Despite its shortcomings in terms of pacing and character focus, 2011's The Muppets was a delightful revivification of the ailing Muppets franchise, making Jim Henson's iconic creations feel relevant once again. Striking while the iron's hot, 2014's Muppets Most Wanted retains director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller, who actually improve upon their last endeavour, providing more laughs and plenty of inspired silliness, not to mention a superb selection of original songs. Whereas its 2011 predecessor was fundamentally the ultimate fan film, Muppets Most Wanted aims to get back to Muppet basics as if the gang never left. Thus, this new outing follows the template set by the original Henson-era trilogy, introducing a flimsy plot which blatantly exists as an excuse for gags, antics and songs.
The Muppets was imbued with a very meta narrative, chronicling the Muppet gang getting back together and setting out to reclaim their popularity. Muppets Most Wanted is just as meta, with the little furry guys wondering what they should do for a sequel. Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and his friends are soon approached by manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who talks the gang into embarking on a tour of Europe. Meanwhile, evil Russian frog Constantine (Matt Vogel) escapes from a Siberian prison run by Nadya (Tina Fey), promptly swapping identities with Kermit to send the famous amphibian behind bars while he takes control of the Muppets. Using the tour as cover, Dominic and Constantine begin pulling off heists across Europe, stealing artwork and artefacts which will lead them to a larger fortune. In prison, Kermit tries to adapt to his new lifestyle, eventually collaborating with his intimidating inmates (including Ray Liotta, Jemaine Clement, and Danny Trejo) to stage a talent show. Added to this, a bumbling Interpol inspector (Ty Burrell) teams up with C.I.A. Agent Sam the Eagle (Eric Jacobson) to investigate Constantine's burglaries.
There's quite a lot of story to work through in Muppets Most Wanted, but Bobin manages to juggle the ensemble quite effectively. All the Muppet characters are given a proper look-in - including Fozzie (Jacobson), Miss Piggy (also Jacobson), Animal (Jacobson again) and Gonzo (Dave Goelz), not to mention Walter (Peter Linz), the protagonist of the last film who's part of the gang this time around. And, of course, the inimitable Statler and Waldorf also show up on a few occasions to wittily heckle yet again. Although the flick is overlong at almost 110 minutes, it has a snappy pace and ample momentum, deploying plenty of amusing moments and uproarious set-pieces. Added to this, there is heart, mainly in Kermit's character arc - the subplot involving Kermit feeling underappreciated by his friends and rediscovering his mojo by staging the prison talent show is utter gold.
It would be easier create the Muppet characters digitally, but thankfully the makers of Muppets Most Wanted avoided the temptation, relying on old-school puppetry while only using CGI to erase rods and puppeteers. Hence, the spirit of the Muppets is retained, and it helps that the movie recaptures the meta disposition of earlier endeavours. Just like 1979's The Muppet Movie, the Muppets are all perfectly aware that they're in a motion picture, to the extent that the flick even opens with the troupe singing a song called We're Doing a Sequel in which they acknowledge the difficulties of attempting a follow-up. More than that, Muppets Most Wanted literally begins where 2011's The Muppets left off, showing the crew wrapping their work on the previous endeavour and discussing where to go next. The movie is playful and fun from the very first frame - there's even reference to fan criticism of the last film.
As with all Muppet features, Muppets Most Wanted is one step away from being a full-blown musical. Fortunately, the selection of toe-tapping tunes are of a high standard here. Only a few songs from the last picture were memorable (including the Oscar-winning Man or Muppet), but every musical number here is a winner. Written by Bret McKenzie (who was also involved with the 2011 film), the song list is absolutely fantastic, with a number of instant classics that'll prompt you to rush out and buy the soundtrack. On top of the insanely catchy original ditties, there's also a new rendition of Together Again (from The Muppets Take Manhattan). Plus, Muppets Most Wanted continues the great Muppet tradition of celebrity cameos. It would be unwise to spoil the surprises within, but rest assured there are plenty of recognisable faces, amplifying the sense of fun.
Luckily, Muppets Most Wanted returns Kermit and Miss Piggy to the fore where they belong. Both Jason Segel and Amy Adams stepped away for this instalment, but you honestly won't miss them. All of the Muppet performers give it their all here, and still have wonderful singing voices. Of course, one still misses the vocal talents of Frank Oz and Jim Henson, and some of the roles never sound quite right, but it's easy to overlook this aspect and enjoy the ride. The human factor is also solid here, with the likes of Gervais clearly having a ball playing alongside the ironic felt creatures. But Fey is the standout, espousing a cartoonish Russian accent and filling her performance with enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Burrell is amusing as the Clouseau-esque Interpol agent, making for a perfect companion for Sam the Eagle. Amusingly, Sam is actually the straight man here to Burrell's bumbling Frenchman, whose behaviour frustrates the American bird to no end.
Purists may continue to complain about Frank Oz's exclusion, as well as the fact that Muppets Most Wanted has a few trivial similarities to The Great Muppet Caper and even climaxes with a wedding between Kermit and Miss Piggy even though they ostensibly married in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Yet, Oz's exclusion was his choice alone and it's no fault of the filmmakers. Plus, the story isn't anything like The Great Muppet Caper at all, and the wedding in Manhattan was just part of a show. Besides, since when was continuity ever a big deal in this franchise? Kermit and Fozzie were identical twin brothers in The Great Muppet Caper, after all.
Muppets Most Wanted is small-scale, good-natured and light, which is good enough. It's funny and the songs work, which is what matters the most in a Muppet movie. Best of all, it's a family film suitable for the kids which also works for adults and franchise fans. Bobin and Stoller have truly found their groove for this instalment, creating plenty of madcap antics for the Muppets while sustaining love and respect for the long-standing entertainers.