The Muppets, in addition to being sensational, inspirational, and celebrational, have always been more than a little self-referential. It doesn't rhyme, but it's true. Between the duo of Statler and Waldorf (arguably elder statesmen in the noble arena of heckling) and perpetually beleaguered showrunner Kermit the Frog, it's pretty clear that the beloved troupe know they aren't running a tight ship so much as driving a car with no brakes and a trunk full of dynamite -- and that's part of their charm.
That winning combination of charisma, whimsy, and earnest insecurity led to their success in television and film throughout the 1970s and '80s, and accounted for their resurgence in The Muppets (2011). While Muppets Most Wanted, obviously inspired by The Great Muppet Caper (1981), contains elements of that winning formula, it noticeably collapses under the burden of its own self-doubt. That's particularly clear in the movie's opening number, "We're Doing a Sequel," which includes the following lyrics: "We're doing a sequel / that's what we do in Hollywood / and everybody knows / that the sequel's never quite as good."
The film, as the title implies, finds the Muppets unwittingly in the middle of an illegal enterprise masterminded by prison escapee Constantine -- the world's "number one" criminal and, with the exception of a prominent facial mole, a dead ringer for Kermit the Frog. With the help of his "number two," Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), Constantine frames Kermit, assumes his identity, and uses the Muppet Show as a front for a series of robberies committed during a world tour across Europe. Emboldened by "Kermit's" suddenly reciprocated affection for Miss Piggy and his leniency toward putting on dangerous acts (particularly Gonzo's indoor running of the bulls), the Muppets are happy to accept this change in management style. Unfortunately, the real Kermit is left to rot away in a Siberian prison until Animal, Fozzie, and Walter realize that the "new" Kermit is too good to be true.
For all of its absurdity, the Muppet franchise flourished because it was able to strike a balance between the ridiculous and the sentimental. Muppets Most Wanted lacks the focus to do so; it instead leans heavily on rapid-fire gags, self-deprecation, and the considerable talents of Gervais and Tina Fey (she enthusiastically plays Siberian guard Nadya, who's prone to turning even the most mundane aspects of prison life into lavish musical numbers), rather than the talents of the Muppets themselves. The end result is a People Show featuring the Muppets, when what we really want is the reverse. Constantine doesn't seem particularly evil, and his crimes, which amount to glorified jewel theft, lack any sense of urgency. It's even hard to sympathize with Kermit, who, despite feeling betrayed by his friends, is able to thrive among a makeshift family consisting of his loveable fellow prisoners and Nadya. The abundance of musical numbers, while certainly fun, lacks the charm that earned The Muppets' "Man or Muppet" an Oscar for Best Original Song.
However, the film does one thing very right: It recaptures the chaos that inspired children and adults to tune into The Muppet Show during its heyday. Slapstick is king in Muppets Most Wanted, and each gag is a welcome reminder that this franchise is at its best when the men are foils for the Muppets, rather than the other way around.