The idea of a casting the Muppets in a retro-Cold War spy thriller may have seemed like a better idea when Muppets Most Wanted was green-lit than it does now in the midst of the Crimean crisis, but that isn’t the only thing that’s off about the eighth theatrical feature in 35 years starring Jim Henson’s Muppet family. After the charming 2011 reboot, starring and co-written by Jason Segel, the new film, a rather shapeless combo of backstage story and crime caper, starring Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and human sidekicks Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais, is a middling letdown.
The movie, which begins at the supposed wrap of the previous Muppets movie, on the streets of Manhattan, more or less anticipates the disappointment. The Muppets family is at loose ends, and looking for a new project. The first song-and-dance number, We’re Doing a Sequel, a self-reflective joke that doesn’t disguise that the idea cupboard is understocked.
Soon, they have a project brought to them, courtesy of Ricky Gervais, as conniving impresario Dominic Badguy (“Bad-jee – it’s French”) who persuades the gang that a European tour is just what is needed. The tour starts in Berlin (the Muppets are taken aback by a poster which says, “Die Muppets”). While Kermit, the show’s emcee, has doubts, the rest of the group, especially Miss Peggy, is enthusiastic about her chance to conquer Europe. Among the many bad ideas is Gonzo’s “indoor running of the bulls” stage number.
Behind Dominic’s machinations is a grand plan to kidnap Kermit and replace him with his look-alike, a Russian arch-criminal named Constantine. Soon, Kermit is stuck in a Siberian jail, where show tune-obsessed prison matron, Nadya (Tina Fey), puts him to work rehearsing with tough-guy prisoners (including Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo) for an annual song-and-dance revue that owes a comic debt to Mel Brooks’s The Producers.
Meanwhile, Kermit’s doppelganger, Constantine, known as “the world’s most dangerous frog,” has joined the Muppets tour. With the exception of the inarticulate Animal, they fail to notice Constantine’s tongue-wrestling Russian pronunciation (“I em Kyermitt”) and the dab of green concealer he wears on his beauty mark. Constantine and Dominic, who call each other Number One and Number Two (which should be a cause for high hilarity among the five-year-old set) have set the Muppets to perform at venues adjacent to famous museums, which they rob during the shows. The plan is to cap the tour by stealing England’s crown jewels as Kermit (i.e. Constantine) is getting married to Miss Piggy in an event to rival the recent Royal wedding. Throughout, the thieves are trailed by a pair of squabbling detectives, Muppet Sam Eagle and a Clouseau-like French detective (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell).
The crimes and Gervais and Fey’s performances get stale quickly, though the song-and-dance numbers are fairly clever (courtesy of Flight of the Conchord’s Bret McKenzie). Otherwise, adults are encouraged to while away the movie by playing “spot the cameo.” Actors making brief appearances include Christoph Waltz, James McAvoy, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis and Frank Langella. Music stars include Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Sean Combs and Celine Dion, who shares a duet with Miss Piggy in a scene that more or less defines the strategy of Muppets Most Wanted, a movie which makes up in sheer volume what it lacks in inspiration.