2011’s The Muppets was hilarious, heartfelt, emotional, nostalgic, zany and inventive, and it brought the Muppets back to the level of success and relevance they deserve. Muppets Most Wanted is all of those things as well, but to a somewhat lesser degree. The Muppets was such a revelation and a revitalization that it would be impossible for Muppets Most Wanted to match, but this new film wisely strikes out on its own path, taking things on the road and steering well clear of recycling the story from the last movie. And in the end, no matter how the rest of the film plays out, it’s always good to see the Muppets together again.
Muppets Most Wanted picks up literally right where The Muppets left off, replicating the final shot of that film. As the crowd of extras disperse from Hollywood Boulevard, our felt friends are left wondering what to do next. Luckily, the last film was a success which means it’s time for a sequel, which means it’s time for a song about doing a sequel! Kermit and the gang decide to take the act on the road for a tour, and they’re immediately approached by Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) who wants to manage them on a world tour through Europe. They’re a little skeptical about working with someone who is literally named “Badguy” but when he clarifies it’s actually French and pronounced “Badgee” they all sign up. Only Kermit is apprehensive, worried that they’d just gotten back together and should keep things simple and stick to what they know, but the rest of the group are thrilled at the chance to show off all of their new ideas.
Of course, Badguy actually is a bad guy, and he’s in league with the world’s number one criminal, Constantine, who has just escaped from a Siberian Gulag. And it just so happens that Constantine resembles a certain famous green frog. Before you know it, Constantine has switched places with Kermit, as our hero is shipped off to Siberia to contend with the crafty and musically talented prison guard (Tina Fey) while Constantine uses his position as part of a plan to steal the crown jewels. Kermit is stuck trying every escape attempt he’s ever seen in the movies (all of which the guards have seen as well) while being forced to put on a show with the other prisoners. Constantine, on the other hand, seemingly thrives as Kermit’s replacement, letting everyone do whatever they want in the show (Gonzo’s indoor running of the bulls! Miss Piggy’s endless Celine Dion numbers!) all while trying to master Kermit’s distinct way of speaking.
If all of that sounds more than a little silly, or a bit like The Great Muppet Caper, then you’re right, but that’s not really the point of Muppet movies. Last time out, Jason Segel helped to craft a script that was much more focused than we usually find from the Muppets, and it heightened all of the emotions of that story. This time around the script was penned by his co-writer on The Muppets, Nicholas Stoller, who along with co-writer/director James Bobin have created a film that feels less “important” than the previous one but every bit as Muppetish as before. The jokes and gags fire by a mile a minute, from jabs at Disney to reaction to fan criticism of how certain favorites were excluded from the last film to a surprisingly varied collection of pop culture references (The Seventh Seal, Lawrence of Arabia, The Shawshank Redemption and A Chorus Line all get called out), and while not every joke is a gut-buster, the Muppet randomness is always enough to keep you laughing.
One area where Muppets Most Wanted might surpass its predecessor is with celebrity cameos. Of course, Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey appear at a level far beyond a simple cameo, both getting musical numbers and important roles in the plot, but they both really commit to fitting in with the Muppets. The other major celebrity star is Ty Burrell, who plays an Interpol agent who is (brilliantly) paired with Sam Eagle as they attempt to track down Constantine. Their European vs American rivalry and constant attempts to one-up each other make their pairing one of the stand out segments of the film. On the true-cameo front there’s a seemingly endless parade of recognizable faces, from Lady Gaga and Tony Bennet to Chloe Grace Moretz and Danny Trejo and dozens in between. Some appear for mere moments as a face in the background while others have full scenes at their disposal, yet they all are genius in their unexpectedness and the creativity of their placement in the story. Two in particular near the end are hilariously perfect and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them.
One of the best moves Disney made with this sequel was bringing back Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for the song “Man or Muppet” from the previous film. His task is a bit more challenging here, as the film’s narrative doesn’t let him craft as emotional a song score as he did last time out, but he still manages to knock most of the new songs out of the park. The film’s opening song, “We’re Doing a Sequel” is a particular high point, but all of his numbers are funny and entertaining. The film even makes time for a surprise reappearance of a Muppet classic, giving it some additional emotional and nostalgic weight.
I’ve spoken before about my unending love for the Muppets. From Sesame Street to Fraggle Rock to all of the Muppet films and shows, those little felt creatures and the talented performers who bring them to life have always had and will always have a place in my heart. They speak to the weirdness, wackiness and randomness inside myself, as well as the families we create for ourselves over the years, and nothing makes me happier than seeing them succeed on the big screen. Their last outing was such a smash that it would be impossible for Muppets Most Wanted to even try, and the filmmakers were wise to take things in a different direction for this sequel, even if the result is not quite as perfect as the last film might have led us to expect.
The question now is where the Muppets go from here. As a big fan of The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, I would love to see them attempt to tackle another classic literary work, even if I haven’t a clue what that might be. It’s important for the group to keep a variety to their films, so they don’t start feeling like more of the same. Of course, the ideal place for the Muppets is on our TV screens every week, where they can fit in better as a part of our homes rather than isolated on a big screen in a dark theater. And maybe that’s the direction things will eventually head. As for now, Muppets Most Wanted is another fine addition to the Muppets series, and it’s always great to see our old friends on screen once more. With these two films they’ve built a solid crew for these movies, with directors and writers who really understand the Muppets, their strengths as characters and how best to use them. Hopefully it’s successful enough that Bret McKenzie can go ahead and start writing the first song for the next Muppets film, “We’re Doing Another Sequel”.