Apparently, every ounce of innocent, sweet-natured joy that made 2011’s “The Muppets” such a whimsical burst of nostalgia can be traced back to one person.
Jason Segel, who co-wrote and starred in the reboot, is the only member of the creative team who didn’t return for “Muppets Most Wanted” (director James Bobbin is back, this time sharing writing duties with fellow returnee Nicholas Stoller), and the result is a miscalculation from the opening seconds.
“Most Wanted” gets off on the wrong foot — or hoof, paw, flipper or whatever the individual case may be — by undermining the last one’s feel-great ending with the revelation that the Hollywood Boulevard-swarming throng of fans were just paid movie extras and that, once again, nobody cares about the Muppets.
The gang lowers expectations with the first song, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” which includes lines such as “the studio wants more while they wait for Tom Hanks to make ‘Toy Story 4’” and, most tellingly, “everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good.”
“Most Wanted” finds the Muppets, with the exception of Kermit, falling under the sway of promoter Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who books them on a world tour with stops in the great theaters of Berlin, Dublin and Madrid, Spain. Unbeknownst to them, though, those theaters all share walls with banks and art museums that Dominic plans to rob with his boss, Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog.
Constantine just escaped from a Siberian gulag and bears an uncanny resemblance to Kermit, the only difference being a mole on his cheek. So Constantine glues a mole onto Kermit, covers his own with makeup and travels the world with the Muppets while Kermit is sent to the gulag under the too-watchful eye of guard Nadya (Tina Fey).
Meanwhile, Sam the Eagle, last seen as a news channel talking head in “The Muppets,” is investigating a string of burglaries for the CIA when he’s reluctantly paired with stereotypically French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (“Modern Family’s” Ty Burrell).
Gervais, Fey and Burrell know comedy. They’ve been nominated for a combined 45 comedy Emmys with 11 wins. But little of their shtick lands the way it should, and none of them ever really feels connected to the material, at least not in the way Segel and Amy Adams did in “The Muppets.”
Making matters worse, “Most Wanted” presents the Muppets almost to a man — or, again, whatever — as selfish jerks. They shove the practical Kermit aside for the star-making appeal of Dominic, want to be stars at the expense of the overall show and are too self-absorbed to notice “Kermit” now has a ridiculous accent and is obviously an imposter.
For a kids movie, “Most Wanted” is all wrong tonally, too. Constantine brandishes a gun and a bomb, and not one of those jokey bombs that just covers the victim in black streaks. It’s a real, violently destructive bomb that threatens to leave the Muppets looking like a bargain bin at Hobby Lobby.
And, clocking in at nearly two hours, “Most Wanted” is too long and tedious for its target audience. The little ones at the screening started getting restless long before the finale.
The songs, once again by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, are enjoyable, but none of them will stick in your head like “Life’s a Happy Song” or the Oscar-winning “Man or Muppet.” Heck, there’s more magic in either of those numbers than in the entirety of “Most Wanted.”
It’s not all bad news, though. Anything involving the Muppets has to include at least a few good gags. Most of them are aimed squarely at grown-ups, although it’s pretty hard not to smile when Kermit books them a weeklong gig in the German town of Poopenbergen.
While trying to decide what kind of movie they should make, The Swedish Chef offers up scenes of himself playing chess with Death, a la fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.” Most notably, for fans of his particular brand of carnage, “Most Wanted” introduces the world to song-and-dance man Danny Trejo, who plays gulag inmate Danny Trejo.
Some bits, though, like Christoph Waltz dancing the waltz, work better in theory.
Actually, that can be said for much of “Muppets Most Wanted,” which gives off a certain going-through-the-motions vibe and lacks almost all of the heart of “The Muppets.”
There’s so much felt, but so little feeling.
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Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org