If you count forward from Jim Henson's mid-1960s TV appearances with a fringy pup named Rowlf and the lizard, made from an old winter coat, who would later become Kermit the Frog, the Muppets have outlived most of their early puppet peers by more than two generations: You don't see any contemporary movies being built around Topo Gigio or Señor Wences (though that's not to say it couldn't happen). The endurance of the Muppets isn't just the result of the creative skills of Henson and collaborators like Frank Oz, or of smart business decisions, or of sheer dumb luck. It's simply that the Muppets are just ever so slightly, or maybe even totally, mad. Man, woman, child: Who can resist them? Even TV-watching cats are drawn to their frisky hippity-hopping and flutey, gravely, squeaky, squawky voices.
Tina Fey slinks through several musical numbers with vixen-like ersatz Russian charm.
But after years of success in TV and movies, the Muppets' star had tarnished a bit. In 2011, the movie franchise was rebooted with The Muppets, starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams and our furry, felted friends. On the patented Acme Silliness Scale, which peaks at 11.5, The Muppets was about an 8. But the new Muppets Most Wanted, in which an evil Kermit look-alike named Constantine escapes from a Siberian prison to wreak havoc, registers closer to a 9.5. In other words, it's better.
At the start, the Muppets realize their recent film hasn't made them as hot as they'd hoped. An oily Hollywood type preys on their vulnerability and persuades them to hire him as their manager. Little do they know that the man who has identified himself as Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) is really a scheming jewel thief. Dominic arranges a European tour for the Muppets and immediately dispatches Kermit; the other Muppets don't know that their trustworthy frog leader has been replaced by Constantine, Dominic's partner in crime, who looks just like Kermit save for a Cindy Crawford mole on his upper lip, which he blots out with green makeup.
Meanwhile, Kermit is whisked off to the gulag, where prison mistress Nadya (Tina Fey, looking quite fetching in a fitted Russian officer's coat and matching fur hat) tries to have her way with him. Her PG-rated way, of course.
The story matters only in that it creates opportunities for heaps of ridiculousness, and writer-director James Bobin (who also directed The Muppets), along with co-writer Nicholas Stoller, mines them skillfully and breezily.
The numerous noodley plot points involve the match-up of Sam Eagle's taciturn CIA operative with Ty Burrell's Interpol agent, Jean Pierre Napoleon: On the hunt for the escaped Constantine, they trek across Europe crammed into a highly miniaturized Euro-car.
Meanwhile, Constantine and Dominic use the Muppets' tour as a cover for a series of heists, intended to culminate in the theft of the British crown jewels. Because faux-Kermit Constantine — easily identified (by us, at least) by his cabbage-dumpling Russian accent — couldn't care less about the show, the Muppets are left rudderless, free at last to execute the ideas that Kermit always nixed. Gonzo, for example, has long wanted to mount an indoor running of the bulls, and when Constantine gives him the go-ahead, chaos predictably ensues: A mini-herd of legless Muppet bulls storms the stage, stamping and snorting and rolling their ping-pong-ball eyes. (Backstage, Gonzo laments, “The bulls are out of control! Who would have foreseen this?”)
Meanwhile, in Siberia, Kermit has been enlisted to direct the annual prison musical: You haven't lived until you've seen grizzled jailbirds, played by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo, singing the living daylights out of Hamlisch and Kleban. Through it all, Kermit's busy dodging the moo-moo gaze of the lovestruck Nadya (Fey slinks through several musical numbers with vixenlike ersatz-Russian charm).
And, in the tradition of all the Muppet movies, Muppets Most Wanted is studded with brief appearances from big and medium-size stars. To spoil the specifics of the cameos would be a transgression, but it's probably not giving away too much to tell you that the generally awesome Tom Hiddleston is among them.
Amid all this mishegas, Miss Piggy's dreams of marrying Kermit appear finally to be coming true. Except the swain who has swept her off her feet is not her beloved Kermie but the impostor Constantine, who appears to be giving her exactly what she wants — he woos her with a love ballad straight out of '80s MOR radio, his satin shirt billowing with the help of a wind machine.
At the core of Muppets Most Wanted, there's a potent lesson about the nature of love: The things we think we want aren't always the things that will truly make us happy. Miss Piggy, like so many of us, is so hung up on the trappings of romance that she mistakes them for genuine love. She's also under the impression that diamonds are a girl's best friend, and in this case, they're not.
Still, you can't fault her for being a dreamer. The day she stops being dazzled by a big honking rock is the day she stops being Piggy. And the real Kermit, true-blue — or is that green? — to his core, would never let that happen.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED | Directed by James Bobin | Written by Bobin & Nicholas Stoller | Walt Disney Motion Pictures | Citywide