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Ebiri: Muppets Most Wanted Succeeds If You Don’t Expect Too Much

Three years ago, when The Muppets injected new cinematic life into Jim Henson’s long-dormant creation, it did so with equal doses of parody and pathos. James Bobin’s reboot was knowingly frivolous — at times, it barely seemed to hold together as a movie — but it also milked the genuine nostalgic power of its plot, which built up to a climactic, cathartic performance of The Muppet Show itself. The kids in the audience may have wondered why their parents were both singing along and crying at the same time.

It’d be impossible to replicate that earlier film's unique trajectory; after all, it had to reintroduce the homespun, ambling charm of the Muppets to a world more familiar with slick CGI and 3-D animation. But any hope you may have had that Muppets Most Wanted would take these characters in any direction besides the most predictable is quickly scuttled with the new film’s opening number, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” in which our heroes sing, “We're doing a sequel/That's what we do in Hollywood/And everybody knows/The sequel's never quite as good.”

It’s funny ’cause it’s true, and Muppets Most Wanted pretty much exists on the self-aware level of that lyric throughout — charming, but uninspired. This time, no longer worried about reuniting or reintroducing themselves, the Muppets are on a world tour with their new manager, played by Ricky Gervais and named Dominic Badguy (ha-ha). Halfway across the world, however, Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog and a Kermit look-alike, escapes from a Siberian gulag. Soon enough, Constantine has taken over the Muppets, and Kermit has been shipped to the gulag, where he has to contend with a warden played by Tina Fey (who looks awfully fetching in an ushanka, for some reason).

Meanwhile, pretending to be Kermit, Constantine uses the world tour as a cover to stage an elaborate, multi-nation jewel heist. Of course, the evil frog’s evil accent threatens to get in the way. Between Constantine’s Dracula-like vocal stylings, Fey’s gulag warden, and Ty Burrell’s Parisian detective, the film pretty much weaponizes bad accent jokes. The throwaway gags work best, which is typical of the Muppets: Upon seeing a German sign for the show advertising, “Die Muppets,” Statler and Waldorf muse, “Looks like they put the reviews up early.”

As always, cameos abound: Christoph Waltz shows up to dance the waltz, while Salma Hayek attempts to do an indoor Running of the Bulls. Saoirse Ronan has five seconds as a ballerina; Chloe Moretz has two as a Russian newsie. Some of these are pointless, some are funny: Tom Hiddleston, playing a gulag escape artist named Escapo, is probably the funniest, but I also appreciated seeing Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo singing and dancing up a storm as gulag prisoners. Anyway, like they said in Wag the Dog, “It’s a pageant.”

As for the actual human performances: Fey probably comes off the best, in part because her character has slightly more to do, and she’s a more versatile actress. Gervais is his usual insincere self, but he’s stuck in a part that doesn’t quite play to his strengths as a master of embarrassment comedy. Why not give a role like this to someone who can properly go big, like a John Malkovich or a Richard E. Grant (who played a not-entirely-dissimilar character in Spice World)?

But of course, unlike with the previous film, the human characters are mere accessories here — familiar live faces to go along with the familiar felt ones. Indeed, it’s like the reboot never happened. Muppets Most Wanted feels like a film that could have easily been made back during the days of The Muppet Christmas Carol or Muppet Treasure Island. It's not bad, exactly; the songs are catchy, the cameos are okay, and some of the jokes work fine. Set your expectations super-low, and you'll probably be fine.

Photo: Jay Maidment/Disney