When “The Muppets” came out in 2011, it was an event; 12 years had passed since Kermit the Frog and company’s last movie. This past weekend brought “Muppets Most Wanted,” and audiences were mostly disinterested.
It’s not a big deal. The Muppets is a generational property, like Disney cartoons or Oreos. When something is around a while, it’s easy to forget why it mattered initially. The terrific “Muppets Most Wanted” is a reminder that adults and kids love the Muppets for different reasons. Kids get behind the funny voices and benign weirdness; adults dig the self-awareness and the nostalgia.
“Muppets Most Wanted” finds the fantastic felts seduced by oily talent manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) to go on a world tour. Everyone is excited, save for the cautious Kermit (Steve Whitmire), who feels it’s too rushed. And they lack the pull to play such large venues, which are conveniently located next to museums filled with priceless goodies.
Those objections fade. Dominic and his partner Constantine (Matt Vogel), the world’s most dangerous frog and an escaped convict, orchestrate a switch. Constantine slaps his identifying feature, a mole, onto Kermit’s cheek and paints over his own. Kermit heads to the gulag (whose inhabitants include Danny Trejo), and Constantine goes showbiz while embarking on a criminal scheme with Dominic.
Since “Kermit” now lets the gang do whatever it wants, they barely notice that their leader has a garbled Eurotrash accent and a poorly concealed lump on his right cheek. Or that he calls Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobson) “Fonzie.” Or that he immediately succumbs to Miss Piggy’s suffocating advances. Meanwhile, Kermit adjusts to prison life, bonding with the warden (Tina Fey) and turning the gulag revue into a showstopper after holding auditions straight from “A Chorus Line.”
That little touch is why the Muppets, as imagined by director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (both of whom worked on “The Muppets”), still tickle me. They’re confident enough in the material — and the audience — to pump in one joke after another. The same clean efficiency applies to life lessons. When Kermit is finally rescued, he’s furious. How could no one have missed him? Fozzie says it sounds worse than it is. Walter quickly corrects him.
A big reason why Jim Henson’s creation has endured lies in its guiding principle of not taking things too seriously. Here, that sets up some great jokes. When the Muppets are told Walter (Peter Linz) has left, there’s disbelief since the last movie was devoted to developing his minor character when others were neglected. Upon his arrival, Constantine (as Kermit) tells Walter that they’ll bond by having adventures where they will learn lessons such as waiting your turn. “Don’t Riot” is listed on the bottom of the poster for the gulag’s talent show. It doesn’t stop.
“Muppets Most Wanted” is such goofy fun that you hang on to see the next cameo, the next sight gag, the next bouncy musical number. Pop culture icons rarely remain relevant long enough to be this spry. Engaging audiences after 35 years may not be profitable. As it turns out, it’s something far better.
Rating: W W W W
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