2011’s The Muppets arrived with a clear statement of purpose. Beyond the simple boundaries of its plot, the film presented an eloquent and impassioned argument for the relevance and vitality of The Muppet Show. The film’s third act was basically a backdoor pilot for a revival of the beloved TV series. But as powerful as that argument may have been, it didn’t lead to the return of The Muppet Show. The success of that movie instead opened the door to more Muppet film projects. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Muppets Most Wanted does feel comparatively uninspired. It largely plays out as one long meta-joke about how sequels are bigger, but often not better for it.
Constantine, master thief and world's most dangerous frog, breaks out of prison. Constantine happens to look exactly like Kermit the Frog, apart from an easily concealed mole and a thick accent. He secretly switches places with Kermit while the Muppets are on their European tour, and he slides surprisingly easily into the role. With the help of the Muppets' crooked new manager, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), he uses the Muppet Show as a cover for a dastardly plan to steal the Crown Jewels of Britain. Meanwhile, Kermit is thrown into a Siberian gulag, and must find a way to escape and return to his family.
The movie immediately hangs a lampshade on the fact that sequels are never quite as good as the original. There is some acknowledgement that this edition might not have as much purpose as the last film, which really sought to reconnect with the loose, shaggy joy of putting on The Muppet Show. It’s a cheeky enough idea, but the film never really seems to challenge it. It seems to operate completely under that truism, and never really gets it together long enough to try for anything better. It embraces the aimlessness, largely putting emotional content on the backburner as it pursues a series of random gags. The storytelling is even shaggier than before, the narrative coming off as a bit of an afterthought.
It’s all clever enough, and there are a few truly inspired moments. The film draws deeper from the Muppet cast, and comes up with several fine new gags for them. Bret McKenzie’s songwriting is even sharper this time around. He’s given a wider variety of musical styles to play, and the result is often both funny and weirdly affecting. But looking at it as a whole, it just lacks vitality. A lot of it feels like an obligation, the movie doing certain things simply because it is the way that Muppet movies are done.
Though some of the original voices are missed, the Muppets remain utterly entertaining. The puppetry is expressive, and the characters still feel the way they’re supposed to. The human cast kind of pales in comparison. Ricky Gervais seems oddly unenthused throughout this movie. This might have been a choice for his character, but it just isn’t very fun to watch. Ty Burrell, on the other hand, might be having a little too much fun playing up French stereotypes. Tina Fey is probably too good for the role she’s given here, but she’s enjoyable all the same.
Muppets Most Wanted has sporadically great moments, but it doesn’t quite work as a whole. It just doesn’t care enough about its plot portions to make them interesting. As it reaches for sentiment in the end, it feels rote and a little unearned. The randomness of the film would probably work better in another format. Again, this reinforces the need for the return of The Muppet Show. It remains the best format for these characters, and at times, it feels like even the filmmakers agree. It’s not a bad movie by a long shot, but maybe it isn’t meant to be a movie at all.