When Jim Henson’s menagerie of talking animals and fish-throwing vaudevillians made their big-screen comeback in 2011’s “The Muppets,” Kermit the Frog and company faced down a greedy oil tycoon named Tex Richman to save their old theater from demolition.
In their newest cinematic adventure, “Muppets Most Wanted,” set for release from Disney on March 21, a more dangerous foe lies in wait for the performers — a criminal mastermind named Constantine who happens to bear a striking resemblance to the troupe’s genial impresario.
“He’s a Kermit doppelganger,” said producer Todd Lieberman.
A lively mix of sight gags, puns, celebrity cameos and gleeful fourth-wall breaking helped the Muppets become comedy legends, and “Most Wanted” preserves that formula, this time grafting a case of mistaken identity onto crime caper convention.
Aside from a vaguely Eastern European accent and a black facial mole, the villainous Constantine is virtually indistinguishable from Kermit, which means that once he breaks out of a Russian prison and switches places with the good-natured frog, the troupe finds itself with the wrong amphibian in charge.
Together with his partner Dominic Badguy — that’s pronounced “Bad G,” it’s French — Constantine begins pulling heists as the group travels around the world, drawing the attention of Ty Burrell’s Interpol agent. (Patriotic Sam the Eagle joins the pursuit too.)
In addition to the “Modern Family” star, the film features Ricky Gervais as Badguy and Tina Fey as a Siberian warden who falls for her frog captive even as he struggles to prove his true identity.
A host of other actors — including Salma Hayek and “Avengers” star Tom Hiddleston — turn up in smaller roles.
“The Muppets are so beloved, especially by comedians, it doesn’t usually take a lot of convincing,” Lieberman said.
“Most Wanted” arrives as a follow-up to “The Muppets,” which returned the foam and felt superstars to theaters for the first time in more than a decade. Written by Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segel and directed by James Bobin, that film grossed $88 million at the box office and won an Oscar for Bret McKenzie, the “Flight of the Conchords” comedian who penned songs for the musical.
Bobin and Stoller wrote the script for the sequel with an eye toward maintaining Muppet tradition while simultaneously expanding the scope of the story.
“The first movie was really about introducing the Muppets to an age group who weren’t really as familiar with them,” said Lieberman, who produced “Muppets” and the new film with partner David Hoberman. “Now that we’ve set that groundwork, we can go off and have an enormous amount of fun.”