We’ve all just agreed to pretend that the new Muppets sound like the old Muppets, and that ends up being a major plot point in Muppets Most Wanted, the flaccid follow-up to the big screen revival of the characters. See, in this movie Kermit gets replaced by Constantine, the most dangerous frog in the world, who has a funny Russian accent… and none of the Muppets notice. That makes a scene where Constantine is watching old tapes of Kermit - from the days when Jim Henson voiced him - all the more meta and surreal, because the new Kermit really just doesn’t sound like the character.
If you’re happy to pretend the new Muppets sound like the ones with which you grew up you might be able to pretend Muppets Most Wanted is good. After all, the movie is mostly harmless, and Bret McKenzie’s musical numbers are actually all wonderful. But everything else between them is flat and only sporadically funny, leaning heavily on meta irony in ways that feel worn out. Maybe that’s what makes McKenzie’s songs stand out - they’re all riffs on popular types from sex ballad to show-stopper to genial song & dance number, but he plays them straight. The songs don’t wink, although the imagery on screen often does.
The plot has Ricky Gervais, the world’s most irritating man, playing Dominic Badguy, the henchman to Constantine who infiltrates the Muppet inner circle and convinces them to take their show on the road. The tour stops just happen to coincide with banks and museums that Constantine and Badguy must hit to gather the items necessary to steal England’s crown jewels. The Muppets, so self-absorbed and stupid they don’t realize Kermit has been replaced, bungle their way through shows while Kermit languishes in a Russian gulag. There he becomes very popular by helping put on the annual musical revue, a subplot that is actually charming enough that I wish this was the entire movie.
But it’s not, and the pleasures of seeing gulag inmates perform I Hope I Get It from A Chorus Line are short-lived. Instead we spend lots of time with the crew of Muppets who can’t see past the end of their own felt noses and smarmy Gervais. Constantine is okay, which is good because he’s pretty much the lead of the movie for a huge chunk of time. But the rest of the Muppets... why did James Bobin and Nick Stoller decide to write a script where the lovable gang of friends are so cluelessly, boringly awful? Also, why didn’t they kill off Walter, the useless new Muppet introduced in The Muppets? He's a character without a defining trait, and when he shares scenes with Fozzie and Animal it's like he fades out of existence before your very eyes.
The celebrity cameos feel obligatory this time, which I guess they are. The structure of the Muppets on a world tour offers some opportunities to fit celebs in naturally - Christoph Waltz shows up to dance a waltz - but too many are just random celebrities thrown in to wink at the audience (the movie winks at the audience so much you begin to think it has a tic), like when Usher shows up as The Usher at a wedding. The cameos culminate in a truly awful sequence where the celebs are badly CGIed into a scene and barely lip synch to the closing number. I groaned out loud.
I also laughed out loud a few times, almost always because of Ray Liotta and Jemaine Clement as inmates at the gulag, where Tina Fey is the warden. Fey is alright - certainly less likely to give you an anger rash than the grinning mug of Gervais, who doesn’t believe in God and spends the running time of the film cutting you off from any spiritual comfort as well - but her corny performance is underserved by the script. She just doesn’t get enough to do. Her running time is given to Ty Burrell and Sam Eagle as investigators chasing down the heisters. There’s cute stuff with them as well, but it’s all so minor.
Maybe minor is the right way to describe the film. The reality is that besides The Muppet Movie none of the original Muppet films are terribly great; they range from okay to enjoyable. Muppets Most Wanted clocks in at just south of okay (definitely not as good as The Great Muppet Caper, which covered some similar ground), buoyed by the songs to an acceptable level. I just wish those songs were in a better film. But here’s the thing: all you have to do is buy the soundtrack and skip the movie and you can create your own great version of Muppets Most Wanted in your living room, just like gulag prisoners putting on a show.