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.