It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights. Yes, those wacky puppets are back in Muppets Most Wanted, their eighth film to date. By every indication, eight is not enough. This re-energized franchise has found its second wind, bursting with a creative vitality and boisterous humor that makes everything seem new again. Sure, the schtick hasn’t changed – Statler and Waldorf’s urbanity, Animal’s insanity, Beaker’s inanity – but the familiarity comforts like an old friend who knows how to make you laugh. What’s a Muppet movie without the Great Gonzo risking life and limb, or Miss Piggy losing her ladylike composure, or Kermit saving the day once more? The film’s elaborate opening musical number (a nod to Busby Berkeley, except a female pig is involved) acknowledges the lowered expectations and disappointments associated with movie sequels, but don’t be fooled. There’s little about this latest installment that’s inferior to its predecessors. Indeed, Muppets Most Wanted comes close to being the best one yet.The sequel’s icing on the cake is the dastardly Constantine, a Russian supercriminal who’s a dead ringer for Kermit, except for the conspicuous mole on his face. He’s the anti-Kermit, a wicked amphibian with a puffed-up ego the size of Siberia (Putin-esque, in fact) and an accent as thick as an oladyi pancake. After switching identities with the unsuspecting Kermit, who’s sent to the Gulag prison from which his evil doppelgänger escaped, the faux Kermit accompanies the Muppets on their mysteriously sold-out European tour with a nefarious objective: to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. The scenes in which Constantine struggles to mimic the voice and cadence of the hapless Kermit are uproarious, made all the funnier by the absurdity of a talking frog in the first place. Like the song says, “It’s not easy being green.”
Bret McKenzie’s clever collection of songs run the gamut from vaudeville to disco, performed with wit and confidence by real-life actors Fey, Burrell, and Gervais. As Nadya, the no-nonsense prison guard who has a crush on Kermit, Fey belts out her big number about the Big House like a pro. (Oddly enough, the other characters tease Nadya about her off-key vocalizing. Too bad: Another song from Fey would have been sweet.) While the script is predictably passable, the pop-culture references are inspired, ranging from Hannibal Lecter, The Seventh Seal, Rita Hayworth, Mission: Impossible, Harpo Marx, countless star cameos, and – most hysterically – A Chorus Line. Kids won’t appreciate them, but their elders – who, after all, are really the target audience here – will get a kick out of it. In fact, grown-ups weaned on The Muppet Show 40 some-odd years ago will relish the entire experience. And that is the beauty of a Muppet movie.