When Roger Ebert gave The Naked Gun a rave review back in 1988, this is how he praised it: "You laugh, and then you laugh at yourself for laughing. Some of the jokes are incredibly stupid. Most of them are dumber than dumb." Muppets Most Wanted is that way, too. This sequel to the very enjoyable 2011 reboot has all kinds of jokes: silly ones, dopey ones, groan-inducing ones, and plenty of dumber than dumb ones, too. I laughed at almost all of them—and the more I laughed, the more susceptible I was to the avalanche of stupid jokes that followed. Much like The Lego Movie, Muppets Most Wanted is sweet and playful enough for kids, but sharp and smart enough for adults.
Taking place soon after 2011's The Muppets, and jettisoning the storyline involving Amy Adams and Jason Segel, Muppets Most Wanted moves Kermit and the gang from the periphery to center stage. Freshly reunited, they're plotting their next move when Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), an oily talent manager, approaches them with an offer for a lucrative European concert tour. (He assures them that his last name is French and isn't pronounced "Bad Guy.")
Kermit has his reservations about Dominic, but the rest of the Muppets are too excited about returning to the limelight to listen. Of course, Dominic is actually launching an evil plan: He and his nefarious Russian boss Constantine (a Kermit puppet with a permanent scowl and a black mole on his lip) kidnap Kermit and throw him into the gulag where Constantine had been imprisoned. Disguising his mole, Constantine pretends to be Kermit as he and Dominic loot different European museums in their pursuit of a secret treasure.
That's the story, and happily, it hardly matters. In general, the old mistaken-identity plot can be awfully tedious, but in general, sequels aren't supposed to be better than the originals, either. Segel, who also co-wrote The Muppets, was largely seen as the emotional force behind the previous film, but what's surprising is how little he's missed here: Instead, returning director James Bobin emerges as the new series' MVP. Co-writing the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller, his vision is beautifully attuned to the waka-waka spirit of the original TV show, and the 1970s and '80s films.
Muppets Most Wanted is the anti-Family Guy: There's plenty of pop-culture riffing and old-fashioned razzle-dazzle, but not a hint of sourness or ironic detachment. This is nostalgia presented without attitude or self-loathing, in keeping with the genuineness that Jim Henson brought to these characters in the first place. And yet, miraculously, you also have the gentle hipness always evident on The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie. I don't want to spoil any of the jokes—that's no fun, and besides, they'd sound hopelessly lame out of context—but the final result is openhearted enough to make fun of certain punching-bag performers but then have them show up to satirize themselves in a loving way. This movie will do anything for a laugh, but it's full of affection for its targets. (OK, maybe not "Macarena.")
Then there are the songs. Bringing back Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for his Muppets track "Man or Muppet," Bobin (who directed episodes of McKenzie's Flight of the Conchords HBO show) has turned this sequel into even more of a musical. Muppets Most Wanted is an almost nonstop onslaught of dead-on tunes: the rousing opener "We're Doing a Sequel," the buoyant doo-wop "The Big House," the smoothed-out come-on "I'll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)." They work as music first and jokes second, but the jokes are a very close second, as Bobin incorporates just the right amount of adorably half-assed choreography to give them an extra we're-putting-on-a-show spontaneity.
The Muppets are allowed to display more of their personality here, but not unlike, say, The Simpsons Movie, the characters don't necessarily show us new sides of themselves. Which is fine: Better that Kermit just be sensitive and measured as always, with Fozzie still a total goofball, and Miss Piggy still a self-involved ham. We don't need a dark re-imagining of the franchise: We want the Muppets to be the Muppets, which is why even though the film's emotional arc is pretty familiar, it's in keeping with the character dynamics that Henson and his team established a long time ago.
Of course, the Muppets have always gotten extra juice from their human costars, and the ones assembled here are mostly top-notch. There are quick cameos—too many, to be honest—from big stars and buzzy up-and-comers, but the three central performances are refreshingly generous and modest, the actors recognizing that they're second-bananas to their felt counterparts. Tina Fey is a blast as the head of the gulag: If you've seen that ubiquitous TV trailer with her falling down in the darkened hallway, fear not: The rest of her role is a lot funnier. Ty Burrell is agreeably dorky as an ultra-French detective. But best of all is Gervais, preening ego in check, as Constantine's endlessly demeaned second-in-command: Finally, he's playing the straight man to someone else.
Muppets Most Wanted drags in spots, and because it's so reliant on an ebullient tone, those fallow patches are more troublesome. (It's like watching the air slowly leak out of a balloon.) But the film keeps rebounding, coming up with new, amazingly dumb bits of comic business. (Seriously, folks, the puns in this movie....) Some will find this movie so old-school schtick-y that they can't get on its wavelength, and the permanent loss of Henson (not to mention Frank Oz's absence) keeps the Muppets from fully retaining that magical essence they once radiated. But they retain more than enough of it. This movie is pure joy.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.