Not Easy Being a Sequel: "Muppets Most Wanted" puts on a less magical show

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
112 min., rated PG.

Any Muppets sequel starring Jim Henson's fuzziest and most lovable puppet creations knows that, even if the film in question does not score high in its canon, it's still going to have its pleasures. The first theatrical release in twelve years for the gang, 2011's "The Muppets" was an infectiously witty and affectionately nostalgic reinvigoration that could only have been made by dear fans. Director James Bobin returns, co-writing the script with returnee Nicholas Stoller (but no writer/co-star Jason Segel), for "Muppets Most Wanted," a lackluster sequel so self-aware of itself that it jests not being quite as good as its predecessor. "Sequelitis" is the joke, but what follows is predominantly a mixed bag, ironically proving a self-fulfilling prophecy. If there wasn't much to complain about the film from three years ago, "Muppets Most Wanted" is more squarely happy than consistently funny, as it could have used a few more gags per minute and more meta fourth-wall breaking. 

"Muppets Most Wanted" begins immediately where "The Muppets" wraps, complete with "The End" in the sky and the stand-in backs for Jason Segel and Amy Adams (who are now long gone). From that moment, the viewer realizes they're in safe hands, the Muppets kicking off with the self-referential joke, "They've ordered a sequel!" and as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew truthfully points out, this is really their seventh sequel. That calls for a catchy opening production number, "We're Doing a Sequel," in grand, splashy Old Hollywood style. The Muppets are soon approached by manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais)it's French and pronounced Bad-gee—who offers to take their variety show on a global tour, selling out theaters in Berlin, Dublin, and Madrid. Of course, Badguy is up to no good and, as it turns out, he's in cahoots with Constantine (voiced by Matt Vogel), the world's number one dangerous frog and an amphibious doppelgänger for Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmire). The nefarious plan goes off without a hitch in Berlin, swapping Kermit for Constantine, so the "evil froggen" and Badguy can use the Muppets' tour as a cover for their heist to steal the crown jewels. Meanwhile, as the Russian-accented Constantine doesn't do a Kermit impression justice but still gains the troupe's trust (including Miss Piggy), the real Kermit is thrown into the Siberian prison of Gulag. It doesn't take long for the prisoners and warden Nadya (Tina Fey) to believe the polite Kermit is not Constantine, but his true identity doesn't give him a release, at least not before he directs the prison talent show.

There's quite a bit of plot here, mixing mistaken identity, heist caper, police investigation, let's-put-on-a-show interludes and a prison romance into an 112-minute feature, that a few threads could have either been pruned or saved for another sequel. High-spirited and eager to please, "Muppets Most Wanted" is also overlong and suffers from a few too many flat, saggy spots. In between, though, when young kids in the audience aren't dancing in the aisles to the songs, adult cinephiles will enjoy picking up on a slyly funny reference to Ingmar Bergman with the Swedish Chef or the old "mirror routine" between both frogs. The running joke that nobody in Kermit's troupe notices Constantine is an impostor is also pretty amusing (Constantine slaps a fake mole on the real Kermit with glue and covers his own mole with green makeup). 

This time, the Muppets themselves are more front and center, including the last film's newcomer, Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), and all of them get a moment here and there. Ricky Gervais is surprisingly tame but always game, especially as Constantine's "number two" in their tap-dancing duet of "I'm Number One." Tina Fey is a hammy delight as forlorn Gulag warden Nadya with her goofy Boris and Natasha-style Russian accent. A mustached Ty Burrell is also clearly having a ball, riffing on Inspector Clouseau as French Interpol inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon who ends up working with FBI agent Sam Eagle but often leaves his investigation for six-hour lunch breaks and extended family vacations. This being a Muppets movie, you bet it's crammed with plenty of blink-and-you'll-miss-'em cameo guest stars. Hey, look, it's Usher playing an usher! Or, there's Christoph Waltz playing himself and performing an actual waltz. Not everyone is given a chance to show their comic chops, but Sean "Diddy" Combs, Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, Chloë Grace Moretz, Saoirse Ronan, Josh Groban, and others all stop by to get in on the fun.

All of the musical numbers are fine, with the previous film's Oscar-winning Bret McKenzie writing the songs, but only a couple really stand out, particularly Fey leading the cute doo-wop ditty "The Big House" when Kermit gets dragged to Gulag, and Miss Piggy's duet, "Something So Right," with Celine Dion is sweet and surprisingly tender as she envisions her future and interspecies children with Kermy. Also, where else are you going to find the one-time sight of Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo playing musical jailbirds? Whereas "The Muppets" was almost always clever and felt effortless, "Muppets Most Wanted" gets propped up by good will, but then starts to feel more obligatory than inspired, running on desperation rather than flowing with creative juices. The punny wit is sorely lacking, as if everyone is just going through the goofy motions. When all is said and done, though, it's still a Muppets movie, so if you're not laughing as often as you'd like, you're most certainly smiling through chunks of this disappointing if mirthfully silly affair.

Grade: C +