High spirits and good times are hard to come by in "Muppets Most Wanted," the anxious follow-up to the commercially successful 2011 reboot ("The Muppets") and the seventh Muppet sequel to follow in the animal tracks of "The Muppet Movie" in 1979.
I'm not sure what young newcomers will make of this sardonic take on the felt-covered universe, created by the late Jim Henson long before Disney got ahold of it. The pop culture references, mostly fleeting, have their way with "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Jerry Maguire," though the sight of Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo and "Flight of the Conchords" mainstay Jemaine Clement leading a Siberian gulag prisoner ensemble in a number from "A Chorus Line" certainly is novel. Some of the jokes sound funnier than they really are. Director and co-writer James Bobin, working with screenwriter Nicholas Stoller, is an awfully clever guy, but the pairs' pacing and character instincts are shaky this time out. I did like Ty Burrell's fastidiously lazy Interpol agent, drinking espresso out of the tiniest cup imaginable. But if you've come to the end of your second paragraph in a "Muppets Most Wanted" review and haven't mentioned a single Muppet, something's wrong.
Weirdly, much of what made "Cars 2" a drag — the violent James Bond spoofing and a general, cynical sense of mayhem — has somehow floated over to this franchise installment. The film begins seconds after filming has wrapped on the 2011 "Muppet Movie." Right away Kermit, Miss Piggy, et al., are kicked to the curb, once again left without fans or hopes. But the song "We're Doing a Sequel," while admitting that "everybody knows the sequel isn't quite as good," launches the gang into a new round of adversity, embodied by their new manager, Dominic Badguy, played by a top-billed and terminally blase Ricky Gervais.
Off they go on a European tour, which turns out to be a cover for a plot to steal the crown jewels. It's masterminded by Kermit's dastardly look-alike, Constantine, a Cold War-era criminal with a "Despicable Me" dialect stolen from Steve Carell. In uneasy cahoots, Kermit's doppelganger and Gervais' sniveling two-faced Muppet wrangler guide the film's action, with Constantine somehow hoodwinking his Muppet cohorts into thinking he's just regular ol' Kermit. Miss Piggy can't figure out her boyfriend's newfound garbled dialect and mood swings. Meantime the real Kermit languishes, lonely and scared, in the forbidding gulag overseen by Tina Fey's commander.
In the previous, pretty good Muppet movie, Jason Segel and Amy Adams helped lighten the load and spark a connection between the human and nonhuman characters. Here, the atmosphere's soured; the beloved Muppets are treated as dismissible straight men, women and critters, for the venal real-world populace.
Bobin's credits include "Da Ali G Show" and "Flight of the Conchords," while co-writer Stoller (whose stuff I've liked a lot) is coming off "The Five-Year Engagement" and "Get Him to the Greek." The air of defeatism hanging over the storyline in "Muppets Most Wanted" is meant, I think, to stoke our sympathies for the Muppets and to set up the London-set climax for a heartening load of pathos. Many Muppet fans will be happy to see the gang, including the Swedish Chef and the drummer Animal, once again. But the film's blobby, overextended and more bizarre than eccentric. The cameo laundry list this time includes Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Tom Hiddleston, Salma Hayek and Christoph Waltz. The songs, a serviceably amusing lot, are by Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for "Man or Muppet?" three years ago.
Part of the problem here is one of proportion: The movie throws a misjudged majority of the material to the villains and lets the unfashionably sincere and sweet-natured Muppets fend for themselves. No doubt Gervais, Fey and company adore their co-stars, as does the creative team behind "Muppets Most Wanted." But something's missing from this sequel, and it isn't jokes about how sequels usually disappoint.
"Muppets Most Wanted" - 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for some mild action)
Running time: 1:52
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, RedEye