It’s time to play the music. It’s time to light the lights. It’s time to meet the Muppets in this year’s installment of the beloved franchise, Muppets Most Wanted. This time around, the effects budget is (slightly) bigger, and the celebrity cameos (considerably) more plentiful, but is the humor just as sharp and absurd as what we’ve come to love?

Muppets Most Wanted picks up just seconds after the end of 2011’s The Muppets. When the cameras keep rolling, our favorite puppets are forced to decide: what comes next? If Hollywood wants a sequel, the Muppets will give them a sequel, and since they already did a revival, why not a world tour? Dominic Badguy (pronounced “ba-jee,” the inimitable Ricky Gervais) gleefully offers to manage such a tour, but he has an ulterior motive: he’s working for Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog, who has just broken out of prison in Siberia, and bears a striking resemblance to a certain green frog. When Constantine switches places with Kermit during the Muppet’s tour of Berlin, it seems no one can stop his plans to steal the Crown Jewels of London, and to leave the Muppets to blame.

The Savage Take

Kermit’s easy replacement by a frowny-eyed imposter with a terrible fake accent should be ridiculous, but I think it’s a brilliant way of showing just how underappreciated his guidance and stabilizing influence can be. Everyone notices that “Kermit” isn’t acting quite like himself, but they’re so happy to be given free rein that they don’t bother to worry about it, even when their show begins (immediately) to suffer.

Stuck in the gulag in Constantine’s place, Kermit finds that his fussiness and attention to detail are appreciated by warden Nadya (Tina Fey) and the quirky inmates who she has trained to be her backup singers. All they really want is to put on a quality revue, and Kermit is the man to make it happen.

After Kermit gives up hope that his friends are coming to get him, and then after Nadya (who has watched every prison break movie on Netflix) foils his every attempt to escape, Kermit contents himself with incarceration. The Muppets’ obliviousness is sad. Kermit losing faith in his friends is worse.

It’s a seamless blend of heart and hilarity.

That this movie elicits such a wide range of emotions is a testament to just how much these characters have come to mean to us. Muppets Most Wanted lacks the nostalgic sensitivity of its predecessor, but that’s okay. The film doesn’t need it. The plot is nothing special, but that undeniable Muppet charm makes it instantly compelling.

Gags and musical numbers that would seem lame with any other cast work incredibly well, and the celebrity cameos are handled with enough care to be genuinely funny and not too distracting. Best of all, when things get sentimental, the movie doesn’t come screeching to a halt. It’s a seamless blend of heart and hilarity.

The Courteous Rejoinder

Muppets Most Wanted might not need the nostalgic sensitivity of its predecessor, but it sure would have been nice.

In the film’s first musical number (“We’re Doing a Sequel”), the gang blithely remarks that “Everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good!” Unfortunately, those words serve more as prognostication than punchline, and only more true the further back into the Muppets’ history you draw your comparison. Sure, as they say, they can’t possibly do worse than The Godfather Part Three. They’re right, but does that excuse them?

The threadbare plot plays to the lowest common denominator with a caper that is in no way Great, but meanwhile they pepper in more in-jokes about Muppet history and the modern Hollywood complex than any but the most devoted fans and cinephiles could hope to catch.

Of course, those moments are the very best in the film, the Muppetier the better, but I wonder if someone who never watched the Muppets before 2011 would find them at all as funny. (I’m pretty sure the six-year-old girl in the seat in front of me thought I was a crazy person on more than one laugh out loud occasion.)

'Everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good!'

I wish that Muppets Most Wanted didn’t feel like it was constantly apologizing for its own heritage—and whether apologizing for its presence or its omission, I can’t say. For me, that dichotomy came to a head in a throwaway joke where Rizzo poked his tiny head into a meta-discussion over the perceived failings of the previous film.

There were, the rat observed, some beloved characters who might have been done a disservice by their non-inclusion. When he beckoned to his friend Robin, giving each of them their first and only appearance in this decade’s high profile Muppet productions, and suggested that they leave Muppet Theater for somewhere they would be wanted, my heart nearly broke on the spot.

That said, the musical numbers, mostly penned by Flight of the Conchord’s Bret McKenzie (whose Conchord conspirator Jemaine Clement plays king of the Siberian gulag), are delightful, but perhaps not so delightful as to be worth the price of admission when the rest of the film rings so hollow.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As they mention in an early off-hand lyric, Muppets Most Wanted is actually the seventh sequel to the original Muppet feature film. So where should you turn for your next Muppet fix?

S: I recommend A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). It’s got everything you could want: Michael Caine as an excellent Scrooge, hysterical narration by Gonzo and Rizzo, catchy music, and an emotional payoff that justifies perhaps the grimmest fare you’ll ever see from the Muppets (it is ‘A Christmas Carol,’ after all).

C: Muppet Treasure Island (1996) will always hold a special place in my heart. Muppets as swashbuckling pirates and privateers plucked straight from Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal work will put a smile on anyone’s face—and a marvelously flamboyant Tim Curry as one of the most memorable Long John Silvers in cinema history never hurts.