You always know what to expect when a new Muppet movie comes around: there’ll be spectacle, there’ll be fantasy, there’ll be derring-do and stuff like you would never see. There’ll be heroes bold, there’ll be comedy, and a lot of fuss, that ends for us real happily. Yes, a movie – starring everybody and… …oh, wait a minute, I’m blatantly borrowing the opening from “The Great Muppet Caper”. Well, if it’s good enough source material for “Muppets Most Wanted”, it’s good enough for me.
It’s hard not to think The Muppets are suffering from the same problems as another franchise that lost its way at the turn of the millennium only to be rebooted a few years later for a new generation. Like “Star Trek“, the idea was to reboot the canon so that the characters could be reintroduced and fresh stories could be told. Unfortunately, like “Star Trek” the films thus far have played out as remixes and rehashes of the previous films. The difference, thankfully, for the Muppets is that although they are doggedly following the same formula (first film: get the group together, get famous (again) – “The Muppet Movie”/ “The Muppets”, second film: heist caper – “The Great Muppet Caper”/ “Muppets Most Wanted”), the people behind the Muppets seem to have a great deal of affection and understanding for what made the originals work so well. While Star Trek has so far had to endure soulless flash-bang sci-fi action vacuity, the Muppets have managed to retain some of their soul.
After a deliberately self-aware musical number about making a sequel (“The Great Muppet Caper” had a similarly meta opening song where Kermit and Fozzie sang about how good the movie was going to be and explained some of the plot), we get down to the story proper which concerns the escape of amphibian criminal mastermind Constantine who uses his uncanny resemblance to Kermit to swap places with him and trick the Muppets into going on a world tour as a cover for him and his henchman Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) to carry out a series of audacious heists. While Kermit is imprisoned in the Gulag by Prison Guard Nadya (Tina Fey), Constantine leads the Muppets across Europe pursued by CIA agent Sam Eagle and Interpol Inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell).
Although it isn’t quite as quirky and knowing as its predecessor, there’s still plenty of charm here and you’d have to be particularly stony-faced not to be won over by the Muppets’ antics, and their slightly forced meta self-commentary. Burrell and Fey are excellent co-stars for our fuzzy felt heroes though, embracing the cartoonishness of the roles and chewing the scenery with good-natured gusto. Even the usually awkward and discomfiting Ricky Gervais is at his least unlikeable here and manages not to ruin the film even if he is unable to resist mugging to the fourth wall at inopportune moments.
The plot rattles along at a decent clip, although the sometimes uneven pacing gives away the fact this was a longer film before it was trimmed down for the final cut and there should be a wealth of deleted or alternate scenes to look forward to. It has a neat line in tweaking the foibles of the genres it’s playing with, especially Constantine’s take on “it’s time to light the lights”. The songs, once again by Bret McKenzie, are wonderfully witty and benefit from betraying their “Flight Of The Conchords” roots more openly although it does shamelessly lift a song from a previous Muppet movie in the finale.
The only real flaw of the film is that it devotes too much time to the villains and peripheral players at the expense of the Muppets we came to see. While this provides some fringe benefits, such as the over-used Rizzo the Rat being virtually absent and Pepe the Prawn being reduced to an appearance in one of the many celebrity cameos, time spent with Constantine and Dominic means we get far less time with Fozzie, Gonzo and even Walter, although the film does acknowledge this itself with a pointed rebuke and brief cameo from Kermit’s nephew Robin. At least the marvellously deadpan Sam the American Eagle gets much more action than he ever has before. It’s also nice that this time they managed to resolve the entire plot within the movie itself rather than shoved in over the end credits like last time.
Although a major plot point of the film completely ignores the same Muppet cannon it gleefully plunders for other ideas, this is still a pleasing entry in the franchise and a step up in terms of fun from its predecessor. Freed from the necessity to reintroduce everyone, the story takes centre stage and while the character balance is a bit off, it’s still great family entertainment. If, however, the main story doesn’t hold your interest you can always play spot the celebrity cameo – which will keep you very, very busy indeed.