“Muppets Most Wanted” begins with a song-and-dance number spoofing the fact the Muppets are making another sequel and hinting on the sly that “the sequel’s never quite as good.” Alas, despite several shameless laughs and a terrific villain Muppet (a sinister Kermit doppelganger named Constantine) it doesn’t quite have the heart of 2011’s “The Muppets,” which starred and was written by major Muppet fanboy Jason Segel. Still funny, yes. Also, not quite as good.
The sequel sees sleazy manager Dominic Badguy (the perfectly oily Ricky Gervais) hustle the Muppets onto the road for a European tour, over the objections of their leader and patriarch, Kermit the Frog. It turns out the whole tour is a cover for Badguy and Constantine to have access, via some of the most iconic venues in Europe, to tunnel into vaults and museums on an escalating jewel heist. Constantine, a dead ringer for Kermit with a mole and an underbite, swaps lives with Kermit by getting our hero sent to the same Russian gulag that Constantine broke out of.
So while Kermit rots in the clink under the cold gaze of the warden (Tina Fey), Constantine is running the Muppet Show into the ground, lazily romancing Miss Piggy and leaving behind a trail of havoc. The dastardly Bizarro-World Kermit, in fact, is the funniest thing about the movie. He’s got a great faux-Russian accent and is so casually uninterested in running the show that he lets all the Muppets try whatever they like (Gonzo wants to do an indoor running of the bulls in Spain? Constantine is cool with that). He also gets the best songs (Bret McKenzie, of “Flight of the Conchords,” writes those) including a show-stopper called “I’ll Get What You Want,” which is waiting for you to YouTube it even now.
Singing Muppets, Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais… what could go wrong? Well, “Muppets: Most Wanted” makes a few tactical errors that set it back. Foremost, as a factor of its criminal switcheroo, it places Kermit in a Russian gulag for much of the film. Now, not that we don’t all get a belly laugh from seeing people thrown into situations as military jails, work prisons, concentration camps and such — but something about the setting, where millions of people in the 20th century were worked to death, never quite screams “comedy.” Maybe it’s the olive-and-cement color scheme.
The world tour premise also saps some of the fun. The movie sprints among five cities, not counting the Russian detours, and the result is a sense of restlessness that borders on the frantic. The Muppets rose to universe-wide fame because they’re silly puppets and because at least two generations of children learned life lessons from them and considered them friends. This is going to sound like a corny reason to ding “Muppets: Most Wanted,” but so be it: For all the capering and high play, the movie feels slack, because it doesn’t build its story around strong friendships. No doubt another sequel is coming, somewhere down the road. Maybe that one will be as good, if not better.