The new Muppet movie is as sweet as a bowl of tapioca. And about as interesting.
Putting Jim Henson’s beloved felt, fur and fuzz creations at center stage, “Muppets Most Wanted” loses much of the charm generated by Jason Segal and Amy Adams in the series’ dazzling 2011 reboot “The Muppets.” With engaging live performers at the forefront, that movie had the verve of a classic musical comedy. The follow-up relies on premises and gags that could charitably be called tried-and-true. It’s not a washout, but it doesn’t quite make the grade.
It’s a time-honored rule of comedy franchises that when you don’t know what to do with your characters, you send them to Europe. Because baguettes and bidets are inherently funny. Here we have the Muppets performing on an international tour, and getting embroiled in “Pink Panther”-style shenanigans at each stop. Their road show is in fact a ruse devised by their new manager, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Dominic’s boss, notorious crime frog Constantine, replaces his look-alike Kermit to stage bank raids while Muppet variety shows create nearby distractions.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel for a comedy aimed at 7-year-olds, and a lot of the action is pleasantly formulaic in a way designed to tickle nostalgic grown-up fans. But this film lacks the human spark that launched “The Muppets” to the stratosphere.
Gervais is in his familiar smarmy jerk mode — when it comes to comedy, Brits do abrasive better than feel-good — a toxic tone that’s kind of off-putting. As a French Interpol officer sleuthing around the crime scenes, Ty Burrell is a very poor man’s Inspector Clouseau. The big female role goes to Tina Fey as a stern Russian gulag commandant with Kermit in her clutches. Her scenes are weakly shaped and don’t deliver much of a payoff. The three don’t get to play off one another, stranded as they are in their disconnected subplots.
There’s the expected blizzard of famous performer cameos. Thus we have brief, indifferent appearances by Tom Hiddleston, Lady Gaga and Christoph Waltz. Better used are tough guys Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo, with Jermaine (“Flight of the Conchords”) Clement as a prison vocal trio. The best pop-up belongs to an über-famous vocalist who is either a) surprisingly willing to be the butt of a joke or b) unaware how the film tweaked her footage.
The film dithers through its run time, repeating the big show/big heist idea three times. There are glitzy song-and-dance numbers ribbing the fulsome Hollywood musicals of the 1950s. By this late date we’ve seen that, thank you. What remains is a self-referential gagfest. As pretend-Kermit, Constantine gives his fellow Muppets what they’ve asked for over the years. Miss Piggy gets her gala wedding. Animal gets to play an epic drum solo.
The jokes pile up, but they don’t reach especially creative heights. It’s only viewers hoping for a Muppet movie as good as the last who don’t get what they want.