It was great to see 2011’s “The Muppets” prove relevant enough to prompt a follow-up. But “Muppets Most Wanted” does open with an uh-oh moment, as the action picks up where the first film’s musical finale left off — minus lead Jason Segel. Oh, the characters played by Segel and Amy Adams are there, all right — they’re just shown from the back, fleetingly, since the actors didn’t sign up for this one. A little worrisome, given how much the previous installment’s just-right spirit was attributable to Segel, a superfan who also co-scripted, and had even worked a Muppets riff into “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
But any misgivings evaporate as soon as Kermit (Steve Whitmire), Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson), and the gang launch into the jauntily meta number “We’re Doing a Sequel,” a winking backlot-and-soundstage tour. Sample lyric: “The studio wants more/While they wait for Tom Hanks to make ‘Toy Story 4!’ ”
It’s an early indicator that the movie is in good, nostalgically invested hands with the returning team of director James Bobin (“Flight of the Conchords”); co-writer Nicholas Stoller (“Sarah Marshall”); and songwriter Bret McKenzie (“Conchords,” and an Oscar winner for “Man or Muppet”).
The new setup has our fleecy heroes embarking on a world theatrical tour at the urging of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), their smug new manager. (It’s pronounced “Badge-y,” he informs them haughtily.) While Kermit frets about lack of rehearsal time and funding — not to mention Piggy’s nuptial pressuring — Dominic plows ahead with bookings at the grand venues of Berlin, Madrid, and Dublin, inspiring the troupe to throw him their support. And then Kermit really gets shunted aside, as Russian-accented evil doppelganger Constantine (Matt Vogel) forcibly trades places with him.
While Kermit languishes in a Siberian gulag (with Tina Fey gamely playing matron), Constantine teams with secret sidekick Dominic to exploit the Muppets’ tour as a criminal cover. An Interpol inspector (Ty Burrell, in Clouseau mode) and stuffy Sam the Eagle are on the case, but always a step behind.
The well-worn plot basics are dressed up nicely by the film’s consistently clever humor, as well as a celebrity cameo roster that’s stacked even by Muppet standards. Grown-ups will appreciate the random cast of characters who’ve landed in that frosty gulag, including the filmmakers’ “Conchords” pal Jemaine Clement and always available Danny Trejo, as himself. Turns out they’ve been waiting for someone like Kermit to help them voice their inner Marvin Hamlisch fan. Still, how does this play for kids? Ditto for a Swedish Chef-does-Bergman gag, or a sly acknowledgment that the filmmakers have pushed their own creation, audience avatar Walter, at the expense of characters like Kermit’s poor, forgotten nephew, Robin.
But just when you start to wonder if the movie’s sizable kid demographic is also being somewhat overlooked, you’ll get a line about the gang eyeing a German gig in “Poopenbergen.” Or a bit with Constantine trying to improve his Kermit-meets-Gru delivery by watching old Muppets highlights, and taking a weak stab at “The Rainbow Connection.” “The lovers, the dreamers, and cheese,” he warbles. Connection? Kids might not make one at all, but they’ll giggle just the same.