It’s one of the oldest tricks in showbiz’s book. In the opening number of "Muppets Most Wanted" – taking place mere seconds after the lights went down on the 2011 film, complete with humorously obvious Jason Segel/Amy Adams stand-ins – our fuzzy friends tunefully note, "We’re doing a sequel, that’s what we do in Hollywood and everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good."
The lyric – which continues on to say it can’t do "any worse than ‘Godfather III’" – isn’t just a cute little meta joke. It’s managing expectations, discreetly setting the bar just a little bit lower so it’s easier to get over. And if the movie still trips over the bar and fails to live up to those expectations, well hey, they warned you.
The bad news is that the opening number is technically right: No, "Muppets Most Wanted" is not quite as good as its predecessor, which had a bit more of everything – nostalgic heart, big-screen craft, Chris Cooper rapping (okay, we could've done without that, actually). The good news, however, is that it’s not off by much.
Coming immediately off of saving their old theater, the Muppets decide to head off on a world tour. Kermit doesn’t think it’s the wisest plan, but their totally trust-worthy new manager Dominic Badguy (a kind of half-hearted Ricky Gervais) convinces the rest of the gang to head to Europe. In a shocking turn of events, Badguy ends up being a nefarious fellow, the second-in-command to recently escaped criminal mastermind – and Kermit the Frog look-a-like – Constantine the Frog.
With the help of some green paint, a fake mole and a foggy alleyway, Constantine manages to switch places with Kermit. Kermit is sent off to a Siberian gulag, run by a very Russian Tina Fey. There, he attempts to escape and make friends with his fellow prisoners, namely the prison king (Jemaine Clement of "Flight of the Conchords"), Big Papa (Ray Liotta) and Danny Trejo (Danny Trejo).
Back on the tour, things have gone to chaos with fake Kermit in charge. Their shows are out-of-control spectacles featuring Christoph Waltz-ing, indoor running of the bulls and three-hour drum solos. Not that Constantine or Dominic care. They’re merely using the easily fooled Muppets as distractions for their real goal – an elaborate, multi-national jewel heist – and then eventually as scapegoats for the dueling feds (FBI agent Sam Eagle and French Interpol agent Ty Burrell).
It’s up to the fuzzy entertainers to snap out of their daze, rescue Kermit and stop Constantine before the Muppets make like, well, the Muppets of the last two decades and disappear again.
The last film, all of the self-aware joking and goofing around aside, was a film on a mission. For star/co-writer Jason Segel, it was a heartfelt passion project to pull the Muppets out of the dusty closet and put them back on the cultural map again. The Muppets had something to prove, and considering the solid reviews and $88 million American box office tally, they pulled it off for the most part.
Before, they were fighting not only to entertain, but for relevance and survival; with that accomplished, they’re here mostly because – as the opener says – they’re franchise-able. Perhaps with nothing to prove this time – and with no Segel – "Muppets Most Wanted" feels a bit more light and disposable. Even though the film heads across the globe and has a slightly bigger budget, it feels smaller and cheaper. And though it’s not like "The Muppets" had a groundbreaking plot of "Inception"-like complexity, the story here is still comparatively light and flimsy, with little real dramatic juice flowing in it.
The only real mission here, like their vaudeville/variety show inspirations, is merely to entertain. And luckily for everyone involved, they’re pretty good at that.
As expected, there are plenty of self-aware jokes, references and blink-or-you'll-miss-them cameos, many of them more amusingly peculiar than usual ("The Seventh Seal"! Saoirse Ronan! Celine Dion! You know, for kids!). The Muppets themselves are always good for a clever, witty laugh, charmingly mocking the cliches and cinematic norms. Constantine’s an entertaining concept as well, with his humorous attempts to turn his heavy European drawl into Kermit’s signature voice, especially on Kermit's signature "Muppet Show" introduction.
"Muppets Most Wanted" succeeds for the most part at being funny and entertaining, however, from the combination of returning director James Bobin and songwriter Bret McKenzie (also of "Flight of the Conchords"). The songs, like Tina Fey's doo-wop ode to the gulag "The Big House" and Constantine's smooth disco jam "I'll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)," are innocently goofy and infectiously catchy (Why has nobody posted any of them on YouTube yet? You have failed me, Internet!).
Meanwhile, Bobin may seem uneasy with some of the expectations of a big screen adventure – there's some really embarrassingly bad CG at the very end – but each of the musical numbers is its own cleverly crafted, amusingly straight-faced music video parody.
The movie as a whole may not be quite as consistently in tune, but even if the jokes miss about as often as they hit, the laughs are stronger than the misses stink. The Muppets still smartly charm, even when they straight-up tell you they’re not quite as good this time.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.