elaborate sets and scale models; drawing attention to, rather than attempting to disguise, the fantastical nature of his film-making. Yet for all that his style can be rigid: his camera shots are often perfectly squared, locked off directly in front or above the action, as if he was afraid of what might happen should his cinematography, or his actors, take a looser grip. The tone of The Grand Budapest Hotel is oddly uneven: it wants to be a comedy, but it’s not very funny. Ralph Fienne’s delivery — and he’s in nearly every scene — always seems to lag a few seconds behind the punch line.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is, like a nineteenth century novel, a series of narratives-within-narratives, each folding out onto an earlier timeframe. Anderson’s films have often been praised for their childlike sense of wonder, but he lacks the grotesquery of which actual children are more than capable. Even when the fascists come calling in this film, the whole thing remains as sugary as a chocolate eclair. In my opinion, Fantastic Mr Fox is Anderson’s best work — it was, after all, an actual children’s story, perhaps also because it was borne of that master of the grotesque, Roald Dahl.

Muppets Most Wanted is ostensibly a children’s film, but its true viewer demographic overlaps with Anderson’s. Nostalgia is key to both of them, but unlike the Muppets, who are only too aware that the world has moved on, Anderson’s films seem to want to stop time altogether. His nostalgia, like his set design, is so contrived that I don’t believe he really believes in it as anything other than a visual style. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a perfect miniature world, but it left me cold. I’m sticking with the little felted frog.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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