Muppets Most Wanted

It’s a sequel, all right

Thursday, March 20, 2014

“Everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good,” the Muppets boisterously confess in the self-referential opening musical number, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” and it proves a self-fulfilling prophecy in Muppets Most Wanted, an oddly off-key follow-up to the generally amusing 2011 feature that marked Disney’s relaunch of the late Jim Henson’s 1970s-‘80s childhood favorites. Call it ominous timing or merely a weird coincidence, but the main bad guy here is a Russian frog, and much of the action takes place at a Siberian gulag. What little kids will make of this is anyone’s guess.

There’s a touch of Mel Brooks-ian audacity in the conceit of having tough-looking prisoners in a Russian prison camp suddenly go Broadway and put on a song-and-dance show with the approval of the fearsome commander played by a very bossy Tina Fey. But, given the geopolitical events of the past couple of weeks, the entire enterprise will be seen by many adults, if not their kids, through a somewhat malign filter, thanks to the central presence of a Number One Most Wanted criminal frog with a Russian accent who impersonates Kermit in order to pull off a series of spectacular robberies with an unctuous but resentful henchman played by Ricky Gervais.

The sequel, with director James Bobin returning and co-writing with first installment co-writer Nicholas Stoller, literally picks up where the first one left off, on Hollywood Boulevard after the successful stage show hastily put on by the reunited Muppets. But even as the fuzzy ones are celebrating, on the other side of the globe, Kermit look-alike Constantine engineers a spectacular escape from Gulag 38B, news he immediately communicates to cohort Dominic Badguy (Gervais), a talent manager who sells the Muppets on his plans for an international tour by slyly telling them that, “I want you to conquer the world.”

Those rights will actually be held by Constantine and Dominic, who arrange a cockamamie scheme in which every European venue at which the Muppets are booked just happens to be adjacent to a museum or bank that can be robbed during the performance. At their first stop in Berlin, where the American entertainers are perturbed by billboards that read, “Die Muppets,” Constantine has Kermit kidnapped and sent to Siberia, where he lucks out in having as camp boss a closet musical comedy queen who’s all for her gruff inmates putting on a show.

Meanwhile, Constantine and Dominic plot world domination while the former overcomes suspicions about his accent by wooing Miss Piggy in a way Kermit never did and fostering her dreams of a European wedding. The great event, he promises, will take place at the Tower of London, which, conveniently, is home to the Crown Jewels, the theft of which will cap his career as the greatest criminal of all time.

But not if Kermit can help it. Taking a direct cue from the farewell performance of the Von Trapp family in The Sound of Music, the little croaker manages a shrewd escape during a performance and somehow ends up in London the next day, just in time to allow Miss Piggy, at the altar, to figure out who the real Kermit is, him or the rich guy with the accent.

The liveliest thing about Muppets Most Wanted is the score. The songs are not uniformly great, but they possess energy, some clever lyrics and an old-school, eager-to-please pizzazz that alleviate the mild tediousness of the arguments over criminal pecking order between Constantine and Dominic and the mildewed refrains of mutual love, respect and support among the perennially insecure Muppets.

Even talents as formidable as Gervais and Fey become a bit wearisome here in one-note parts that force them to be loudly over-the-top nearly all the time. Ty Burrell gets a couple of laughs as a sub-Clouseau inspector trying to get a handle on the serial robberies.

And then there are the celebrity cameos, ranging from actors with actual scenes and dialogue (Christoph Waltz, Ray Liotta, Frank Langella) and singers who chime in for a moment or two (Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett) to those who come and go in a flash (Sean Combs, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis).

If what the Muppets themselves say is true about sequels, Disney ought to think twice or three times about what’s usually true of third installments.

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