Sporting a title that can’t help but smack of wishful thinking, “Muppets Most Wanted” casts Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and company in a hokey transcontinental caper that conspicuously lacks the winning blend of irreverence and sincerity that made 2011’s “The Muppets” such a delight. From the first bars of “We’re Doing a Sequel,” an opening number that shamelessly acknowledges the inevitability and inferiority of most movie followups, this eighth feature showcase for Jim Henson’s deeply felt creations pokes fun at itself in a way that seems self-deflating rather than cheekily inspired. If its predecessor was more sheer fun (and, with $165 million worldwide, more commercial) than a Muppet movie had any right to be, then this is the picture that, likely comparable B.O. success aside, will cement a new generation’s notions of what this durable Disney franchise more typically has to offer: toe-tapping, moderately appealing family entertainment, easy to smile at and even easier to turn off after 20 minutes.
On the basis of a simple side-by-side comparison of the two films, the missing ingredient is clearly Jason Segel, the improbable creative force whose writing, acting and singing talents were so pivotal in reviving the franchise the first time around. But Segel has left the premises, and he’s taken the movie’s spark and sense of purpose with him; in the game hands of returning director James Bobin, who wrote the screenplay with returning co-scenarist Nicholas Stoller, “Muppets Most Wanted” looks and sounds eager to please but immediately feels like a more slapdash, aimless affair, trying — and mostly failing — to turn its stalled creativity into some sort of self-referential joke. Although they’re newly rebanded and apparently more popular than ever, Kermit and friends have no idea what their next movie should be, but after quickly brainstorming ideas (“Gonzo With the Wind” is quickly rejected), they decide to embark on a lavish world tour.
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Before long the gang has fallen into the slick managerial clutches of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) whose name, pronounced “Bad-JEE” (“it’s French”), is a pretty fair indicator of the script’s level of wit. Only cautious, responsible Kermit has the prudence to object to some of this smooth-talking newcomer’s more outlandish ideas, such as renting out the largest theater in Berlin for their opening-night performance. But the other Muppets increasingly side with Dominic over their frog leader, who’s already stressed out enough by Miss Piggy’s plan to use the tour as a backdrop for their lavish wedding and honeymoon (none of which, of course, Kermit has even agreed to yet).
Just when you thought the filmmakers were perhaps taking the notion of “It’s not easy being green” a bit too literally, the full extent of Dominic’s dastardly plot is revealed, as Kermit is suddenly kidnapped and thrown into a Siberian gulag, where he finds himself at the mercy of several dozen Russian crooks and Nadja (Tina Fey), a stern but Broadway-obsessed prison guard who harbors a not-so-secret crush on her newest charge. Meanwhile, in a “Great Dictator”-esque twist, Kermit is replaced by his diabolical doppelganger, Constantine, “the world’s most dangerous frog,” his sole distinguishing features being a carefully concealed beauty mark and a less well-concealed Slavic accent.
Naturally, as they wind their way across Europe by train, it takes the Muppets (save for the ever-perceptive Animal) almost the entire film to realize that there’s an evil, English-mangling master thief in their midst, and that Dominic has been using the gang’s musical gigs as cover for an elaborate series of heists, each one bringing them a step closer to the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. (Not-so-hot on the crooks’ trail is a mismatched buddy-cop duo consisting of “Modern Family’s” Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle.) That Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Rowlf and Walter (introduced in the previous film) aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed is a joke that wears progressively thinner over the long haul, though it’s milked for some pathos near film’s end as everyone finally realizes what’s been going on, at which point “Muppets Most Wanted” turns into a veritable Kermit Appreciation Seminar.
While celebrity cameos have long been a fixture of the live-action Muppet universe, not since perhaps the final 10 minutes of the recent “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” has a movie been so crammed to bursting with blink-and-you-miss-’em star turns, although the ones here are deployed to rather less hilarious or purposeful effect. There’s some fleeting amusement to be had in the sight of, say, Ray Liotta in a prison onesie, or Celine Dion joining fellow diva Miss Piggy in a black-and-white musicvideo, or Christoph Waltz briefly taking the stage to dance (what else?) a waltz. Far more perplexing are the mere seconds of screen time enjoyed by the likes of James McAvoy, Tom Hiddleston, Saoirse Ronan and Chloe Grace Moretz, though their pointlessly brief appearances are ultimately no more or less random than anything else in a movie that spits out musical sequences and movie references (everything from “A Chorus Line” to “Lawrence of Arabia” to “The Silence of the Lambs”) like some sort of malfunctioning pop-culture gumball machine.
What’s missing, ironically — and what “The Muppets” had in abundance — is the human element, specifically an understanding of how the human actors are meant to interact with their soft-fabric co-stars. Nowhere is the filmmakers’ shaky command of their material more apparent than in Fey’s scenes; never mind stolen jewels, the real crime here is consigning one of the sharpest comic actors alive to a role that gives her little to do besides sing off-key, speak in exaggerated Russian vowels and, in one particularly was-this-really-necessary moment, melt with unrequited desire in front of her own personal Kermit shrine. There’s nothing here to match, let alone top, the gleeful sight of Segel’s overgrown man-child and Amy Adams’ perky heroine performing alongside the Muppets with an enthusiastic sense of surrender that soon became the audience’s own. Almost everything here, by contrast, has been placed in desperately unfunny air quotes, predicated on a general assumption of the Muppets’ appeal but not truly keyed into it.
Shot primarily in the U.K., the pic looks bright and cheery per usual franchise specifications, and Bret McKenzie (of “Flight of the Conchords,” which Bobin co-created) contributes another slate of hummable original songs. For inspired comic lunacy, however, the picture has little on the clever preceding short, “Party Central,” in which the “Monsters University” gang uses a stolen door to lure monsters away from the most popular frat house on campus.