Our old friends in fur and felt are back in "Muppets Most Wanted," a comedy that delivers laughs the way Miss Piggy delivers karate chops: hard, frequent and unexpected.
The new movie follows up 2011’s "The Muppets" directly, with the end of that movie’s final scene. As the assistant director (Rob Corddry, one of the movie’s many random celebrity cameos) yells, "That’s a wrap," the Muppet gang find that now that they’re all back together, they really should do something — and that something is to make a sequel.
‘Muppets Most Wanted’
The gang is back, touring Europe and contending with an international criminal, in this laugh-generating and self-referential comedy.
Where » Theaters everywhere.
When » Opens Friday.
Rating » PG for some mild action.
Running time » 108 minutes, plus a 5-minute short, “Monsters University: Party Central.”
The ensuing musical number, again supplied by Bret McKenzie ("Flight of the Conchords"), sets the winking self-referential tone for the entire movie. Nary a moment will pass without the Muppets dropping some joke about the making of the movie they’re in.
The plot kicks in with the introduction of Constantine, a supercriminal who escapes from a gulag in Siberia. Constantine, we are told, is "the world’s most dangerous frog" — and, except for a telltale mole, is a dead ringer for Kermit the Frog. (Puppeteer Steve Whitmire handles Kermit, while his colleague Matt Vogel performs Constantine — and the subtle differences in movement and voice are key to making the gag work.)
Of course, a switch happens, engineered by Constantine’s henchman Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who gets himself hired as the Muppets’ manager on a European tour. This tour takes the Muppets to global capitals whose theaters are conveniently located next to museums or national banks that Constantine and Dominic plan to rob.
While Constantine fools the other Muppets into thinking he’s Kermit, the real Kermit is arrested and thrown into the gulag by the strict Nadya (Tina Fey, rocking the Boris-and-Natasha accent). Kermit finds he must befriend the nasty inmates (more celebrity cameos here) and hope that his Muppet family hasn’t forgotten him.
Director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller create some hilarious conceits, such as having Sam the Eagle as a CIA agent who must team up with an Interpol detective (Ty Burrell) to follow Constantine’s trail. They also toss out throwaway lines so fast that you might have to see it twice to catch the jokes you missed the first time. (Oddly enough, though, in a movie that’s all about referencing the Muppet brand of silliness, there’s never a mention of 1981’s "The Great Muppet Caper," which also revolved around a European crime spree.)
But while there’s plenty here to laugh at, there’s no moment of sweetness on a par with Kermit singing "The Rainbow Connection" in 1979’s "The Muppet Movie" or the existential "Man or Muppet?" number from the last film. It’s no small thing to generate as many laughs as "Muppets Most Wanted" does, but with the Muppets, we’ve come to expect a tear or two as well.
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