There’s a fairly amusing line in the opening musical number of Muppets Most Wanted about everybody knowing that “the sequel is never quite as good.” Well, at least it’s amusing until it comes true.
“Not quite as good” is a fair way to describe Muppets Most Wanted, for it certainly still has its pleasures (an extra dose of Animal among them). Yet despite the return of director James Bobin, screenwriter Nicholas Stoller and songwriter Bret McKenzie, this has nowhere near the comic burst, emotive appeal or musical showmanship of 2011’s The Muppets, their reboot of the franchise. It’s as if they took the adage that the “sequel is never quite as good” as permission, rather than a challenge.
The movie does hinge on a clever plot involving Constantine, the world most dangerous criminal. Constantine happens to look exactly like Kermit the Frog, so he hatches a plan – with the help of his henchman, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) – to kidnap Kermit and pose as him while the Muppets are on a European tour. Suddenly, priceless art from Europe’s most prestigious museums begins to go missing – in the exact same cities in which the Muppets are performing.
Constantine is an amusing creation, and one of the movie’s high points. Voiced by Matt Vogel with a garbled, gulag accent, Constantine tries to pass himself off as Kermit with a mixture of disinterest and ineptitude. (I liked his burst of self-confidence after a particularly mangled bit of impression: “Nailed it.”) While the musical numbers pale in comparison to something like “Man or Muppet” from the previous film, I did enjoy “I’m Number One,” in which Constantine goes to elaborate lengths to remind Gervais’ Badguy that he is, emphatically, No. 2.
Yes, I laughed at the reference to the German town of “Poopenbergen.”
Miss Piggy also gets a good number, “Something So Right,” which features backing vocals from Celine Dion, hitting just the right notes of self-parody. Larger parts go to Ty Burrell (whose gesticulations suggest he might be part Muppet himself) and Tina Fey, who plays the warden of the Siberian prison where Kermit is sent after being kidnapped.
Those prison sequences don’t quite work, despite Fey’s eager participation and fairly elaborate musical numbers featuring the likes of Danny Trejo and Ray Liotta. There’s something grim about the setting that’s at odds with the spirit of a Muppets film, especially when Fey licks Kermit’s back and sticks him on a frozen wall as punishment. A repeated joke involving a lovely singing voice that emanates from a solitary-confinement box falls equally flat. It’s not that these are in bad taste, necessarily; the Muppets have long been genre satirists, so there’s no reason they can’t spoof prison films. Rather, it’s as if the cruelty, not the humor, wins the day.
Thankfully Muppets Most Wanted has other moments that rely on the sort of nonsense and silliness we’ve come to expect: Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s invention of an Unexpectedly Exploding Cupcake; Kermit strapped to a gurney in Hannibal Lecter garb; an homage to the famous Marx brothers’ mirror gag from Duck Soup. And yes, I laughed at the reference to the German town of “Poopenbergen.” Even sequels are good for something, I guess.