For better and for worse, the Muppets remain gleefully themselves in this sequel to the 2011 re-introduction of the characters on the big screen under the aegis of Disney. For better, because the sweetly subversive community of freaky vaudevillians remains as lovingly inventive, absurd, silly and amusing as ever. And the new film, retaining the entire creative group behind The Muppets except for star/co-writer Jason Segel, retains the goofy, deadpan sense of nonsensical, surrealist burlesque Jim Henson built as their trademark.
For worse as well, because the Muppets really aren't, and never have truly been, designed to exist on a big screen. Their defiantly hand-operated, "analog" humanity may set them apart from perfect, modern-day digital CGI creations, but also builds in the technical and physical limitations that prevent a director from going to town visually with the production values. Instead, as one early musical number in Muppets Most Wanted proves, the Muppets' restrictions themselves seem to hold the film back.
More complicated is the sense that the characters' mild, well-meaning anarchy strongly resists the demands of a feature-length narrative. Their origins in what was, for all intents and purpose, a pastiche of old-school vaudeville shows interspersed with TV sketch comedy, mean they've always seemed somewhat adrift or lost at sea in a 90-minute tale. It's a problem that existed from their very first big-screen outings under Mr. Henson, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and that this new series, handled by veteran TV comedy director James Bobin, screenwriter Nicholas Stoller and songwriter Bret Mckenzie, hasn't actually been able to solve.
Muppets Most Wanted reminds of the original second Muppet movie, The Great Muppet Caper, in that it is a heist movie melded with a road trip across Europe: Kermit (performed by Steve Whitmire) is replaced by an exact evil lookalike, Russian criminal mastermind Constantine (performed by Matt Vogel), who has engineered a European tour stopping next to museums that hide the keys to stealing the British Crown Jewels. Two of today's most admired and acclaimed TV comedians star alongside the usual gang - The Office's Ricky Gervais as Dominic Badguy (pronounced "Badgee" - it's French), the accomplice that Constantine plants as manager, and 30 Rock's Tina Fey as Nadya, the officer in charge of the gulag from which Constantine escapes and to which Kermit is exiled after his lookalike replaces him in the Muppets. That the third major human role, a sniffy Interpol inspector, has been given to Modern Family's Ty Burrell more or less confirms modern-day TV comedy as the true inheritor of the Muppets' legacy - even though all of them pretty much play straight guys to the characters, somewhat wasted in a perfunctory plotting that works more as a connective thread.
For all that, Muppets Most Wanted is hardly a wash; there are a few choice gags, a pervasively unpretentious, amiable mood, a sense of fun and of hanging out with old friends. The Muppets have always existed in a knife-edge between the quaint and the hip, the musty and the hilarious, and this film merely continues it, even if it will hardly bring any new converts to Muppetworld.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED
Cast Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey; Muppet performers Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz
Director James Bobin; screenwriters Mr. Bobin and Nicholas Stoller; cinematographer Don Burgess (colour); composer Christophe Beck; songs Bret Mckenzie; designer Eve Stewart; costumes Rahel Afiley; editor James Thomas; effects supervisor Sean Mathiesen; producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, Walt Disney Pictures and Mandeville Films
Screened April 11th 2014 (distributor press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon)