As much as I love the Muppets in general and the Jason Segel-led relaunch The Muppets in particular, that 2011 film nonetheless set up a number of potential mistakes for any immediate followups: mistaking Jim Henson’s creations for sentimental 80s nostalgia items; remaking other Henson projects the way The Muppets kinda-sorta redid The Muppet Movie; or over-relying on adorable humans like Segel and Amy Adams. Muppets Most Wanted skips past these pitfalls with near-miraculous aplomb; in its sweet, kid-friendly way, it’s fall-down hilarious.
The film does follow its predecessor with a more antic, Europe-set caper comedy, just as The Great Muppet Caper followed The Muppet Movie, but this isn’t a Caper redo—nor, despite the opening song “We’re Doing a Sequel,” a retread of the 2011 film. Segel and Adams have departed, as all Muppets’ human costars must, and their slightly lower-wattage replacements (the more TV-centric trio of Ty Burrell, Ricky Gervais, and Tina Fey) are all sidekicks. Gervais is the long-suffering number-two to master criminal Constantine, a Russian-accented frog who happens to be Kermit’s exact double; Fey also sports a Russian accent as a guard in the gulag where Kermit is mistakenly thrown when Constantine switches places with him; and Burrell goes French as a Clouseau-ish Interpol agent investigating Constantine’s crimes, partnered with CIA wonk Sam the Eagle. They’re all funny and game in the manner of the best Muppet Show hosts; Fey, in particular and as expected, is a singing and face-pulling highlight as the guard with a soft spot for frogs. Piggy, Fozzie, and Animal (all performed by Eric Jacobson, nimbly taking over for Frank Oz) all have moments to shine, along with Walter, the newbie from the last movie. Gonzo, it must be said, is still slightly underused, though to be fair he did pretty much star in Muppets from Space back in ’99.
Screen time, plot, or guest stars are not really the main point, though. It turns out the greatest innovation that Segel, cowriter Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin brought to the Muppets (and continued here by Stoller and Bobin), is an increase in joke density. Nineties-era Muppet pictures like Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets from Space follow a more traditional family-movie path: inventive silliness for kids that adults can probably enjoy, too. But both The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted are written more like flat-out comedies, packed with sight gags, character humor, meta asides, absurdist and/or pun-based juxtapositions (guest star Christoph Waltz waltzes, naturally), and obscure-Muppet curtain calls: if you know who Bobby Benson is and what his band consists of, you’ll be delighted. This movie gets a lot of mileage out of Constantine, wonderfully performed by Matt Vogel, and his hilarious inability to offer a convincing impression of Kermit (or, in his deliberate pronunciation, “KOR-MEET”), which the other Muppets fail to notice anyway; most of them are too excited that Constantine has given them their “freedoms” to perform whatever ridiculous, indulgent Muppet Show numbers Kermit would veto.
The second-greatest innovation of this new Muppet series has been the addition of Bret McKenzie as head song-man; he contributes another batch of funny, catchy songs, which also make Muppets Most Wanted a contender for best musical of the year along with funniest comedy. Part of the fun of a batch of McKenzie-penned Muppet songs is picking out which one most resembles McKenzie’s work with Flight of the Conchords (the other Conchord, Jemaine Clement, pops up in an onscreen role). Last time it was “Me Party,” the Amy Adams/Miss Piggy duet; here it’s “I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu),” Constantine’s 80s-style seduction of Piggy, packed with empty promises. Muppets Most Wanted, on the other hand, is packed with fulfilled promises: that these characters can continue without many of their original creators and performers, even under the Disney banner.