It's not easy being the Muppets. Everyone's favorite felt creations have had some tough rows to hoe since the 1990 passing of their creator Jim Henson, including the deaths of other original Muppet performers (Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt), invaluable head writer Jerry Juhl, and musical contributors Joe Raposo ("Bein' Green") and Jeffrey Moss ("Together Again"). And let's not talk about Elmo. Yet the state of the Muppet union remains strong, as evidenced by the new family musical comedy "Muppets Most Wanted."
A self-aware sequel to the 2011 film "The Muppets," "Muppets Most Wanted" provides more testament to the enduring appeal of the post-Vaudeville likes of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the Great Gonzo, as well as the love and care they inspire in generation after generation of performers and audiences. Much as "The Muppets" riffed on "The Muppet Movie" (1979), the new sequel takes off from "The Great Muppet Caper" (1981) by at least nominally placing the latest adventure into the heist genre.
When a Faustian booking agent named Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) comes calling, the Muppets eagerly sign on to a world tour, despite Kermit's reservations. Turns out Badguy (cheekily pronounced "bad-gee") is in league with "the world's most dangerous frog," international criminal Constantine. Excepting his easily covered telltale mole, Constantine (Matt Vogel) proves a dead ringer for Kermit (Steve Whitmire), and a simple switcheroo later, Kermit finds himself in a Siberian gulag (presided over by Tina Fey's Nadya) while Constantine takes his place with the other Muppets.
The touring show turns out to be a cover for an elaborate plan involving museum thefts in Berlin, Madrid and Dublin, all leading to a big score in the Tower of London. Enter Sam the American Eagle amusingly repurposed here as a CIA agent and Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell doing Clouseau), who bicker over jurisdiction even though they're clearly made for each other.
Director James Bobin returns and co-scripts with the likewise returning Nicholas Stoller (Jason Segel took a pass), while Flight of the Conchords member Bret McKenzie Oscar winner for "The Muppets"' "Man or Muppet" contributes several new songs. McKenzie's Conchords partner Jemaine Clement turns up as one of about 30 celebrity cameos in the film. Human cameos, that is: With a "Simpsons"-esque menagerie of characters to draw from, the Muppets have no trouble filling the screen with felt, and die-hard fans will no doubt grumble at the limited screen time afforded to this, that or the other Muppet.
It's a testament to the witty self-deprecation of the Muppets' current stewards that they even sort of have fans covered there, allowing the little-glimpsed Rizzo to make a crack about featuring new characters "at the expense of other, more well-established Muppets." Such self-reference sits comfortably along hip pop-cultural references for the 'rents: stylish parodies and retro musical numbers along with vintage Muppet gags (a detour to Plotpointberg, Gonzo's "indoor running of the bulls").
In cannibalizing the past, these new Muppet pictures play it a little safer than they should, leading to climaxes that feel more rote than inventive (I'm reminded of that Kirk Van Houten song "Can I Borrow a Feeling?"). Quibbles aside, kids of all ages are better off in a world with Muppet movies in it. Bring on the next sequel.