'Muppets Most Wanted:' Heist to see you

The fairly decent Muppet caper

Muppets Most Wanted opens literally within moments of the finale of the previous film, the Oscar-winning vehicle The Muppets. Contemplating their next career move, the beloved puppet menagerie launches into a musical number about making a follow-up film, singing the line, "We're doing a sequel, that's what we do in Hollywood / And everybody knows that the sequel's never quite as good!"

That might sum up the Muppets' appeal in a single lyric: how can you have hard feelings against any entertainers so self-aware and self-deprecating? It's like they're writing their own mildly disappointed reviews of Muppets Most Wanted. The new film brings high spirits, a great sense of humor and an adorable ensemble - but, yes, makes a step down from the 2011 comeback vehicle The Muppets. Muppets Most Wanted feels more like a throwback to such middling but pleasant films as The Great Muppet Caper, only worthy of a name like The Fairly Decent Muppet Caper.

Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire) and the gang take a pitch from a promoter with the sinister name of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who sells them on the idea of a tour of European capitals. Dominic turns out to be engineering an elaborate plan to secure the freedom of Constantine, the World's Most Evil Frog and a dead ringer for Kermit, only with a mole/beauty mark on his cheek.

Kermit unwillingly replaces Constantine in a Russian gulag, Constantine substitutes for Kermit on the tour, and the two villains use the muppet performances as cover for a series of heists. Complicating matters are the other primary "human" stars, Tina Fey as a gulag commandant and Ty Burrell as a French Interpol detective paired with Sam the Eagle's CIA agent. At times there's so much plot that Muppet regulars like Fozzie and Gonzo drop out of sight. Plenty of celebrities make cameos, but mostly they appear just long enough for the audience to recognize them.

I freely admit that I was a total sucker for the running gags of perpetually scowling Constantine (Matt Vogel) rehearsing Kermit's signature lines in his Boris-and-Natasha accent and getting them slightly wrong. If you're less amused by the idea of Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson) and the rest being snowed by the obvious imposter, you may have a harder time with Muppets Most Wanted. The script tends to alternate between predictable European stereotypes and moments of sharp wordplay: when the title characters arrive at in Berlin, they're alarmed to read "Die Muppets" on the marquee, without realizing that it's just "The Muppets" in German.

The real mystery of Muppets Most Wanted, though, is why it falls so short of the previous one. Perhaps The Muppets MVP was star/co-writer Jason Segel, who's a no-show here. Otherwise, the new film brings back the same director in James Bobin, the same co-writer in Nicholas Stoller and the same composer, Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for the song "Man or Muppet?"

The new musical numbers particularly fail to match the last film's, and while you can tell that Fey enjoys doing a doo-wop number and Burrell delights in the police interrogation as patter song, the tunes feel like they're checked off a list of musical styles, not organic expressions of the story. The cleverest comes when Constantine woos Miss Piggy with a soul number with the ridiculous rhyme scheme of a vintage Flight of the Conchords tune. But the film never matches The Muppets' insane inspiration in moments like the barbershop quartet version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

The Muppets may have set too high a standard that the follow-up could equal. Muppets Most Wanted nevertheless features snappier pacing and better jokes than most of the earlier Muppet films. And even when they're underachieving, you've still gotta love them.