Muppets crime caper falls short of Segel’s 2011 flick

Muppets Most Wanted. Directed by James Bobin. Starring Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey.
Rating: 6 (out of 10).

Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the gang are as sweet as ever, but as far as the human actors go, cutesy has been replaced by snarky in Disney’s newest Muppets film, Muppets Most Wanted.

It had to happen. Just look at the casting: the earnestness of Jason Segel (who co-wrote and executive-produced the 2011 film) and Amy Adams has been scuttled in favour of Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey, who have built a career on sarcastic wit.

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The tonal shift is evident from the opening scene, which announces that sequels are never quite as good as the original and that “the studio wants more, while they wait for Tom Hanks to do Toy Story 4.” And so the Muppets brainstorm ideas for a new film; an Esther Williams extravaganza, perhaps, or Gonzo With the Wind? The Swedish Chef even proposes a Swedish existential film.

They finally settle on a crime caper and are approached by Dominic Badguy (pronounced “Bad-GEE, it’s French”), a wily agent with an ulterior motive for offering the Muppets a world tour. While Kermit is hesitant to commit, Dominic (Gervais) promises the members of the show luxurious digs and sold-out performances. A power struggle ensues, and unbeknownst to the Muppets — even his beloved, Miss Piggy — Kermit is replaced by his evil doppelganger, Constantine “the most dangerous frog in the world.”

Mistaken for Constantine, Kermit is taken, Hannibal Lecter-style, to a Siberian gulag run by matron Nadja (Tina Fey), while the Muppets take their show on the road. First stop: Berlin, “the world capital of comedy.” As the Muppets cavort with guest stars such as Salma Hayek (wearing red spandex and running from the bulls) and Christoph Waltz (doing a waltz, what else?), Constantine and Dominic rob adjacent museums of treasures that will ultimately lead them to London “home of the Crown Jewels . . . and good manners.”

In pursuit are Modern Family’s Ty Burrell as a French Interpol agent and Sam The Eagle, a pairing that allows for some poisson-out-of-water jabs at the Continent’s tiny cars and outdated technology, as well as their eight-week vacations and six-hour lunches.

This goes on amidst Miss Piggy’s feverish wedding planning, despite the fact that poor Kermit hasn’t even popped the question.

Kids may not follow the story thread of the multiple heists ­­— for a dead man’s map, key, locket — but it hardly matters. There’s enough colour and pizzazz for kids, while the humour, old-school Muppet Show references and cameos are clearly geared at nostalgia-seekers.

Ah yes, the cameos. Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo are among the chorus line of Gulag prisoners; Miss Piggy sings a duet with her idol, Celine Dion; Sean Combs, Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Saoirse Ronan, Chloe Grace-Moretz, Hugh Bonneville, Stanley Tucci, Frank Langella, Zach Galifianakis make appearances. Josh Groban spends most of his screen time singing from solitary; James McAvoy is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him delivery man. And “what kind of an usher are you?” complains a guest at the wedding, to none other than Usher. The only face kids will likely recognize is Ross Lynch, that blond kid from the Disney channel.  

A lot relies on the inherent comedy of watching Gervais play alongside a frog, especially when he’s belting out “I’m number two!” Entertaining, yes, but not half as lovable as the 2011 version.

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