With 2011's "The Muppets" doing the heavy lifting of reintroducing Jim Henson's beloved felted creations to a new generation of children, its follow-up, "Muppets Most Wanted," has the luxury of freedom in its task of cementing their place in our hearts all over again. The new film picks up literally at the exact moment the first film ended, and appropriately, the newly reunited Muppets themselves are depicted as having some trouble deciding what to do for an encore. As they sing in the clever opening number, "the sequel's never quite as good."
Sadly, that proves prescient (though as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew points out in that same opening number, this is technically the seventh sequel to the original Muppets film, released 35 years ago). James Bobin returns to the director's chair, as does writer Nicholas Stoller, and of the core creative team of "The Muppets," only co-writer Jason Segel chose not to return. Segel was vocal about how much of a passion project the last film was, and it's possible that his absence may account for the extra layer of heart that seems to be missing this time around. Though even a second-tier Muppet film is better than a lot of what passes for family-friendly entertainment these days.
As with the first sequel to the original Muppet movie, "The Great Muppet Caper," this new film takes the form of a madcap heist story. Under the advice of their new tour manager, Dominic Badguy (pronounced Bad-gee -- it's French), played by Ricky Gervais, the Muppets decide that the best way to capitalize on their rediscovered fame is to launch a world tour. What the gang doesn't know, however, is that Badguy is actually in cahoots with Constantine (voiced by Matt Vogel), the world's most dangerous frog, who just escaped from prison and who happens to be a dead ringer for Kermit (save for a distinguishing mole on his cheek).
Slapping a fake mole on Kermit, while covering up his own with some green paint, results in Kermit's immediate arrest, leaving Constantine to take his place and set his nefarious plans into motion. Using the Muppet tour as cover for a series of heists, Constantine heads toward his ultimate goal of stealing England's Crown Jewels. While the imposter takes his place, poor Kermit remains imprisoned in a Russian gulag, overseen by a severe head guard (Tina Fey) who it turns out has a soft spot for small green amphibians. Eventually she ropes him into directing his fellow inmates in the annual gulag talent show, so at least he's able to keep busy. Meanwhile, the various heists have captured the attention of the authorities, leading to investigation headed up by the odd couple pairing of a French Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) and American CIA operative Sam the Eagle (naturally).
Once again, Bret McKenzie provides songs that are fun and catchy, though none are quite as memorable -- or as thematically resonant -- as "Life's a Happy Song" or "Man or Muppet" from the first film. And really, that's the main problem with the film as a whole: it's always enjoyable, but never quite lives up to promise of "The Muppets." Fey, Burrell, and Gervais are all obviously having a ball, and they throw themselves into their parts, but having three human leads means that much less time spent with the Muppets themselves. Oddly, the Muppet we end up spending the most time with is Constantine, making for a rather lopsided story without any real protagonist to latch onto.
Sure, some of the plot details don't make a whole lot of sense (how, for example, does a long-missing, 100-year-old medallion function as the key to shutting down a modern laser security system?), but you kind of need to set aside logic for the Muppets. The property retains its trademark genial silliness, and though it perhaps traffics a little more in ironic winking than before, it hasn't lost its power to entertain. Plus, I never knew how much I needed a Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo-led rendition of "I Hope I Get It" from "A Chorus Line" in my life, but it's undeniably glorious.