The rebooted 2011 film THE MUPPETS, scripted by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller and directed by James Bobin, was a story about friendship. By comparison, the new MUPPETS MOST WANTED (scripted by Stoller and Bobin, who returns as director) has every muppet character not even notice the very noticeable personality and voice shift in their beloved leader Kermit when he is replaced by a criminal frog named Constantine. I realize a movie fully loaded with felt-covered creatures isn't meant to be taken seriously, but there comes a point late in the story where Kermit voices his well-deserved concerns that his closest friends didn't notice his very obvious absence, so we're forced to wonder the same thing and even question these friendships, which seem fuzzy at the prospect of fame and fortune. Is that the lesson that the filmmakers intended?
MUPPETS MOST WANTED picks up right where THE MUPPETS leaves off; there are even body doubles for the backs of Segel and Amy Adams' heads. As the fanfare for the muppets reunion fades, the gang is forced to ask what they should do next. Cue the entrance of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), an agent who suggests a world tour for the group is in order, even though Kermit would rather perfect an act first and then take in on the road.
Before long, Kermit is abducted and sent to a Russian Gulag prison under the supervision of Nadya (a Russian-accented Tina Fey), while the criminal mastermind (and dead ringer for Kermit) Constantine takes his place and approves the tour, which is actually a ruse for he and Badguy to commit a series of robberies in various European cities. On the case searching for Constantine are Sam the Eagle (apparently working for the CIA) and Interpol Agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell, with a terrible French accent that results in zero laughs).
To say that the humor in MUPPETS MOST WANTED is spotty would be a gross understatement. Most of the muppet characters are reliably, if predictably, amusing. And Fey has a few moments, if only because she's displaying some rather wonderful sand-and-dance gifts, as well as an unnatural affection for Kermit. As gloomy as it is, the gulag scenes are some of my favorite, especially once you get a look at the human characters imprisoned there, including Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta and the crazy talented Jemaine Clement, whose Oscar-winning "Flight of the Conchords" partner Bret McKenzie returns to the franchise to do the film's songs, easily among the movie's highlights. Kermit agrees to stage a musical at the prison, which leads to these burly, hardened men doing their rendition of "A Chorus Line" as an audition.
Outside of the Gulag prison, things get a bit dismal in spots. Arguably one of the funniest comic actors working, Gervais barely gets to elicit laughs in the film, while Burrell barely registers as being funny at all. The issue, I believe, is that the makers of MUPPETS MOST WANTED forgot that the previous film wasn't aimed at a particular audience; it was targeted at a particular emotion, a glowing joyous feeling that every age of audience member responded to. But this new film is aimed low—as in a lower age group.
Despite its downer moments, the film feels squarely sterilized for kids, and while I certainly am not encouraging the use of four-letter words into this PG-rated environment, there's a knowledge about the real world that is simply absent. It's sad really because the prospects and talent are there, but the execution goes off the rails too often to fully recommend the film.
The large number of celebrity cameos add about one second each of total amusement time, but otherwise, they feel like filler, with the exception of Christoph Waltz, who does a bit so stupid, I couldn't stop myself from going into giggle fits. And with a great deal of the film taking place in London, it affords a few more interesting cameos from the large pool of great British actors. Still, it's hard to see MUPPETS MOST WANTED as anything other than mildly disappointing but still watchable in several spots. That's not exactly a rousing recommendation, but if they kids are going to drag you to it this weekend (or you're like me, and have to see every muppet film, regardless), you could do worse.