So, how odd is it that a Disney-produced Muppet movie has turned out to be the best cinematic vehicle to date for the considerable talents and charms of one Elizabeth Stamatina Fey? As Nadya, the stern head of a Russian gulag in Muppets Most Wanted, Tina Fey is funny and charming as hell, looks amazing, rocks an amusingly Boris-and-Natasha-esque accent, and shows off a surprisingly lovely singing voice in one of the picture’s best production numbers. That’s the good news for Fey fans; the bad is that she’s also woefully underutilized by the film, where she doesn’t turn up until the 30-minute mark and ends up with far less screen time than Ricky Gervais and even Ty Burrell. But that kind of mixed-bag assessment is typical of Most Wanted, though at least the film owns it, kicking off by lyrically acknowledging, “everyone knows the sequel’s never quite as good.”
Topping the predecessor is, to be sure, a tall order. The 2011 reboot The Muppets was one of the most delightful films, family or otherwise, in recent memory; it vibrated with the pure love director James Bobin, screenwriters Jason Segal (who co-starred) and Nicholas Stoller, and songwriter Bret McKenzie clearly had for the characters, energetically re-introducing them to young viewers while throwing in plenty of heartfelt nostalgia for the older audiences who grew up watching The Muppet Show and the original movies (this viewer remains unapologetic for the many, many tears shed during its beautifully prepared and utterly enchanting “Rainbow Connection”).
Though Segal is disappointingly absent this time around, the rest of that team returns (with Bobin stepping into Segal’s place as co-screenwriter). But reintroduction and wet-faced nostalgia are a well you can only go back to so many times, so Bobin and Stoller follow the arc of the original films, fashioning Muppets Most Wanted as a high-spirited, globe-trotting heist picture in the Great Muppet Caper mold—with Ricky Gervais in the Charles Grodin role, playing the slimy promoter/would-be Crown Jewel thief Dominic Badguy (pronounced Bad-gee, he assures us). They also throw in, as a sly visual shout-out, an Esther Williams-esque overhead pool shot in the opening song (Caper had a full number in that style), and end the film with a revision of “Together Again,” which opens their third movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Their script uses that old standby, the mistaken identity plot. We meet Constantine, “the world’s most dangerous frog,” as he executes a daring escape from a Soviet gulag; aside from a small mole, he looks exactly like Kermit the Frog, though he speaks in a kind of strangled-accented, circular English not unlike the Festrunk brothers on Saturday Night Live. He then switches places with poor Kermit, who is sent back to the gulag, run by Fey’s Nadya, who is unsympathetic to his wild story, though she eventually develops a somewhat disturbing affection for him.
Fey’s sequences are unquestionably the highlight (and she gets able support from the rough-and-tumble inmates, led by Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, and McKenzie’s Flight of the Conchords bandmate Jemaine Clement), but there’s simply not enough of them — particularly when stacked up next to the long stretches given over to Modern Family’s Burrell, doing a particularly flat Sellers-as-Clouseau impression. Due in part to those scenes and the rather late introduction of some clunky sentimental elements, the film’s draggy second half isn’t nearly as inspired as its first (the lowlight is probably a strangely serious Miss Piggy ballad, featuring a suspiciously unironic Celine Dion appearance).
But there’s some awfully inspired material here. McKenzie’s songs seem, if anything, to wear their Conchords influence even more proudly this time around (“I’ll Get You What You Want” is my favorite, a snappy, witty R&B send-up that sounds straight out of their HBO show). There’s plentiful slapstick for younger audiences, while the grown-ups will spot clever references to The Seventh Seal, Lockout, and Oldboy, to say nothing of a full-on Chorus Line tribute. And, as ever, the film is blissfully self-aware; aside from the aforementioned “They’ve Ordered a Sequel” opening number, there are several very funny inside jokes about the new films’ focus on Walter, “perhaps even at the expense of other long-standing, beloved characters” (I’ll not spoil the joke by revealing who raises that objection).
In other words, there’s a lot to like in Muppets Most Wanted, and if it doesn’t quite manage to equal the total satisfaction of its predecessor, or make full use of its most gifted human star, it’s hard to get too persnickety about a picture as joyful and sweet as this one.
Muppets Most Wanted is out tomorrow in wide release.