Straight to it: I had lots of fun, but Muppets Most Wanted failed to clear my Threshold of Awesome (the low-numbered, bold-faced films at the top of this list.) This is sad, because 2011's The Muppets not only cleared that threshold, it topped my list for that year.
What went wrong?
I'm not sure, really. The opening song in 2011's film set the tone perfectly, and the opening song this time around aimed at the same target -- let people know what they're in for, and crank the energy up. The song is called "We're Doing a Sequel," and it's clever, punchy, and predictably self-deprecatory, but something about it fell a little flat. Maybe hanging a lantern on how bad sequels often are... maybe that backfired, and called too much attention to the "sequel" feel?
I'll just say this: I found myself bored several times, tapping my foot and thinking "get on with this! I want MUPPET AWESOME!" and wondering when it was coming. And then something fun would happen, and I'd be back on board, but my desire for the awesome was never satisfied. And the final musical number, while cameotastic and pretty strong, had nothing on Amy Adams breaking the fourth wall and sending us home with "Mahna Mahna."
That said, oh my goodness. Ricky Gervais was perfect, Ty Burrell played so well against Sam Eagle (Eric Jacobsen) that he almost became a Muppet himself. And Tina Fey? I think she may really be in love with Kermit the Frog. The Gulag musical numbers were excellent, which is to be expected when the Gulag is full of familiar-faced actors and professional dancers, and the inimitable Danny Trejo: "I'm a triple threat! I'm a singer, I'm a dancer, and I'm a murderer." (Sorry for the spoiler.)
"I'm Number One," "The Big House," "Interrogation Song," and "The Muppet Show" (the TV show theme done in Spanish) were my favorite musical numbers, but I got really tired of "I'll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)," and they sent us home with that one during the credits. It was clever, but the Constantine-as-Kermit accent muddied it up and the tune and arrangement weren't my kind of thing. Oh, and while I suspect I'm supposed to not like Miss Piggy's musical numbers, and that's the joke, that doesn't mean the joke won't wear thin really, really fast, even when you prop it up with an amazing musical cameo.
Don't get me wrong: I had fun, and as of this writing Muppets Most Wanted is #3 for me for the year, but even the long line of credit the Muppet franchise has with me just couldn't pull this above my Threshold of Awesome, where I so desperately wanted to put it.
UPDATE, WITH SPOILERS
I think I figured it out. Throughout the 2011 movie we're told that The Muppet Show is an out-of-fashion has-been, but by the end of the movie there are huge crowds watching, and we're all having fun. This movie opens, and we're told that all those crowds were extras hired by the studio for the previous movie. Then as the Muppets tour Europe we learn that the sell-out crowds were hired to be there by our villains.
So, it's a movie about an entertainment troupe, and the only people who are interested in paying money to see them are us in the theater. There's no audience member who will hook our nostalgia for us. The first film gave us Walter, and then enthusiastic crowds. Muppets Most Wanted gave us... well, I suppose Tina Fey's character kind of works, but we don't identify with her.
- The Muppet Show of yesteryear was a variety show that included bits about doing a variety show. It was campy, and brilliant, and I loved it.
- The Muppet Movie (1978) was a movie about the birth of the variety show in the face of ridiculous odds. Campy, brilliant.
- Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island were retellings of familiar stories, as performed by Muppets, and while there was a little bit of fourth-wall breaking, they were more straightforward comedies. They were like super-extended sketches from the original variety show. Not my favorites, but they worked well. (Note: I didn't list Muppets Take Manhattan, The Great Muppet Caper, or Muppets from Space because I don't remember the plots.)
- The Muppets (2011) was a movie about reviving that variety show, about getting the band back together. Original formula, with some fun twists, and plenty of nostalgia hooks. As I said above, I loved it.
- Muppets Most Wanted, our most recent installment, tries to play to the original formula (variety show that breaks the fourth wall,) which means it's not just a sequel, it's the FOURTH TIME they've used this formula (at least!) Additionally, it doesn't spend much time on the variety show acts, and when it does, it follows up by telling me "nobody likes this." So even though I DID like it, the film forced me to pay extra attention to the parts I liked the least.
If there's a take-home for filmmakers (and for me, as a purveyor of entertainments on the media-wires) it's that self-deprecatory humor is risky. You risk convincing the audience that you're right.