The opening number in "Muppets Most Wanted" offers a nice window to what differentiates these goofy, fuzzy puppets from all the other family-friendly product shoved down our throats. "We're doing a sequel/that's what we do in Holly-wood," Kermit and Fozzie sing, wearing white and gold tuxes and doing a peppy dance. They quickly follow-up with, "and everybody knows/that the sequel's never quite as good!"
As they let slip this tiny bit of realness, the brow-furrowing felt frog nudges the eternally happy bear off-camera. Kermit and Fozzie (and Miss Piggy and Gonzo and Scooter and the others) have always been about the behind-the-scenes of showbiz. Their classic "Muppet Show," which I'm lucky enough to kinda-sorta remember from its initial run, did a lot to show the biggest stars of its day in "backstage" scenarios with their hair down, worrying about remembering their cues and if they'd get the best lines. Shtick, for want of a better word, was what the show was all about, and while 2011's well-meaning but slightly disappointing "The Muppets" did a good job of bringing the crew back, the essence of what made these characters so great was missing. I am happy to report that the warning of the opening song is false - with "Muppets Most Wanted" the vaudevillian pandaemonium is alive and well.
The last film got bogged down in some ridiculous story about Jason Segel and Amy Adams and some new Muppet nobody cared about. That guy (I don't even care to mention his name, he's just that lame) is back, but, luckily, he stays out of the way most of the time. "Muppets Most Wanted" got the message loud and clear that we wanted our original guys back – so much so that it gives us TWO Kermits.
The real Kermit, for reasons you'll just have to roll with, ends up in a Soviet era gulag run by a musical-loving Tina Fey. Fake Kermit is an Evil Kermit. A Kermit with a mole on his lip, also known as Constantin, the Most Dangerous Frog in the World. He and his sidekick (Ricky Gervais) have hoodwinked the entire Muppets company into taking their show on a world tour, so they have a cover to steal from the great museums of Europe.
This allows for a few things to happen. Plotwise, it gets Sam the Eagle (repping the CIA) and Ty Burrell (as Jean-Pierre Napoleon of Interpol) to race from Berlin to Madrid to Dublin to London to try and catch the crooks and form a hilarious bond along the way. (I am absolutely on board for their spinoff series.) But it also makes way for a host of dopey variety acts to get a moment in the spotlight. These glimpses of the touring Muppet Show baffling international audience is, in a very sense, the closest any of the eight Muppet movies have ever been to the old, classic show.
And just like the show it comes with some odd celebrity appearances – like Christoph Waltz representing Germany (even though he's from Austria) and Salma Hayek representing Spain (even though she's from Mexico.) Mixed with this are musical numbers (from "Flight of the Conchords' " Bret McKenzie) that vary from the truly tuneful to the silly to the touching. Has there ever been a more tortured romance than that between Kermit and Miss Piggy? (And it's even more tortured now that Piggy's dueting with Celine Dion – cue Statler & Waldorf guffaw.)
Naturally, the film ends with a big chase and Ricky Gervais in a weird lemur suit and Miss Piggy almost marrying the criminal mastermind frog. The villains' plans are foiled, though, in no small part to the most creatively integrated product placement in the history of film. Fozzie Bear has one of the new delicious Subway sandwiches that features guacamole, and when a drop of the green stuff lands in such a way to “change” a picture of incarcerated Constantin back to Kermit, the jig is up.
Before anyone huffs and puffs about sullying the good name of the Muppets, remember how these are gypsy showfolk singing for their supper, and are in no way above a little hucksterism to make a dollar. It's that no foolin' attitude, along with all the feel-good togetherness and personal growth and learning about the number 3, that makes the Muppets, and this movie, so special.