Though hardline detractors of the Muppets' half-Disney, half-Flight of the Conchords, minimally Henson 2011 reboot were largely in the minority, there are a few pointed moments in the ragtag gang's latest romp that seem explicitly aimed at assuaging their complaints. When Walter, the whistling dynamo but otherwise nondescript newbie Muppet protagonist from the earlier film, hightails it out of the felt frat's fold to rescue a wrongly imprisoned Kermit, one of the seasoned puppets muses how he could abandon them after “all that time we spent with him.” Rizzo the Rat concurs: “Yeah, some would say at the expense of other, more well-established Muppets.”
In fact, the balances are checked right from the get-go. As the crew launches into the musical number “We're Doing a Sequel” as though it marks uncharted territory for them, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew stops everyone down to point out that their current enterprise actually marks their eighth feature-film venture. The interjection is a tossed-off bit of preschool meta in a manner that's far truer to the classic Muppet spirit, and characteristic of why Muppets Most Wanted, for all its borrowed and recycled gags, is a far more satisfying tribute to Jim Henson's legacy than its predecessor. Instead of flexing their credentials, writer-director James Bobin, screenwriter Nicholas Stoller, and songwriter Bret McKenzie here yield to the strength of the franchise's ensemble. The problem with the previous film wasn't so much that it ignored Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the rest. What left a sour aftertaste was the condescending sense that the filmmakers (working closely with star Jason Segal) were on a kind of rescue mission, as though the Muppets were some sort of charity case in need of an update for millennials.
What they failed to realize was that the Muppets have always been, from the very first episode of their variety TV show, a knowingly dated vaudeville act. As canny as the reboot was about providing a taxonomy of Muppet fandom to reflect the feelings of the generation that's never known a world without them, its ambition plainly didn't walk the walk. That's why it's almost a relief when, very early on, Muppets Most Wanted reveals itself to be a relatively unaspiring variation of The Great Muppet Caper jewel-heist antics. Having been reunited, Kermit and the rest are left wondering where to take their act. Enter Ricky Gervais as Dominic Badguy (pronounced “Bad-gee,” because it's French, of course), an agent who helps them book a string of engagements in Europe. All the while, he's plotting to snatch the crown jewels at the Tower of London alongside criminal mastermind and recent gulag escapee Constantine, who looks almost exactly like Kermit if you simply cover up his mole. Constantine not so comfortably slips into Kermit's role as the revue trudges on, garnering suspiciously great reviews.
Freed from the burden of starting anew, Muppets Most Wanted restores the Muppets' rightful place as stars of their own show. (That interloper Walter is mercifully demoted to a supporting role, where his tedious Prairie-Dawn-in—drag mannerisms can do very little damage.) The songs are sharper and appropriately dated pastiches (everything from Paul Williams to the brothers Gibb), the gags are more charmingly junky, and the star cameos are more unforced in the spirit of the first wave of Muppet movies. It's clear that the spirit of ironic reinvention was what seduced so many last time out, but even this script's stabs at self-mockery are sharper.
When Kermit, having been framed by Constantine and shipped back to the gulag, is eventually reunited with Walter, Fozzie, and Animal, he's outraged they couldn't tell the difference between him and the lackadaisical, stage fright-prone charlatan who mangles Kermit's signature greeting so that it comes out more like a strained “Hey-yo!” Their shrugging nonchalance to the clear difference in their vocal cadence not only rings true to anyone who's followed the many casting changes these characters have had to endure over the years, but also epitomizes this low-stakes follow-up's breezy charisma.