You've got to hand it to the Muppets: they have a way of diffusing any criticism pointed their way with an easy bit of self-effacement. Witness Statler and Waldorf, constantly putting down the very entertainment the rest of the Muppets worked so hard to deliver. Or, to cite a more specific example, look for a moment during their opening number when they sheepishly suggest that their newest effort isn't quite as good as their last one. Sequels often let us down, if only a little bit, and Muppets Most Wanted is no exception. But by acknowledging it right out of the gate, they remind us why we're more than happy to forgive them for it. Even at their worst, the Muppets still have the power to charm our socks off, and this new effort is a long way from their worst. It's a tad derivative, and it certainly mines plenty of previous Muppet outings for its material, but Kermit and the gang are in fine form, and with a passel of human costars able to more or less keep up with them, Muppets Most Wanted has some potent ammunition in its corner.
It probably bears the closet resemblance to the gang's second big-screen outing, The Great Muppet Caper, featuring a criminal mastermind who dupes everyone in a quest for a fabulous stolen object. The twist is that said criminal mastermind is a dead ringer for Kermit. Constantine (Matt Vogel), hardened by life as a Russian amphibian despite the fact that he doesn't speak a lick of Russian, escapes from a Siberian gulag and soon swaps places with our webbed green buddy. That leaves Kermit to rot in a dank hole while Constantine takes the rest of the Muppets on the proverbial ride. A couple of law-enforcement agents (Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle) are in dogged pursuit, but... well... this is a Muppet movie, so the forces of law kind of have their heads stuck permanently up their rears. That means Kermit himself must bust out of prison and foil his doppelganger, provided his friends can figure out what's going on fast enough to help.
The caper formula fits the Muppets' modus operandi very well, with lots of zany mayhem and a sense that it's all in good fun. Jason Segel and Amy Adams were great in the last movie, but it's nice having the old beloved characters front and center for this one, with the humans serving as back-up. Returning director James Bobin hasn’t lost his inherent grasp of what makes these little bits of felt so awesome, and with the first film under his belt, the entire crew feels relaxed and at ease. The jokes fly with their usual nudge-nuidge charm, and while the storyline certainly feels old hat, there’s enough of that good old-fashioned chaos on screen to keep us guessing.
And it’s the “old fashioned” part of that equation that lets this team do what no one else can. Those old vaudeville routines in the 1970s always felt a little more spry under them, and now, having made the leap into the 21st Century, that magic bullet has traveled with them. Thus does the otherwise routine nature of the story elicit more of an amused shrug than any real criticism. Sure, we’ve seen the whole “Piggy marries Kermit” thing before, but never with the priceless usher-based gag you’ll see here. Yes, the movie star cameos spring up with predictable ease, but it’s hard to complain with Danny Trejo and Ray Liotta belting out a new version of “Working in a Coal Mine.” And certainly, the old routines haven’t gained any brilliant nuance in the ensuing 40 years (though Constantine’s superficial resemblance to Kermit scores big points), but their presence here feels nostalgic and comforting rather than tired or lazy.
In short, the gang’s still got it. Fifty years of material and an up-and-down status as public institutions haven’t dimmed their appeal, and Muppets Most Wanted rides that all the way home. When they go too far astray, we’ll let them know, but that day ain’t here. They’ve dipped in quality before and they’ve always come back stronger than ever. Chalk this one up to the strength of that equation, a strength that apparently won’t be giving out anytime soon.