'Muppets Most Wanted' Review: "The Sequel's Never Quite As Good"

The Muppets are nothing if not self-aware, and Muppets Most Wanted opens with a promising joke. Picking up just moments after the last movie left off, Kermit and company launch into a jaunty, toe-tapping musical number that acknowledges all the pitfalls of a follow-up. "We're doing a sequel," they sing. "That's what we do in Hollywood / And everybody knows that the sequel's never quite as good!"

But all the knowingness in the world can't save the Muppets from the actual pitfalls of doing a sequel. In the end, Kermit's early admission feels more like a warning than a joke. Muppets Most Wanted isn't bad; in some parts, it's very good. Still, it struggles to match the highs that the first one hit so easily.

For the most part, it succeeds. There are lots of silly gags, tons of random celebrity cameos, and many endearing musical numbers (though as in The Muppets, the first one is the best). At 112 minutes, it could stand to be shorter, but the plot zips along quickly enough that I was never truly in danger of getting bored. What's missing, though, is depth. Despite a sprawling plot that involves a criminal master plan, a stint in a harsh Siberian gulag, an Kimye-worthy wedding, and five different countries, Muppets Most Wanted feels inconsequential.

The plot takes off when the Muppets decide to take their act to Europe on the suggestion of their new manager, Ricky Gervais's Dominic Badguy. Although he insists his last name is French and pronounced "bad-JEE," he quickly proves himself to be an actual bad guy. At the first stop in Berlin, he and a criminal mastermind named Constantine who looks exactly like Kermit, arrange a switcheroo. Kermit is sent to prison by authorities who believe him to be Constantine, while Constantine takes Kermit's place as the head of the Muppets.

Pretty soon, one of the major flaws of the movie reveals itself. Although Constantine has nothing but wickedness in mind, the Muppets almost seem better off with him than they did with Kermit. At the very least, they're having more fun. Gonzo's idea for an indoor running of the bulls is an insanely moronic one, but watching Constantine let that happen is way more enjoyable than watching Kermit shoot him down. The green frog has always been the most sensible of his friends, but here he's a full-on wet blanket. And he's even meaner than usual to Miss Piggy, to boot.

Constantine and Dominic's nefarious plans require them to jet all over the continent, so on the group goes from Berlin to Madrid, Dublin, and London. Meanwhile, Kermit is trying to make the best of his stay in the gulag, which is headed up by an awkward prison guard named Nadya (Tina Fey). Because director / co-writer James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller apparently can't conceive of anything for a female character to do besides moon over a man (see also: the Miss Piggy and Amy Adams subplots from The Muppets, which Bobin directed and Stoller co-wrote), she's revealed to have a desperate crush on Kermit.

The highlight of the movie is a subplot involving Sam the Eagle and trés French Interpol agent Jean-Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell), who are hot on the tail of Constantine and the Muppets. If Muppets Most Wanted were a buddy cop comedy, it'd be one of the better ones in recent memory. I'd happily watch an entire franchise abotut Sam the Eagle and Jean-Pierre solving crimes — are you listening, Disney? And unlike Kermit, Jean-Pierre actually seems to understand Miss Piggy's particular charms.

As with The Muppets, one of the issues with Muppets Most Wanted is the amount of time devoted to the supporting Muppet characters. Jean-Pierre, Nadya, and Dominic are fully fleshed-out characters with motivations and desires, and Kermit and Miss Piggy get character arcs and musical numbers. But most of the other Muppets get less screentime than the human cameos. That was an oft-repeated complaint about the last film as well, as Muppets Most Wanted admits in a quick joke. But again, acknowledging a problem and resolving it are two different things.

The Muppets are tricky characters, because their personalities are so set in stone at this point that there's only so much room for them to grow or learn or change. Still, it's starting to feel like Bobin and Stoller only know how to build movies around the Muppets, not about the Muppets. All that said, it's a distinction that'll likely be lost on the kids who are Muppets Most Wanted's target audience. Adults will find Muppets Most Wanted pleasant enough, but it's hardly must-see viewing for the PG-13-and-up set. Even for those who grew up watching the gang on TV.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10.0