Muppets Most Wanted opens just seconds after the conclusion of its predecessor, The Muppets. The streets outside the Muppet Theater are still crowded, one can almost feel the last notes of “Life’s a Happy Song” quivering in the air, and, wait: are those Jason Segel and Amy Adams standing with their backs to us? (Actually, no: neither of the human stars of The Muppets makes a repeat appearance this time around.) There is a moment of narrative uncertainty—where do we go from here?—before Kermit & Co. launch into another ensemble musical number that doubles as a knowing declaration of purpose: We’re doing a sequel, that’s what we do in Hollywood. And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good. Alas, this early self-critique proves entirely accurate.
Muppets Most Wanted, the second installment of the franchise since the 2011 reboot and eighth overall, isn’t a bad movie by any stretch: Kids will enjoy it, and there are more than enough clever gags to keep parents amused. But the film lacks the tenderness and rich nostalgia that made The Muppets such an improbable delight. In place of a touching fable about coming of age, finding acceptance, and putting on a show, the sequel offers up a gonzo (so to speak) stew of international crime sprees, mistaken identities, and prison breaks.
Following the opening number, Muppets Most Wanted whisks us away to “Gulag 38B: Siberia, Russia,” where we witness the daring escape of the world’s No. 1 criminal, an amphibian named Constantine, who delivers kicks like Bruce Lee and head-butts like Rust Cohle. And darned if he doesn’t turn out to be a dead ringer for Kermit the Frog, apart from a borscht-y accent and the small mole above his mouth.
It is with this resemblance in mind that Constantine’s oleaginous accomplice, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), begins greasing the skids for a switcheroo. Promising the Muppets fame and fortune, Badguy—it’s pronounced Badge-ee, he explains—signs on as their manager for a European tour. Soon enough, Kermit is framed (a mole super-glued to his face does the trick), captured, and locked up in the Gulag, where he is conscripted by prison guard Nadya (Tina Fey) to prepare his fellow inmates for a talent show. Meanwhile, Constantine, having usurped Kermit’s identity, engineers a transcontinental series of heists—Berlin, Madrid, Dublin, London—under cover of the big Muppet tour. Sam the Eagle and Modern Family’s Ty Burrell show up, respectively, as a CIA agent and Interpol investigator assigned to crack the case.
The result is a loopy, hectic movie crammed full of minor diversions. The many, many celebrity cameos include Christophe Waltz (dancing the waltz), Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Josh Groban, Salma Hayek, Ray Liotta, Tom Hiddleston, Frank Langella, and too many others to name here. The inside jokes on offer include references to The Silence of the Lambs, Boyz 2 Men, Danny Trejo, The Spy Who Loved Me, and, most hilariously, The Seventh Seal. As in the last outing, the songs were written by Bret McKenzie (whose Flight of the Conchords partner, Jemaine Clement, also has a small role). And while more than a few feature witty lyrics—Constantine, lording his preeminence over Badguy in “I’m Number One”: We’re criminals as large / but I’m at-larger than you; Nadya, describing the amenities available behind bars in “The Big House”: It’s no Hilton, not a Hyatt / but you will have a riot—none approach the sublimity of last installment’s Oscar-winning (God, I love to write that) “Man or Muppet.”
Though Muppets Most Wanted is made up of many likable parts, it ultimately amounts to less than their sum. In The Muppets, the human performances by Segel and Adams (and by the human-ish Muppet, Walter) helped tether the antics of Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal et al. This time around, by contrast, the flesh-and-blood stars are no less caricatures than their felt-and-wire colleagues: Fey, chewing her vowels like a second-tier Chekov (Pavel, not Anton); Burrell playing Steve Martin playing Jacques Clouseau; Gervais scheming superciliously. They’re all perfectly good within the constraints of their roles, but said roles amount to little more than extended cameos. And as pleasant as it is to spend time again amid the Muppets themselves, there’s little opportunity for any genuine emotional connection. (Certainly not when it comes the ever-more-fraught romantic trajectory of Kermit and Piggy…)
So if you’re in the mood for a bit of idle, light-hearted fun, by all means give Muppets Most Wanted a try. But do so with tempered expectations. It’s like they warned us upfront: The sequel’s never quite as good.