The opening sequence of “Muppets Most Wanted” is an elaborate musical performance. For five minutes, crazy, colorful puppets sing a song called “We’re Doing a Sequel” directly to the audience.
It’s an explicit admission by the characters (and the filmmakers) that they are about to embark on one of Hollywood’s most cherished and tired traditions. And if you look at the big moneymakers of the last few years, you can hardly blame them.
Yet, when it comes to the Muppets, such candid, fourth-wall-breaking behavior is just part of the charm and almost the expectation. We’ve all been in on the joke for four decades. We all know what they are doing; no one is fooling anyone. So let’s just have fun with it.
Thus, “Muppets Most Wanted” is able to drop all pretense and be exactly what it wants to be: another fun adventure with some beloved characters and a boatload of celebrity cameos.
This time around, the Muppets are about to take their manic brand of zany vaudeville on the road, thanks to a shady new manager named Dominic Badguy (played by Ricky Gervais), who wants to lead them on a tour of European performances. What the Muppets don’t know is that the tour is merely a smokescreen for an elaborate jewelry heist and that their fearless leader Kermit has been replaced by an impostor.
Turns out Badguy is really the second-most-wanted criminal in the world, a character who goes by the name The Lemur. And the No. 1 criminal? That would be Constantine, a Russian criminal who recently escaped from a gulag. Constantine happens to look exactly like Kermit, only with a mole on his upper-lip. Late one foggy night, a switch is made: Kermit winds up in the gulag, and Constantine applies a little green makeup to his mole and steps in as the Muppets’ new master of ceremonies, albeit with a comic Russian accent.
From here the story settles into three plot lines: the Muppets’ ill-fated tour, Kermit’s hard time at the gulag (which is run by Tina Fey) and a joint effort between the CIA and Interpol to track down The Lemur. Along the way, all sorts of hijinks ensue, pop culture references abound and roughly half the stars in Hollywood drop in for a quick cameo. Seriously, sometimes this movie feels like the cinematic equivalent of Ellen DeGeneres' Oscar selfie.
Luckily, all the traditional Muppet savvy and wit is present, along with a number of energetic musical numbers penned by Bret McKenzie, formerly of HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” (Jemaine Clement, the other Conchord, also plays a role at the gulag). Fans of the Muppets’ lighthearted and intelligent humor will appreciate all of the pop culture nods, such as when Kermit tries to hide the escape tunnel in his cell behind a black-and-white glamour poster of Miss Piggy, or when Animal embarks on an epic 1970s-style drum solo.
Stuff like that will sail far over the heads of the younger members of the audience, and you could make the argument that “Most Wanted” is targeted more at adults than it is at children. But there’s plenty to make everyone happy.
It’s hard to say whether “Most Wanted” will come anywhere near the top of fans’ lists of all-time Muppet adventures, but thanks to that wink-wink opening number, does it really have to?
“Muppets Most Wanted” is rated PG for some crude humor and mayhem.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.