It’s funny that The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan are such visual spectacles—Jim Henson and his colleagues worked so hard to keep so much off the screen. But the effort was worth it, because practical effects, trick photography, and complicated puppetry didn’t just bring Kermit The Frog, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie Bear to life. They also made the characters tangible and tactile. When Kermit bicycles in The Muppet Movie, his movements aren’t totally fluid, but he’s still part of the scene—same as the bike, the road, and that intimidating billboard for Doc Hopper’s Frog Legs.
By contrast, moviegoers meet Muppets Most Wanted’s villainous Kermit lookalike, Constantine, in a flurry of blue-screened parkour. The prison escape that kicks off the film’s globetrotting adventure looks less like the handcrafted work of Henson and more like a color-adjusted excerpt from a Sonic The Hedgehog game.
It’s disappointing that Disney’s Muppet movies are possessed of such cold visual modernity, because director James Bobin and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller otherwise have a strong grasp on what makes these characters work. In Muppets Most Wanted, that’s a callback to the old Henson adage that all Muppet scenes end in one of two ways: Either someone gets eaten or something blows up. In spiking their Muppets sequel with elements of heist films, action-adventure flicks, and prison-escape movies, Bobin and Stoller restore the sense of comedic chaos that defines Kermit and company’s funniest, most spontaneous efforts. That’s paramount to this rebooted Muppets franchise, as reverence for the characters and an understanding of how and why they tick is the last remaining tie to Henson’s 1970s and ’80s heyday. With the major Muppet players now played by a second generation of performers (excepting Dave Goelz, though Gonzo The Great and Bunsen Honeydew are increasingly reduced to supporting roles), the magic of Muppets Most Wanted isn’t one that’s seen or heard, but felt.
With The Muppets taking care of the introductions and re-introductions, Muppets Most Wanted pits its reunited stars against a scheme to steal England’s Crown Jewels, a collaboration between egomaniacal Constantine and his less-than-loyal No. 2, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais, appropriately oily). With a shanghaied Kermit interred in the Siberian gulag that previously held Constantine, the duo uses a Muppet Show world tour as its cover, collecting the artifacts necessary for stealing the Queen’s prized possessions. This leaves a trail of purloined canvases and busted sculptures to be followed by Federal Agent Sam The Eagle and his INTERPOL counterpart (Ty Burrell, doing his finest Inspector Clouseau). Muppets Most Wanted wants for neither celebrity cameos (Lady Gaga! Usher! Frank Langella!), nor plot: Besides the central caper, there’s Miss Piggy’s latest attempt to wed Kermit, a similar effort by Tina Fey’s warden-with-a-heart-of-gold, and a Walter-led endeavor to expose Constantine and rescue the Muppets’ true leader. It’s two or three storylines too many, contributing to a running length that’s 15 minutes too long.
But The Muppets are creatures of indulgence, and their sense of humor is one of excess. Muppets Most Wanted is a mess of a movie, but anything tidier would be a poor fit. The pure comedy of the film helps to keep things moving: Stoller has trouble mustering the Apatovian emotion without his Muppets collaborator Jason Segel, but his script is still jammed with clever wordplay and witty shots at the fourth wall. Muppet performer Matt Vogel is wickedly hilarious as Constantine, making a bigger impression in the first 20 minutes than new-Muppet-in-town Walter (performed by Peter Linz) has made in two whole films. Constantine’s outsized confidence contributes the film’s biggest laughs, as he offers mispronunciation after mispronunciation with complete conviction. The laughs go a long way toward smoothing over the film’s pacing problems and its lack of visual pizzazz; the same goes for a handful of Bret McKenzie’s original songs. Unfortunately, there’s nothing here of “Man Or Muppet” caliber—though the disco pastiche of “I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo In Malibu)” recalls the best of his work with Flight Of The Conchords.
By reinforcing Kermit’s role as the reasonable lynchpin within the Muppet organization, Muppets Most Wanted suggests that a little self-control isn’t so bad. He’s the guy who can rise above all the excess, after all, and at times it feels like Muppets Most Wanted could benefit from following the frog’s example. The surplus of ideas within the movie—and its episodic structure—suggest that Bobin and Stoller should’ve followed the momentum of The Muppets back to TV, where a rebooted Muppet Show would’ve given them space to stretch their ambitions and allowed their huge cast of characters a chance to shine in the medium for which they were created. When the digital sheen of the new film outshines the lo-fi, old-fashioned charms of its stars, it’s almost as if a high-stakes, Disney-backed film franchise is too much pressure for The Muppets. In Muppets Most Wanted’s onstage sequences, the filmmakers display their most penetrating insight into Henson’s creations: They’re imperfect. They tell bad jokes, they sing off-key, and they love disorder. Until someone learns to truly balance that side of the characters with Disney’s requirements for a four-quadrant blockbuster, the rebooted Muppets will be like Constantine standing in for Kermit: Funny, but a little weird looking—and the “Hi-ho”s never sound quite right.