I don't know, I've been feeling just a bit down recently what with everything that's happening in the world, and while none of the films I've seen recently have been exactly out-and-out bad, none of them have actually been particularly cheery either. So it was a relief to watch a movie which was genuinely a tonic for the spirit, even if that tonic took a slightly peculiar form. I'm not sure what the fact that my spirits were lifted by a film featuring a big musical number about the Russian penal system performed by Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, Jemaine Clement and Tina Fey says about me, but it should certainly tell you that the Muppets have a new movie out, James Bobin's Muppets Most Wanted.
Picking up seconds after The Muppets finished, Most Wanted opens with a jaunty, charming, and deeply cynical number entitled 'We're doing a sequel' (sample lyric: 'There's need to disguise/The studio considers us a viable franchise'), and so it (obviously) proves. Riding the wave of their rekindled success, Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and the rest are persuaded to take on Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) as their new manager, and embark upon a tour of various easily-stereotyped European vacations.
However, is all exactly as it seems? Probably not, as the start of the tour coincides with the escape from a Russian gulag of Constantine, the world's most evil frog and Kermit's near-exact double (this requires, obviously, a dual performance from Kermit, which he delivers with his customary aplomb). Soon enough Constantine has taken Kermit's place and set about repurposing the tour for his own nefarious ends, while the hapless guiding force of the Muppets troupe finds himself packed off to Siberia to serve the rest of Constantine's sentence.
With neither Jason Segel nor Amy Allen coming back for this movie, the key human roles this time round are taken by Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey as the chief guard at the gulag, and Ty Burrell as outrageously stereotyped French detective Jean Pierre Napoleon. That said, this film is focused much more on the Muppet regulars themselves (Walter from The Muppets retains his high profile role, which the film inevitably makes a few knowing jokes about). That's not a problem, obviously, because you do go to a Muppet movie because you want to spend time with the Muppets themselves – but the human performers do get some good, juicy material. There are also a staggering number of cameos, most of them lasting no more than a few seconds, featuring everyone from Lady Gaga to Christoph Waltz.
The new film is also less founded in nostalgia for the Muppets' late 70s heyday, and possibly as a result I found it less emotionally engaging than its immediate forebear: it's much more of a straightforward comedy. Does this make it a less completely satisfying experience? Perhaps so, but it's still an extremely funny film. (I should point out that the only thing I was inclined to criticise The Muppets for, the lack of any credit for Jim Henson, is repeated here. The Disney corporation may be the legal owner of the Muppets these days, but they will always be Henson's creations.)
There were a lot of young families at the screening of Muppets Most Wanted which I attended, but for all that a fairly perfunctory message about responsibility and friendship has been written into the plot, I think it would be a mistake to consider this a children's film – there are a lot of brightly coloured fuzzy characters for the youth audience, of course, but just as crucial to the Muppet formula is the endless, knowing self-referentiality and off-the-wall humour. And there are some jokes here which only an adult audience, and a fairly sophisticated one, are going to get: a gag about a remake of The Seventh Seal featuring the Swedish Chef, and a reprise of the famous mirror routine from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. Also, there's a ridiculous running gag about European working practices which is smarter than the jokes in most adult-oriented comedies.
The script hangs together well, the jokes are good, the cast is excellent, and most of the songs are very funny as well. As I mentioned, it may not pack quite the same punch as the previous film when it comes to heart and soul, but even so in terms of wit, intelligence and a simple sense of fun Muppets Most Wanted puts most comedies to shame, no matter what audience they are made for. If they can keep up this standard of inventiveness and charm, the Muppets could outlive all of us.