By Roger Moore
Muppets Most Wanted is funnier than the last Muppets movie, with far better songs (by Bret McKenzie), punnier puns and all manner of geo-political gags, cultural wisecracks and star cameos.
Sure, you can take the kids. But will they get the Swedish Chef-in-a-remake-of-Ingmar Bergman-film-The Seventh Seal joke? Will they know who Celine Dion is, and why Miss Piggy wanting to sing a duet with her is funny?
And clocking in at a kid-patience-testing 1 hour, 52 minutes, you have to wonder if Disney doesn’t realize, after the 2011 Muppet revival, that it’s making these films not for children, but for the people who loved the TV show back when Liberace and Liza Minnelli were guest starring with Jim Henson & Co. Lady Gaga and Usher may need no 10-and-under introduction. But Salma Hayek, Josh Groban, Ray Liotta, Saoirse Ronan, Danny Trejo, Thor villain Tom Hiddleston (in light red hair), Tony Bennett and Frank Langella? They’re going to give grown-ups a giggle.
Kermit and the Muppets have barely reunited as a group when a predatory manager (Ricky Gervais) lures them into a world tour with promises of sold-out shows and worldwide Muppet adoration. But the tour is basically a plot by Dominic Badguy (“It’s pronounced ‘Bad-gee.’ It’s French.”) to put a criminal mastermind and Kermit look-alike in charge of The Muppet Show.
Constantine, “the world’s most dangerous frog,” breaks out of a Russian gulag, covers his facial mole in green makeup and tries to twist his Russian accent into Kermit speech to make the switcheroo work. Somehow, almost everybody is fooled, even the insistently lovesick Miss Piggy.
Constantine and Badguy schedule Muppet shows in Berlin, Madrid and Dublin in an effort to rob next-door museums. And with the villains indulging every lunatic vanity project of every lunatic in the company — Piggy’s Celine songs, Gonzo’s “indoor running of the bulls” and the like — nobody’s the wiser. Interpol’s silliest Frenchman (Ty Burrell of Modern Family) and the CIA’s Sam the Eagle are slow to catch on as well.
Meanwhile, Kermit’s the one dragged back to the Gulag, where fellow inmates Liotta, Jemaine Clement and Trejo accept him as their murderous leader — sort of. And camp commandant Nadya (Tina Fey, terrific) puts him to work casting and planning the prison’s musical revue.
The production numbers are epic — from the “everybody knows a sequel is never quite as good” opener, to a Gervais duet with Constantine, Miss Piggy sharing a song with her idol Celine and Fey’s ’60s girl group-style prison show stopper, Big House.
The Boris & Natasha accents that Fey and the hilarious Clement (Dinner for Schmucks, TV’s Flight of the Conchords) sling are just hilarious, as is much of what pops up here.
The new voices don’t quite match your memories of the original cast, a good reason to keep Kermit off camera for much of the film. And Most Wanted is entirely too long, which puts a strain on the slight sight gags (towering Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle stuffed into a tiny Interpol police car) and time-worn puns.
There’s a Pixar Monster’s University short, Party Central, that has about as many laughs as last summer’s feature length snoozer, to make the trip to the cinemas even longer.
But Most Wanted is amusing enough to make you think, “So what if the kids don’t dig it? Hire a sitter!” This is what PG comedy was meant to be, with the giggles mixed with the groans, something only Macarena-dancing Muppets can deliver.