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Déjà vu all over again, Muppets style

Jay Maidment/Disney

Much of the Muppets’ 2011 big-screen comeback was sparked by star and co-writer Jason Segel’s well-documented affinity for the characters. So naturally you might wonder whether the Segel-less “Muppets Most Wanted” boasts that same level of creative affection. But there’s a clue right in the new film’s opening musical number, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” that the returning team of director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller are plenty nostalgically invested themselves. As Kermit and the gang sing and dance across the studio lot, glimpses of soundstage high jinks include Miss Piggy popping up in an Esther Williams-style water ballet — a throwback, we assume, to the gang’s first second installment, “The Great Muppet Caper” (1981). That sequel tends to get overlooked, but features a memorable aqua-musical fantasy sequence in which Piggy is operatically serenaded by a lovestruck (and comically lip-synching) Charles Grodin. Another familiar face around the pool, whether audiences realized it or not: synchronized swimmer Susan Backlinie, who previously played the skinny dipper who gets chomped at the beginning of “Jaws.”

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It’s likely also no coincidence that Bobin and Stoller weave an international-heist yarn, one that plunks Kermit in a gulag, and ends with the Muppets gathering at the Tower of London to foil the theft of the Crown Jewels. “Muppet Caper” also packs the troupe off to London, where Grodin’s slippery jewel thief frames Piggy, and plots to steal the priceless Baseball Diamond. These narrative echoes all feel a bit like the legacy-minded reworking that the “Star Trek Into Darkness” crew gave to “Wrath of Khan” last year, but with musical ditties, and puppets. Or, as the fleecy stars sing in their new opener, “My friends this is when/ We get to do it all again!”

TOM RUSSO

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