With the exception of Walter, a perfectly serviceable character who joined an ensemble already way too rich with personalities to add another, 2011’s “The Muppets” was sort of a perfect reintroduction to Jim Henson’s most famous creations: playing directly to the notion that Kermit and the gang were outdated, Jason Segel’s pet project highlighted their timeless appeal with a story as wholesome and yet subversive as the show and movies that inspired it.
“Muppets Most Wanted” takes this resuscitated franchise in exactly the right direction, this time focusing primarily on the Muppets themselves and using Hollywood’s star wattage as a power source for punch lines. Picking up literally where the last film left off, the newly-reformed ensemble looks once again to Kermit (Steve Whitmire) for leadership. But despite his cautious attitude about reclaiming their status as superstars, Fozzie (Eric Jacobson), Miss Piggy (also Jacobson), Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Walter (Peter Linz) enthusiastically sign a contract with Hollywood agent Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) for a whirlwind European tour.
Unfortunately, Badguy contracts them under false pretenses: he’s using their increasingly awful performances as a cover for a series of heists by master criminal Constantine (Matt Vogel), who happens to be the spitting image of Kermit. After Constantine gets his doppelganger thrown into a Russian gulag run by Nadya (Tina Fey), he takes over as the Muppets would-be leader, with no one the wiser. But as Kermit tries to stage an escape, the rest of the Muppets begin to suspect that something is amiss with their tour, even as FBI Agent Sam the Eagle (Jacobson again) and Interpol’s Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) investigate them in conjunction with Constantine and Badguy’s robberies.
Starting your movie with a song openly admitting that sequels are never as good as their predecessors is a ballsy move, but songwriter Bret McKenzie is less letting himself and the filmmakers off the hook than addressing the elephant in the room, which lets the film unspool without requiring the audience to filter their reactions through what they experienced in 2011. That said, the opening song’s razor-sharp irreverence (“we can’t do any worse than ‘The Godfather III‘ ”) indicates that the material here isn’t merely a pale imitation of what came before, and sets an impressive precedent for the music that McKenzie sustains throughout the whole film.
As wonderful a host as Segel and Amy Adams were in “The Muppets,” it’s great to see their felt-faced counterparts take center stage this time, even if their flesh-and-blood support system is populated with even more celebrities than the first time, albeit mostly in peripheral or cameo roles. Christoph Waltz doing a waltz with Sweetums during the German leg of their tour probably counts as my personal favorite, but seeing Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo—playing himself—pop up opposite the Muppets makes for great fun, especially since they’re almost invariably making fun of themselves or gamely playing along with bits that would in any other context seem totally corny.
But where introducing a new character was sort of a distraction in “The Muppets,” here it’s comedy and narrative gold with Constantine, whose disdainful impersonation of Kermit provides some of the biggest laughs in the film, especially when he’s criminally mispronouncing characters’ names (“Fonzie” and “Zongo” being just two examples). He never overshadows what the original characters are doing, and in fact brings out their best (or at least most distinctive) personality quirks, as his indifference to the show prompts him to encourage them to indulge their creativity with disastrous, but perfectly authentic results.
Meanwhile, writers James Bobin (who also directs the film) and Nicholas Stoller shrewdly deconstruct the conventions of international thrillers and heist movies, starting with mistaken-identity tropes via the Muppets’ hilarious inability to distinguish Kermit from Constantine despite the only difference being a mole (never mind a conspicuously different accent). But even if its episodic, location-hopping structure occasionally feels overlong (or at least under-plotted), the humor is strong and consistent and inventive, never sacrificing heartfelt emotion even when it’s disemboweling storytelling boilerplate.
Ultimately as fun, smart and sweet as “The Muppets,” but gratifyingly unbeholden to that film’s specifics, this next-day follow up is part of a larger timeline but easily stands on its own. In fact, this eighth installment in the series not only feels in line with the best Muppet movies, but with Disney’s recent family-entertainment renaissance as a whole, entertaining audiences of all ages by bolstering kid-friendly hijinks with decidedly more grown up contexts. For a movie that insists that sequels are never better than their predecessors, “Muppets Most Wanted” at least suggests it’s possible for them to be equal – well, almost. [B+]