Timing, even as a lovable hack like Fozzie Bear knows, is everything in comedy.
The timing is funny, but not in a wokka-wokka-wokka kind of way, though, for "Muppets Most Wanted," which is set to take the fork in the road into theaters Friday. The comedy, built in part around tongue-in-cheek, throwback Soviet-era villain caricatures, lands amid perhaps the most serious crisis of the post-Cold War era.
In the film, Kermit the Frog gets tossed into a Siberian gulag in place of his Russian doppelgänger, evil amphibian Constantine, offering new proof that it’s not easy being red – at least not in the movies. The flick is shaping up as the latest potential case of Jim Henson’s felt creations becoming unintended political Muppets.
The movie co-stars notable humans Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey, who plays a goofy Kermit-loving gulag guard with an accent that's a mix of Boris and Natasha, the bumbling Russian spies of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" fame.
That's an appropriate homage to a "Muppet Show" forerunner that deftly used a kid friendly format – animation – and silly-smart humor to appeal to children and adults on different levels. Jay Ward's characters boldly provided Cold War satire on TV in the early 1960s when "From Russia with Love" gave us big-screen Soviet bad guys and gals to abhor (and ogle).
Around the time the Muppets took Manhattan in the 1980s, some movies reflected the Cold War re-chill with the jingoistic likes of "Red Dawn." And let’s not forget the Sylvester Stallone double helping of "Rambo: First Blood Part II" and "Rocky IV," which introduced Russian super villain Ivan Drago as the boxing movie series jumped the shark (or, in Rocky Balboa parlance, hopped the turtle terrarium).
The creative folks behind the latest Muppets caper likely thought they would lightheartedly tap into corny movie conventions with a knowing wink and nod – not only with the trading-places gimmick, but via the retro Russian villain conceit a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They certainly couldn't have predicted the current turmoil embroiling Ukraine and Crimea.
Now the movie arrives as potential fodder for political satire and memes, in keeping with a growing Muppet tradition. Ernie and Bert became symbols of same-sex marriage. Cookie Monster transformed into an icon of greed during Occupy Wall Street. Jon Stewart turned childlike Elmo into the bedraggled political prisoner "Gitmo" in a recurring bit on "The Daily Show."
The use of the Muppets in political imagery and parody show how ingrained they are in us. But that might too big a burden to place on Kermit and Co., who only want to make us laugh – even if it might be harder than usual to forget what we’re going to the movies to escape from these days.
As the franchise tries to match its triumphant 2011 cinematic comeback in "The Muppets," check out a preview of the gang’s latest film foray below:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.