'Muppets Most Wanted,' a sequel to 2011's revival of the prismatic puppet gang, has shortcomings that could be easily swept under the rug. If only 'Muppets Most Wanted' stopped stuffing said shortcomings down our throats.

Late in the film, when Fozzie, Animal and honorary Muppet, Walter, venture off to rescue an incarcerated Kermit, Rowlf makes a self-referential wisecrack at the expense of the series: “Walter quit The Muppets? We just spent a whole movie watching him join The Muppets!” Pouring salt on the wound, Kermit's adorable nephew Robin and Gonzo's number two, Rizzo the Rat, make a brief appearance as the Muppets who had to be sacrificed to make room for Walter. Is this movie trying to make me angry?

The intolerable Walter isn't quite the pervasive brown-noser he was in 'Muppets,' squeezed out to the fringes in an honest attempt by writer-director James Bobin ('Da Ali G') and co-writer Nicholas Stoller ('The Five-Year Engagement') to aim their spotlight squarely on their half-pint ensemble. The result is a smidgen better than the original: 'Muppets Most Wanted' is goofy and heartwarming at its Muppetiest, while wildly disjointed, still heavy on the humans, and in constant battle with its original songs by Bret McKenzie, musical numbers that float above the madcap comedy like oil on water. 'Muppets Most Wanted' is blockbuster-sized — an awkward fit for the low-key, rambling lunacy of Henson's Muppets.

Picking up moments after the first film's conclusion, 'Muppets Most Wanted' opens with a bouncy tune and a glimmer of hope (it's the last time the Muppets will sing together until the finale). There's that familiar banjo strum, Kermit's folksy vocals, and hints of the magic that made the Muppets work in the first place: “We're doing a sequel!” Kermit belts. “That's what we do in Hollywood/And everybody knows that the sequel's never quite as good...”

The Muppets hear sequel pitch after sequel pitch, but it's the suggestion of a world tour from smarmy outsider Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) that sends the company on its next adventure. Excitement clouds Badguy's ulterior motives: the “tour manager” plots to steal the Crown Jewels of London, a four-step process requiring several other high-profile burglaries across the globe. While Piggy belts Celine Dion songs and Christoph Waltz dances the waltz with Sweetums, Badguy will pilfer nearby museums.

And Badguy's not alone. His partner-in-crime Constantine, the splitting image of Kermit (save for a Cindy Crawford mole), joins him in Berlin to frame the beloved frog and seize control of the troupe. As Badguy and Constantine roll out their diabolical plan, Kermit is shipped off to a Russian gulag. There, he finds a fan: Head guard Nadya (Tina Fey) is entranced by the amphibian, displaying Piggy-like affection combined with Russian brutality. A third finds C.I.A. agent Sam the Eagle teaming up with Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell), the spiritual successor to Inspector Clouseau, to track down Constantine, Badguy, and the missing artifacts. 'Muppets Most Wanted' is a plate spinning act, executed with the grace of Gonzo the Great.

Burrell and Sam the Eagle's sleuthing tells us everything that's wrong with the rest of the movie. As the duo pursue the mysterious thieves, they investigate The Muppets, forcing them to butt heads (in song) with Fozzie, Piggy, Swedish Chef, and a mess of others. Bobin and Stoller are wringing the motley crew for every ounce of personality. They're scenes where 'Muppets Most Wanted' is making a movie with Muppets instead about Muppets. It's a riot.

The other two threads are less successful. Kermit is an obnoxious crank, suffering from anxiety when his ensemble won't give him the time a day and moping like a sad sack when he's jailed up at the gulag. Gags with inmates (including Ray Liotta, WWE's Hornswoggle, and Danny Trejo as Danny Trejo) bring bursts of cameo delight but Fey isn't given the emotional or comic material to play off Kermit. Fey's given a musical number because there needs to be one, not to intensify Kermit's situation or complicate his romantic situation. (Which is totally screwed up, by the way; 'Muppets Most Wanted' is the worst kind of Bechdel Test fail. Piggy and Nadya — the only two female characters — are obsessed with seducing Kermit while he's indirectly praised (and later identified by) his commitment issues.)

'Muppets Most Wanted' barely survives the fulfillment of “We're Doing a Sequel's” degrading predictions by indulging in the Muppetry. Do we need to see The Muppet Show opening performed in Spanish to Madrid audiences? 'Muppets Most Wanted' wouldn't function as a string of celebrity-enhanced sketches and song-and-dance numbers, but the ones peppered in are the highlights of the film. McKenzie's don't have the same effect; Once again, the soundtrack is built as an assortment of jokey or plot-driven numbers dished out by new characters. It's a 'Flight of the Conchord' episode with Muppet background actors. It'll be a toe-tapping album. In the film the songs only add to the chaos.

Clocking in just under two hours, 'Muppets Most Wanted' fizzles out as the momentum of Burrell and the global intrigue dissipates into a Kermit versus Constantine showdown. There are set pieces, there are showdowns, there are self-referential jokes to make us think the film is winking when it takes the easy routes. 'Muppets Most Wanted' isn't tapping Henson's Muppets for any new adventure, nothing to inspire generations the same way they did when they first rolled into theaters 30 years ago. These Muppets are shills to promote other product (you won't miss the Subway plug). The truth is, there may not be room for the Muppets' brand of humor in today's Hollywood.

Is this movie trying to make me angry?


'Muppets Most Wanted' opens in theaters on March 21.

Matt Patches is a writer and reporter whose work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Time Out New York, Film.com, and Hollywood.com. He is the host of the pop culture podcast Fighting in the War Room.

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