"We're doing a sequel, that's what we do in Hollywood, and everybody knows that the sequel's never quite as good," sing Kermit, Fozzie, and the Muppets in the opening number, "We're Doing A Sequel" for MUPPETS MOST WANTED. That's as on-the-nose as it gets for the latest Muppets film, and even the characters know it. While MUPPETS MOST WANTED has moments of charm and wit, it's a far cry from 2011's THE MUPPETS, which felt like a heartfelt return of these beloved characters. It's no GREAT MUPPET CAPER, that's for certain.
It's not for lack of trying. While Jason Segel doesn't return for screenwriting duties (and his character from the first is almost completely absent in this one), Nicholas Stoller does, and he teams up with director James Bobin for the script. Add the return of Bret McKenzie to songwriting duties, and there's a real feeling of love for this franchise and these characters. But, frankly, it's just not as fun as THE MUPPETS, and much of the humor feels forced. There's a lot of "been there, done that" with the jokes, and the story feels aggressively calculated as opposed to the natural progression of previous Muppet films. It becomes obvious way too early where the film is headed, and while a sequel like THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER doesn't feel trapped and explores the Muppets in a unique way that expands the world, MUPPETS MOST WANTED takes the easier, predictable road. Even while the scale is bigger, the heart feels smaller.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED begins seconds after the first ends, with the Muppets wondering what to do next. Enter Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who offers to manage the Muppets into their first world tour. The tour, of course, is cover for Dominic and his partner Constantine the Frog, a world renowned villain who looks exactly like Kermit except for a single mole, to rob museums througout Europe. Constantine quickly gets Kermit arrested in a case of mistaken identity, and Kermit is sent to a gulag headed by Nadya (Tina Fey), and forced to perform for the inmates.
As the Muppets go on their world tour, more priceless art is snatched by Constantine, who doesn't manage the Muppets as fastidiously as Kermit did and allows the show to go off the rails. Soon the Muppets are in danger yet again of falling apart, and without the real Kermit to guide them, they may lose everything.
Jason Segel's influence feels missing this time out. There's a real respect for the Muppets and their brand of humor in THE MUPPETS - from all the non-sequitur jokes, to the passion and the optimism that the Muppets have always had. This time, everything feels diluted. It's as if everyone is trying too hard to capture the elusive joy of the original films, and while they sometimes almost get there, there are far more misses than hits. There are also plot strands that go nowhere, especially the story with Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle, which other than the badge-off that you see in the trailers, is almost humorless.
Bret McKenzie's songs are welcome moments of fun, though, even if they at times don't reach the heights of THE MUPPETS. Two songs, especially, are terrific - the opening number, and Miss Piggy and Kermit pining for each other over long distances in "Something So Right." "I'll Get You What You Want" is a funny, funky number as Constantine serenades Piggy, masquerading as Kermit. The music is the best thing about MUPPETS MOST WANTED, and McKenzie nails the Muppets in ways that the script simply doesn't.
Unfortunately, the cameos this time out feel like celebrity whiplash - look, there's Tom Hiddleston! Look, there's Usher! Lady Gaga! Salma Hayek! Blink and you'll miss them. There's so many cameos, introduced in a brash and crude manner, that they overwhelm the already weak story. They're more distraction than anything and most don't add anything to the movie. The Muppets and cameos go hand-in-hand, of course, but they've felt more organic than this. Some of the cameos work - especially Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo as the world's unlikeliest chorus prison dancers.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED isn't terrible. It's just a letdown from the higher levels reached by previous Muppet movies. Kids will enjoy it well enough, and the adults who grew up on the Muppets will find something to appreciate. It's just mediocre, and we've seen better from the Muppets. Even as the Muppets travel across the globe, the story and the characters feel strangely smaller. Stuffing MUPPETS MOST WANTED with too much story, too many cameos, and not enough heart makes for a diminished experience. Sometimes simple is better.