Muppets Most Wanted is a great caper

The Muppets are back in action

The Muppets are back in action

The endurance of the Muppets isn't just the result of the creative skills of Jim Henson and collaborators like Frank Oz, or of smart business decisions, or of sheer dumb luck. It's simply that the Muppets are just ever so slightly, or maybe even totally, mad. Man, woman, child: Who can resist them? Even TV-watching cats are drawn to their frisky hippety-hopping and flutey, gravelly, squeaky, squawky voices.

But after years of success in TV and movies, the Muppets' star had tarnished a bit. In 2011, the movie franchise was rebooted with The Muppets, starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, and our furry, felted friends. On the patented Acme Silliness Scale, which peaks at 11.5, The Muppets was about an 8. But the new Muppets Most Wanted, in which an evil Kermit look-alike named Constantine escapes from a Siberian prison to wreak havoc, registers closer to a 9.5. In other words, it's better.

At the start, the Muppets realize their recent film hasn't made them as hot as they'd hoped. An oily Hollywood type preys on their vulnerability and persuades them to hire him as their manager. Little do they know that the man who has identified himself as Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) is really a scheming jewel thief. Dominic arranges a European tour for the Muppets and immediately dispatches Kermit; the other Muppets don't know that their trustworthy frog leader has been replaced by Constantine, Dominic's partner in crime, who looks just like Kermit save for a Cindy Crawford mole on his upper lip that he blots out with green makeup. Meanwhile, Kermit is whisked off to the gulag, where prison mistress Nadya (Tina Fey, looking quite fetching in a fitted Russian officer's coat and matching fur hat) tries to have her way with him. Her PG-rated way, of course.

The story matters only in that it creates opportunities for heaps of ridiculousness, and writer-director James Bobin (who also directed The Muppets), along with co-writer Nicholas Stoller, mines them skillfully and breezily. The numerous plot points involve the match-up of Sam Eagle's taciturn CIA operative with Ty Burrell's Interpol agent: On the hunt for the escaped Constantine, they trek across Europe crammed into a highly miniaturized Euro-car.

Meanwhile, Dominic and faux-Kermit Constantine — easily identified (by us, at least) by his cabbage-dumpling Russian accent — use the Muppets' tour as a cover for a series of heists, intended to culminate in the theft of the crown jewels.

In Siberia, Kermit has been enlisted to direct the annual prison musical: You haven't lived until you've seen grizzled jailbirds, played by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), Ray Liotta, and Danny Trejo, singing the living daylights out of Hamlisch and Kleban. Through it all, he's busy dodging the love-struck Nadya. And, in the tradition of all the Muppet movies, Muppets Most Wanted is studded with cameos from big and medium-size stars.

Amid all this mishegas, Miss Piggy's dreams of marrying Kermit appear to be finally coming true. Except the swain who has swept her off her feet is not her beloved Kermie, but the impostor Constantine, who appears to be giving her exactly what she wants — he woos her with a love ballad straight out of '80s MOR radio, his satin shirt billowing with the help of a wind machine. At the core of Muppets Most Wanted, there's a potent lesson about the nature of love: The things we think we want aren't always the things that will truly make us happy. Still, you can't fault her for being a dreamer. The day she stops being dazzled by a big honking rock is the day she stops being Piggy. And the real Kermit, true-blue — or is that green? — to his core, would never let that happen.