'Muppets Most Wanted' review: Movie misses, values breathing stars over stuffed ones

The Muppets are on the lam in “Muppets Most Wanted,” but sorry, these aren’t the Muppets you’re looking for.

The heart and soul of Jason Segel’s 2011 “The Muppets” is fleeting at best in “Most Wanted,” a Muppet caper that is as scattered and hectic as poor crazy Beaker. Luckily slight glimmers of Muppet brilliance do shine through here and there in the midst of this messy extravaganza.

“Muppets Most Wanted” begins immediately when “The Muppets” ended, literally panning down from “The End” to start the action for this film (though Amy Adams and Jason Segel are never mentioned).  After the huge success of ‘The Muppet Show’ revival, The Muppets are approached by talent agent Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) who offers svelte felt Kermit and the gang the chance of a lifetime: take the show on a world tour. Meanwhile, in a Russian gulag far, far away, Constantine, a notorious frog mastermind and Kermit doppelganger, escapes, impersonates and frames Kermit, and puts our little green friend in the Russian prison in his stead, once again proving that it’s not easy being green.

With Constantine now doubling as Kermit (and donning a hilarious fake accent), he and Badguy use the Muppet Show tour as a cover to steal the British crown jewels. A zany dash through Europe ensues.

The human cast is tops, though Gervais isn’t his typical funny or caustic self, taking a more serious straight-man route next to the offbeat Russian Constantine. But Ty Burrell and Tina Fey really shine as oddball caricatures. Burrell is especially funny as the exaggerated French Interpol inspector in constant competition with Sam the Eagle. Their dueling patriotism is a highlight, pitting American and European work ethics against each other. Tina Fey is a delight as the love-struck, Broadway-obsessed gulag warden. Fey and The Muppets are a great combination. Her goofy, droll Russian accent competing with her giddiness for Kermit is priceless.

And like the best Muppet movies, there is no shortage of cameos (no spoilers!). Waiting to see which celebrity will pop up next – and in what capacity – is all part of the fun of watching a Muppet movie.

Yet, for a Muppet movie, “Muppets Most Wanted” is surprisingly light on Muppets. The comedy usually reserved for Muppets has been outsourced to humans. Sure there’s the usual tension between Kermit and Piggy, but the rest of the Muppet cast is overshadowed by Constantine and the human actors. Fozzie and Gonzo are basically background actors here, barely making any significant contribution. Animal gets some decent play, as does newbie Walter. But the rest of the Muppet cast is sadly almost non-existent. Muppets most wanted, for sure.

Bret McKenzie returns as the film's songwriter, but unlike his first outing on “The Muppets,” the songs in “Most Wanted” are not catchy, funny or entirely interesting. Like the messy script, the songs are missing that original Muppet spirit. “The Muppets” had one great tune after another, but the only song here that comes close to a classic Muppet song is a duet between Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle.

Director James Bobin takes writing duties from Jason Segel, and while Bobin was genius with HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords,” “Muppets Most Wanted” feels like it is in constant flux, not entirely sure where it wants to go or what to be or whom to really focus on. Some of the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny, but the majority miss their mark entirely.

Compared to “The Muppets,” this is a major step backwards for Muppet-dom. “Most Wanted” isn’t completely void of wonderful Muppet moments, though, they are just slim pickings. A disappointing miss.

Walt Disney Pictures. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 1 hour and 52 minutes.