The only thing better than one Kermit is two. And the only thing better than two Kermits is one with a Russian accent. Throw Tina Fey into a gulag, force Ricky Gervais to play second fiddle to a nefarious frog, stick Ray Liotta in a chorus line and you have a sense of the zany extremes to be found in “Muppets Most Wanted.”
After the magically nostalgic return of the fuzzy-wuzzies to the big screen in 2011’s “The Muppets,” it’s natural to think of “Most Wanted” as a sequel. Don’t. Even when the film kicks off with a glittery showstopping number poking fun at Hollywood’s penchant for them.
This film is an entirely different creature than the gentle storybook tale that featured Jason Segel and Amy Adams teaming up with the puppets as they tried to resurrect their failing stage career.
Slightly more formulaic, “Most Wanted” as the name suggests, has the Muppets on the run instead of on the rise. It goes a bit gaga on the cameos, with Lady Gaga, Christoph Waltz, Sean Combs, Usher and Celine Dion among others.
There are nearly as many movie genres as famous faces hijacked for high jinks: It’s a caper, it’s a prison movie, it’s a love story, it’s a mistaken-identity story, there might be a wedding, there may be a heist, Interpol gets involved. Though there are many delicious little moments tucked inside, the action heads in so many directions it can be dizzying to keep up.
“Flight of the Conchords” co-creator James Bobin directs the film, as he did its predecessor, with a light touch. Bobin and Nicholas Stoller, who co-wrote “The Muppets” with Segel, craft the “Most Wanted” screenplay.
The caper begins as Dominic Badguy (Gervais), who is in collusion with the world’s No. 1 criminal and Kermit lookalike, Constantine, persuades the Muppets to take their act abroad. In no time, Badguy (pronounced, with a bad French accent, Bad-gee) packs them onto an ancient train for a European tour filled with calamities, competing egos and Miss Piggy’s ongoing quest to get Kermit to commit. How the train gets from Hollywood across the Atlantic is only one of many unsolved mysteries.
While Kermit, Miss Piggy, superfan turned Muppet member Walter and the rest of the Muppet regulars are putting the final touches on their road show, in a very distant Siberian gulag the inmates are stirring — and singing. Top prison guard Nadya (Fey) runs a tight ship, while she nurses a Broadway obsession. She completely misses the prison escape of Constantine, the film’s scene-stealer fabulously voiced by Matt Vogel, who like many of the Muppets’ alter egos, voices numerous characters.
Meanwhile in Paris, an Inspector Clouseau-ish Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) is not paying attention to anything beyond his well-manicured mustache and his terribly amusing French accent.
With all these planets in orbit, the filmmakers set about having them collide. It will involve Constantine masquerading as Kermit (Steve Whitmire) despite his complete lack of talent, the accent and a difficult-to-disguise beauty mark, while he puts in motion a major international heist.
Meanwhile Kermit, mistaken for Constantine, is sentenced to hard time in Siberia, where he helps Nadya stage a prison revue. Liotta and Danny Trejo are among the prisoners conscripted into the act. It’s a hoot.
Indeed the musical numbers are responsible for much of the “Most Wanted” fun. Bret McKenzie, who won an original song Oscar for “The Muppets,” is back contributing, as is Christophe Beck, who handles the score. Veteran choreographer Francesca Jaynes is footloose — there are stages danced on everywhere and the opener is a high-kicking classic.
Much of the Muppet charm is the way in which the puppets interact with one another and with humans as if there were no differences. That essential punch depends on interspecies chemistry. While not quite as explosive as “The Muppets,” the interplay in “Most Wanted” is witty and smart. If anything, Fey, Gervais and Burrell are a bit too deferential to their costars.
Because of the mix of talent — both species and size — it is always a challenge to ensure the various realities are stitched together seamlessly. The terrain varies widely as the film moves between Hollywood, London, Berlin, Siberia, Spain and Dublin. The weather that accompanies is equally unpredictable. And yet director of photography Don Burgess, production designer Eve Stewart and costume designer Rahel Afiley do an excellent job of making “Most Wanted” visually pop.
With the film’s sensibilities constantly shifting, the filmmakers forget to include as much of the emotional quotient as we expect from the Muppets. Underneath all that fuzz, their humanity is their heart. Still there is the real Kermit, and the fake Kermit with that Russian accent, so it is hard not to have a good time anyway.
‘Muppets Most Wanted’
MPAA rating: PG for some mild action
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: In general release