The Muppets have always been about the vaudevillian impulse: showing an audience a pleasant, sometimes shaggy pastiche of comedy, drama, romance, musical numbers and ancient rites of jokery — Borscht Belt schtick, outlandish sight gags, silly punnery — in a way that brings attention to the art of storytelling itself. The new Muppet movie, Muppets Most Wanted, goes even a step beyond that: It asks the useful question of what genuinely interests an audience in a performance.
With 2012's The Muppets, the sense was that kids were seeing the film because Mom and Dad wanted to, and all involved were trying to instill a sense of Muppetry in young audiences. This time, without the first film's leads Jason Segel and Amy Adams, there's not as much of a human engine driving the plot — but in a way, that's exactly what is needed. This story is about The Muppets, and guest stars Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey are along for the ride but not in the way.
Muppets Most Wanted picks up immediately where the previous film ended: with the Muppets realizing that since the camera is still there, they must be doing a sequel. That leads to a fun musical number as well as the foundation for this film's plot: Constantine, the world's most dangerous frog (and a dead ringer for Kermit, barring a mole on the right side of his face), has come up with a plan to use a Muppet World Tour as a cover for an elaborate jewel thievery plot.
Switching places with Kermit (who ends up in a Siberian gulag run by guest star MVP Fey), Constantine infiltrates the Muppet troupe, deflecting any questions or criticisms about how different he seems by appealing to the ego of the insecure performer. They don't come any needier, of course, than Kermit's perpetual diva-in-deferment, and Constantine works his amphibian charms most spectacularly in a discofied funk number where he mollifies Miss Piggy by becoming the acquiescent boyfriend of her dreams.
Chief songwriter Bret McKenzie won an Oscar for the first film's "Man or Muppet," and he's working at an even higher level here, most notably with a devastating black-and-white number for Miss Piggy (featuring Celine Dion) called "Something So Right." The song demonstrates just how much emotional power these characters have and continue to wield — it's simultaneously Miss Piggy's "Somewhere That's Green" and "What I Did For Love." If it accomplished nothing else, Muppets Most Wanted marks a major step forward in the emotional maturity of Miss Piggy, and for lifetime Muppet fans, that's thrilling.
More than that, however, Muppets Most Wanted makes a refreshing tonic against cynicism and boredom: It echoes The Lego Movie's sincere empathy with the knowledge that there's a part for everyone. Muppets Most Wanted is a sweet and silly joy, with something for everybody.