“Muppets Most Wanted” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate and Star Cinemas. PG, 1:52, three stars out of four.
Any movie that starts off with a musical number that parodies both Busby Berkeley and “The Seventh Seal” is getting off on the right foot. And, from that high-energy opening song, which ironically is about how sequels never live up to the original, “Muppets Most Wanted” is a lot of fun for both kids and their parents.
“Wanted” is very much to the 2011 reboot “The Muppets” what “The Great Muppet Caper” was to the original “Muppet Movie” in more ways than plot. It’ s not as magical as its predecessor, but it is packed with good gags, funny celebrity cameos and the cuddly anarchic spirit that the late Jim Henson’s creatures are known for. And, as Dr. Bunson Honeydew points out mid-song, this is actually the SEVENTH sequel to the original movie, so we should be happy it’s this good.
The film starts just after the final musical number of “The Muppets,” and the gang is convinced by shady promoter Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) to capitalize on their success and go on a world tour. You’d think Dominic’s last name would be a dead giveaway, but he explains that it’s French, pronounced “bad-GEE,” and roughly translates into “Good Man.”
Badguy is a bad guy, of course, in cahoots with Constantine, the world’s most dangerous thief and a dead ringer for Kermit. Constantine busts out of a Russian gulag, swaps places with Kermit while the Muppets are on tour in Berlin, and positions himself as the new head of the Muppets. While Kermit languishes in the gulag, the warden (Tina Fey) believing him to be Constantine, Constantine takes the Muppets from city to city, playing venues that just happen to be next door to museums and banks containing priceless objects d’art.
Yes, as one Twitter commenter mentioned, it’s basically a PG version of John Woo’s “Face/Off.” But it’s very funny — puppeteer Matt Vogel gets a lot of laughs out of having the evil Constantine struggling to pretend he’s warm and sweet Kermie, especially to the amorous Miss Piggie. Hot on their trail are Sam the Eagle and Ty Burrell, very funny as mismatched buddy cops hot on the Muppets’ trail. However, I was sad to see Fozzie Bear get short shrift this time around, although he sparks my favorite line from Constantine, “You’ve wocka’d your last wocka.”
Playing against Muppets is probably harder than it looks for a human actor, who has to match the puppets’ high energy without ever allowing themselves to be in on the joke. Burrell and Fey are both great at it, and the parade of blink-or-you’ll-miss-them surprise celebrity cameos is even better this time around. There’s something almost sweet about someone like James MacAvoy coming in to do just to do one line as a UPS delivery driver, for example. Everybody wants to work with these guys.
But what really matters is that the team behind “The Muppets” returns largely intact for the sequel, including director James Bobin, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords” providing original songs. (McKenzie’s “Conchords” partner Jemaine Clement also appears as one of the gulag inmates.) They kn0w the sweet spot they need to hit between smart and silly, satiric and sweet, and they find the target more times than even the Mujppets would expect out of a sequel. The franchise is in good hands — even if some of those hands are made of felt and have only three fingers.