Muppets Most Wanted is a comedy in which the main characters are three-foot puppets, a la Sesame Street. The most famous is Kermit the Frog, who leads his eclectic band of performers to put on shows that are part variety act, part rock concert, and part circus. Most of the humor isn’t designed to make you laugh uncontrollably as much as to make you smile broadly. It’s written for adults as much as it is for children, but because its biggest charm is its good intent, it needs to be funny to adults without falling back on suggestive jokes.
This is a tall order for a movie. It was pulled off in 2011 when the dormant franchise got rebooted in The Muppets, but that film rested its narrative on the journey and love story of two non-muppet humans played by Jason Segel and Amy Adams. The muppets themselves were only half the story.
In Muppets Most Wanted, the muppets are now on their own. There are supporting human players – British comedian Ricky Gervais returns, now playing Muppets manager Dominic Badguy. He replaces Kermit with lookalike frog Constantine (“the most dangerous frog in the world”) in order to use the Muppets’ world tour as a front for robbing museums and banks across Europe. Kermit himself is snatched by police after a case of mistaken identity, and sent to complete Constantine’s prison sentence in a Siberian Gulag.
Ty Burrell (Modern Family) plays French investigator Jean Pierre, who is more often on-break than he is on-the-case. Tina Fey (30 Rock) is Nadya, the strict officer in charge of the Gulag. She steals the show pretty regularly. The whole concoction makes for a great family movie. There’s slapstick humor for the kids, the musical numbers are clever and varied, and the film is rife with sight gags and celebrity cameos for the adults. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Ray Liotta (GoodFellas) and Danny Trejo (Machete) auditioning their song-and-dance routine for the Gulag’s all-prisoner variety show. The film fires gags so fast that if one misses the mark, you don’t have time to think about it before the next one hits.
I can’t help but feel that Muppets Most Wanted misses an opportunity, however. Writer-director James Bobin is so intent on communicating the many needless details of what’s really a very simple plot that he forgets to create many sketches – nearly all of the jokes are one-offs.
This is a genre of comedy that’s strongest when it blends together the entire history of cinema. There are clever visual gags that reference everything from M to Lawrence of Arabia to Silence of the Lambs, but they’re gone as quickly as they’re delivered. The only time Muppets Most Wanted even hints at a full sketch is in its songs, particularly when Jean Pierre and his muppet CIA partner, Sam Eagle, question various muppets about the international heists. These situational sketches are potential goldmines for comedy, but they’re constantly passed over. It makes you feel like the best bits might be happening in between the scenes you get to see.
Muppets Most Wanted is pleasing. You’ll want to see what visual gag or surprise cameo is around the corner. There just isn’t as much to invest in this time around. The Muppets had some surprisingly moving moments, such as the song “Man or Muppet,” in which two brothers – one man, one muppet – both faced taking a step into the unknown and away from each other. It hearkened back to the moment Kermit sat on a rock with his banjo and lamented “It’s not easy bein’ green,” a song that in 1970 sparked families to discuss diversity and intolerance with their children, topics that were being asked about by youth, but that were being shied away from in popular culture.
“Man or Muppet” is a song that made my niece – five at the time – ask me about taking chances in life, about the hopes and fears you can have even in an average schoolday. Muppets Most Wanted doesn’t have any such moments. It’s cute and funny. It will definitely make you smile. It just lacks that little bit of emotional resonance that earned its predecessor a spot in so many hearts. Muppets Most Wanted is rated PG for action.