The Muppets Most Wanted might be the best puppet-led musical mystery caper farce that Hollywood has ever produced. The fact that it’s also the only one isn’t a qualifier; it’s precisely why the film is such vintage, Muppet-y fun.
If 2011’s The Muppets was meant to reboot the franchise in order to introduce Kermit and Miss Piggy to a new generation, Muppets Most Wanted’s mission is to transport them right back to their classic ways. It’s nowhere near as good as The Muppets was, but that’s because Muppets Most Wanted seems to be an entirely different film—a “Muppets film” in every chaotic, messy, loud, and meandering sense. And a perfect “Muppets film” at that.
It was both a relief and a treat when The Muppets came out and it wasn’t just a huge hit, but also such a profound portrait of the importance of nostalgia, the value of the classics, and the incomparable feeling that comes when the heart is warmed and the body weak from laughing. There was no possible way that particular kind of lightning was going to get trapped in a bottle twice, which makes it also a relief that Muppets Most Wanted so blatantly did not aspire to such lofty goals.
In blissfully self-aware fashion, Muppets Most Wanted even begins with an entire musical number about how sequels are never as good as the first. The refreshing attitude behind this sequel, then, is: why bother trying? Why not just create something utterly silly, artistically a bit pointless, but ultimately just fun to watch? Capturing the “anything goes but none of this really matters” spirit of those Muppet movie classics that were churned out in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Muppets Most Wanted is only profound in that it accomplishes what is, really, the singular goal of these furry friends: play the music, light the lights, and put on a show tonight.
So what, exactly, is the show Kermit and the gang put on Muppets Most Wanted?
The film picks up at the exact moment The Muppets left off. The gang is reunited. A big production number was just performed. And the question that no one ever thinks to ask after a big finale ties up a movie with perfect, spectacular grandeur is being asked: now what? If frogs had opposable thumbs, Kermit would be twiddling them when Muppets Most Wanted begins.
Their first course of action, naturally, is to sing. “We’re Doing a Sequel,” the aforementioned winningly self-aware ditty, is performed like an uproarious Busby Berkley show-stopper, including knowing lyrics like, “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 because it’s true. It’s brilliant because it manages expectations.
The song essentially frees writer-director James Bobin and his co-screenwriter Nicholas Stoller from the shackles of producing another work of monumental importance, like The Muppets was. (Let’s face it, reviving the dormant Muppets franchise and making it appeal to both the adults, who hold Jim Henson’s crude puppets so close to their hearts, and the whippersnappers groomed on 3D and CGI while somehow not making the whole endeavor seem like an opportunistic cash grab was monumental.) Instead, with the gift of Fozzie the Bear once again being relevant, they were free to create a film in the true Muppet spirit: nonsensical tomfoolery.
Muppets Most Wanted takes the approach of throwing it all at the wall to see what sticks. At one point, the film even does this quite literally, as there is an entire musical number performed by Muppets stuck to a wall.
On the one hand, the film tends to sling far too much at said wall: a score of brand new songs from returning songwriter Bret McKenzie (some of which are good), a dizzying array of sight gags and punch lines (a solid amount of which you’ll giggle at), and more celebrity cameos than you can shake your fist at (a handful of which last long enough for you to notice). On the other hand, the sheer amount of plot and humor and good-natured folderol ensures a breezy good time and a healthy amount of wocka wockas from all.
Providing a trimmed down description of the madcap caper plot is as arduous a task as stuffing Miss Piggy into her corset, but here’s our best shot. Determined to keep their momentum going after their reunion, the Muppets meet with a devious manager named Dominic Badguy, who convinces them to go on a world tour. Played with smarmy devilishness by Ricky Gervais, Badguy ensures the gang that his name is pronounced “Bad-zhee”—it’s French.
Since Muppets will believe anything, they are also duped when Badguy quickly dispels of Kermit, kidnapping and shipping him off to a Russian gulag, and replaces him with the recently escaped fugitive frog Constantine, who is just like Kermit in every way, save for the Cindy Crawford mole on his froggy cheek and his dastardly, un-Kermit-like German accent. With some green makeup and repeated hilarious attempts at warping his German dialect to sound like Kermit’s nasally croak, Constantine-as-Kermit convinces the gang to follow him on the world tour he and Badguy use as a ruse to commit a series of jewel heists.
Up at the Russian gulag, Kermit, when he’s not wallowing in the fact that his friends don’t know he’s missing, must dodge the advances of the jovially grim prison keeper Nadya, whose affinity for our little green friend approaches Miss Piggy levels of obsession. Tina Fey, sporting a fabulous fur hat and spectacularly over-the-top accent, easily gives the funniest human performance of the movie.
The rest of the film follows French Interpol agent (a hilarious Ty Burrell, by way of Inspector Clouseau and a few dozen other French stereotypes) and Sam the Eagle as they track Badguy and Constantine and Kermit as he tries to get home.
OK. So the original musical on last week’s episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race had a tighter plot than this. But the Muppets, as I’m sure you’ll remember, was never about the plot. It was about the throwaway gags and one-liners. The memorable musical numbers and the random, borderline-embarrassing celebrity cameos that only Kermit the Frog has the power to make happen. So while it’s a laborious task to actually recall what exactly Muppets Most Wanted was about, the movie’s ultimate success lies in the rapid fire of those throwaway moments, which, taken together, produce a full-on, gloriously goofy comedy assault.
Take, for example, the simple chuckle of seeing Christoph Waltz do the waltz, a seconds-long, perfect cameo. Or when the Muppets arrive in Berlin and the sandwich board announcing their show is written in German—Die Muppets—Waldorf and Statler quip, “Looks like they put the reviews up early.” A running gag between Burrell and Sam over whose law enforcement badge is biggest is vintage Muppets splendor, and if you’re not roaring by the time Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo perform the opening dance number from A Chorus Line at the gulag’s prisoner talent show, then I don’t want to know from you.
Because when Celine Dion is singing a duet with Miss Piggy while Kermit is escaping from Tina Fey at a Russian gulag to stop Piggy’s wedding to an evil German doppelganger, cinema is really just at its best.