Fun but overstuffed, Muppets Most Wanted is the franchise at its zaniest.

We’re doing a sequel
That’s what we do in Hollywood
And everybody knows
The sequel’s never quite as good!

While it’s in the Muppets’ nature to be self-deprecating, and poke fun at their own film’s existence, this is not a cheap cash grab. Muppets Most Wanted is an ebullient romp across Europe, ambitious to a fault, but it’s a more consistently entertaining experience than 2011’s The Muppets.

To begin, most of the best Muppet outings (with the exception of Christmas Carol, still my favorite) have Kermit as the central figure — something that became a liability in the last installment, as we spent the bulk of our time with a brand-new Muppet, Walter, and his human friends. The Muppets, as we knew them, were more side characters in the story of Walter finding his place among them. Which wasn’t all that bad — what The Muppets had in spades was that elusive quality, “heart.” The original Muppet Movie had that, though it came harder to come by as the franchise went on. So partly because we were just happy to have the Muppets back, but also because there was a sweetness and honesty to the film, The Muppets was well-received. But the inevitable sequel (actually the seventh sequel, as Dr. Bunsen points out) needed to be different.

So if The Muppets was an echo of The Muppet Movie, with it’s old-fashioned “let’s put on a show” ethos, Muppets Most Wanted is a sibling of The Great Muppet Caper, with crime plots, mistaken identities, and gags stacked upon gags. Unfortunately, I can count on one hand the specific gags I remember — it all kind of washes over you after a while — but I at least remember enjoying myself. The plot, such as it is, finds the newly-reunited Muppets embarking on a World Tour across Europe, managed by the shifty Dominic Badguy (it’s French), who is played by a not-fully-committed Ricky Gervais. The human cast this time around, primarily Tina Fey and Ty Burrell, are having a great time — and the cavalcade of celebrity cameos is endlessly wonderful, none of which I dare spoil — but Gervais’s inherent smugness doesn’t quite gel with the anarchy of the proceedings. When it’s revealed that he’s working for the frog master thief Constantin, who just escaped a Siberian gulag, swapped places with Kermit, and is now after the Royal Jewels, we’re almost relieved to have someone else to pay attention to, though the lengths the other Muppets go to NOT recognize the imposter stretch credulity even in a film with plot holes the size of Sweetums.

But as performed by Matt Vogel, Constantin is a riot, sporting a thick goulash of an accent and exhibiting the comedic timing we’ve come to expect from the Muppets. All the usual wellsprings of humor are here, from vaudevillian puns and one-liners, sight gags galore, and an armload of terrific original songs from former Conchord Bret McKenzie. From the rousing, Hollywood-history-apeing opener “We’re Doing a Sequel,” to Tina Fey’s doo-wop chorus “The Big House,” to a truly uproarious (and oh-so-Conchords) pop romantic souffle Constantin sings to Miss Piggy later on, it’s impossible not to hear the songs as performed by Bret and Jemaine Clement (who does have a role in this film, fortunately) — and that’s not a bad thing at all. There are also considerably fewer contemporary covers, a minor blessing.

Many of the most beloved characters are still limited to scattered or token appearances — new Muppet Walter still helps drive the plot, despite getting a whole movie to himself last time — but the richness of the human cast (again, Gervais excepted) makes up for it. Fey and Burrell are natural fits, with the latter (as an Interpol agent) partnered up with Sam the Eagle’s CIA in an endless cycle of one-upsmanship as they follow the jewel thieves across the continent. But it’s Fey, of course, who really pops, as she quickly takes a shine to Kermit (almost inappropriately so) when he’s cast into her gulag maintaining his innocence. And while all this is funny, and appropriately absurd, it’s a very busy film that could have probably been about 15 minutes shorter. After over an hour and a half of chases and whirling dervish sideplots–a few definitely unnecessary — I was feeling a little wrung out.

Another issue here is an over-reliance on inconsistent computer graphics. We’ve come a long way since Jim Henson wowed audiences with the image of Kermit riding a bike, a 100% practical effect, and now I guess that’s not enough anymore, so James Bobin (who directed and co-wrote the last one) gives us multiple scenes of impossible frog parkour, unconvincing CG full-body Muppet shots, and some truly awful greenscreen effects. It’s a shame, because none of these things were needed. There’s magic in the simpler old ways, and in trying to keep the Muppets with the times, some of that authenticity is long gone. But most of the time — MOST of the time — it’s tolerable.

The Muppets, as a franchise, have always excelled at tapping into the meta-narrative surrounding the Muppets themselves. The 2011 “re-boot” was about getting the public excited about them again, which they actually managed to do to the tune of $165 million worldwide. And as Muppets Most Wanted has stumbled a bit out of the box office gate, it’s ironic that the central emotional thrust of the film — again, such as it is — is Kermit being taken for granted by the people he cares about. Do we need more Muppet films? Not necessarily. But they’re an institution, and worth our continued investment. So if the Muppets mean anything to you, go see Muppets Most Wanted. I guarantee you’ll laugh, and Kermit gets to stay employed a staggering 60 years after his creation.

Grade: B

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