We're now two movies into the second generation of Muppet films and it's feeling a lot like the first. A marvelous introduction, then a formulaic series of adventures, each a little less wondrous than before. The glorious rainbow connection of 1979's The Muppet Movie faded over 20 years into pirate puns and pigs in space.
It took the obsessive sincerity and connections of Jason Segel to resurrect the franchise's magic with 2011's The Muppets, making Muppets Most Wanted this generation's The Great Muppet Caper, a sequel for which simply being amusing is a disappointment.
That both movies involve European jewel heists plotted by prickly personalities (Charles Grodin then, Ricky Gervais now) suggests the assembly line is set in motion once again. We're not yet at the point of insignificance, but a throwaway Muppetizing of a Dickens novel or a Hunger Games parody seems imminent.
Muppets Most Wanted picks up when the comeback movie's musical finale wrapped, with backside doubles for Segel and Amy Adams, whose wide-eyed wonder and all-around perkiness are missed. The movie soft-pedals its shortcomings with the opening number We're Doing a Sequel, with Kermit and his pals spelling out the imitations and limitations to follow, a wily pre-emptive strike against criticism.
The gang's next move is a world tour under the crooked management of Dominic Badguy (pronounced Bad-gee, since it's French), played by Gervais. His scheme involves subbing Kermit in a Siberian gulag for his doppleganger, Constantine, the world's most dangerous and untalented frog, to steal England's crown jewels. The plot gets thinly stretched from Madrid to Siberia, where the prison's warden (Tina Fey) develops a crush on Kermit. Meanwhile, an Interpol agent (Ty Burrell, going full Clouseau) scours Europe for Constantine.
Without the compelling franchise survival theme marking the Muppets' best movies, director James Bobin churns out celebrity cameos and musical numbers. It's an oddly art-house lineup of blink-and-miss stars, more Sundance hipster than People glamor, a Saoirse Ronan or James McAvoy for every Diddy in the bunch. Fun for the informed ("Hey! Is that Til Schweiger?") but likely a bunch of so-whats for many viewers.
All of which reads harsher than intended because Muppets Most Wanted is pleasant enough to recommend as family entertainment. But the movie falls short of what immediately preceded it, musically and emotionally, the way The Great Muppet Caper was good (but ...) a generation ago. Being green isn't easy; making it at the box office is.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.