If The Muppets was an attempt to recapture the joy and charm of The Muppet Movie, then Muppets Most Wanted is an attempt to do the same with The Great Muppet Caper. It's only semi-successful – ending up as a perfectly serviceable comedy, but not as good as we know the Muppets can be.
In many ways, The Muppets was a spiritual successor to The Muppet Movie. Like the original, it went on a journey to bring the Muppets together, defeat a human villain, and put on a show. The clear love the makers of that film had for the Muppets – made manifest in a metafictional way through Walter (itself a very Muppet thing to do) – gave that film the kind of easy charm The Muppet Movie also possessed.
Muppets Most Wanted reaches for the same idea in its echoes of The Great Muppet Caper. Like the 1981 film, the 2014 one has heists, mistaken identity, a major character incarcerated, and puts Kermit and Miss Piggy's love story at the center. And it's enjoyable, if a little reliant on jokes about stereotypes and other awkwardly dated moments that are both beneath the Muppets and over the heads of most children.
Now we enter spoiler-territory. . .
Muppets Most Wanted starts literally where The Muppets ends, with the gang wondering where to go once the extras from the end scene of that film leave. They then realize they're doing a sequel, and launch into the first, and best, song of the movie. It's a sly comment on sequelitis, but is also unfortunately prescient.
The Muppets are approached by Dominick Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who wants to take the Muppets on a world tour to capitalize on their renewed fame. However, Dominick is in cahoots with Constantine, the world's number one criminal and a dead ringer for Kermit. Their plan is to swap Kermit for Constantine, and use the world tour as a cover for their evil plan to steal the crown jewels.
They successfully get Kermit sent to a Siberian gulag in Constantine's place, and Constantine joins the tour. Despite looking like Kermit, Constantine is a horrible impressionist. He gets stage fright, can't get anyone's names right, and sounds nothing like Kermit. For the majority of the film, this is the status quo: Kermit in the gulag, wondering where his friends are, and Constantine and Dominick doing heists while on tour.
In all this, there is a germ of a theme. Constantine gets away with his poor Kermit impression by giving the rest of the Muppets exactly what they want: Gonzo gets his dangerous stunts, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem get their marathon jam session, and Miss Piggy gets the marriage proposal from Kermit she's always been after. And because they're getting what they wanted – and Kermit's role had always been to try to get the best show on the stage possible, often by telling his crazy team "No" – they overlook the obvious.
Meanwhile, the prisoners and staff of the gulag immediately recognize that they have Kermit and not Constantine (it's his use of "thank you" that gives him away). But he wins them over by being himself, and manages the gulag's "lighthearted comedy revue" just like he always managed the Muppet Show.
The critical song in this case is "Something So Right," which shows that Miss Piggy can tell that getting what she wants so easily doesn't ring true. Back in his cell, Kermit joins in, the two of them united in their vision for their future (and their Eldritch horror children. There is something wrong with their pink frog child). In the end, it's this knowledge that helps Miss Piggy, during Constantine's Crown Jewel heist covering sham wedding, figure out which frog is the real Kermit.
It even makes sense that it's Walter who figures out that something's wrong – all he's ever wanted was to be in the Muppets, and so there's nothing for Constantine to give him. He idolizes Kermit, and isn't frustrated with his demands of good performances and rehearsals the way the long-time crew are. He, Animal (who was the only one to know that Constantine was a "bad frog" the whole time), and Fozzie break Kermit out of the gulag. From there, Kermit takes his identity back, he and Miss Piggy defeat Constantine in a fight (well, mostly Miss Piggy does), and everyone learns the importance of family and teamwork.
This theme gives Muppets Most Wanted an edge on The Great Muppet Caper, and continues where The Muppets left off. Where this film falls the most short are the gags. Is joking about Germany not having a sense of humor worthy of the Muppets? Or how awful Siberian gulags are? Or that England is the home of "good manners"? Or the EU's excessive regulations? How about that Macarena? That sure was bad, right? And isn't everyone tired of Celine Dion?
These are all lazy and unlikely to make sense to young kids. Instead of writing the jokes for everyone, with a few jokes for adults thrown in, the majority of non-slapstick gags are going to require parental explanation. Well, except for constantly calling Gervais' Dominick "Number 2." That's a joke kids'll get, but one we thought Austin Powers had thoroughly beat into the ground.
Oddly, Ty Burrell's French Interpol inspector is both the worst and best of these gags. He's an endless parade of French jokes: tiny cups of coffee, an awful car, lunch breaks that last 6 hours, leaving the case immediately for his 8 week vacation. You will hate yourself for laughing at these because they're so obvious. But Burrell is giving such a gleeful Clouseausian performance that he drags the laughs out of you before you even realize what's happening. Honestly, he has such great chemistry with Sam the Eagle that you will instantly wish for a TV series chronicling their investigations. Sam has always been a parody of bellicose American patriotism, and, with that in mind, he's a natural pairing with Burrell's Jean. We only wish that he'd been given more of his usual conservative American lines, to make that contrast clearer. Plus, it would have better balanced the rest of the national stereotypes.
Of the three major human characters – Burrell's Jean, Gervais' Dominick, and Tina Fey's gulag commander, Nadya – Fey fares the poorest. Gervais is better here than he's ever been on the big screen. He works as the slimy manager to the Muppets, the beleaguered second-in-command to Constantine, and the truly cunning villain. Fey's hemmed in by playing a stiff commander with only a few jokes thrown her way. And the ones she does have are visual, which seems like a waste of someone who we all know has great delivery.
Overall, it's a mixed bag. The middle act, with Kermit in the gulag and Constantine conducting heists, drags on a little too long. The stuff that has always worked for the Muppets – the meta-humor (like Gervais telling Kermit to take a walk alone, in the fog, by the abandoned canal), the truly out there moments (there is a Swedish Chef/Ingmar Bergman joke that is amazing), the musical performances, the cameos – still works here. The message, buried though it feels at times, about the dangers of getting what you want and taking for granted the person who tells you when you're wrong, is worthwhile. And just like The Great Muppet Caper was a less than perfect follow-up to The Muppet Movie, so is Muppets Most Wanted to The Muppets.