Muppets, music and mayhem score big laughs in ‘Most Wanted’

“Muppets Most Wanted,” the eighth big-screen Muppets movie, follows 2011’s “The Muppets,” a charming get-the-gang-back-together, we’re-doing-another-show type of musical-comedy co-starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams.

“Most Wanted” begins at the moment “The Muppets” ends, just as the stage lights dim, the music stops. Following their triumphant, hard-won comeback in Hollywood at the Muppet Theater, Kermit and friends suddenly wonder, shucks, what do we do for an encore?

The new Muppets movie gets a slow, even weary start. Its early, humorless scenes suggest that this Muppets sequel may turn out to be just another of Hollywood’s not-so-good sequels.

The lights do come back on, eventually, though it takes quite some time before former “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” star Tina Fey steps up and raises the entire enterprise. Fey steals every scene she’s in via her inspired role as a Russian prison guard who rules an awful, and awfully cold, Siberian prison. It’s her best film comedy role yet. Dancing, singing Gulag prisoners are funny, too.

The Muppets, in their self-questioning haze, allow a shady character into their midst. His name announces his badness. Dominic Badguy slides easily into the Muppets’ circle with business proposal in hand. He suggests that the troupe do a European tour.

Ricky Gervais co-stars as Dominic. The British comic and actor perhaps draws from entertainment business people he’s known for the role. He’s effortlessly relaxed at portraying a show business con artist.

Dominic’s secret agenda involves the world’s most dangerous frog, a Russian amphibian named Constantine. Criminal Constantine’s physical resemblance to the Muppets’ Kermit the Frog inspires his plot to masquerade as Kermit during the Muppets’ tour. The troupe’s performances conveniently happen next to museums and banks that hold the world’s treasures.

Constantine and his partner, Dominic, plot and steal, while poor Kermit, mistaken for the escaped Constantine, suffers imprisonment in Siberia.

Usually prison is no joke, but that changes when Kermit, Fey as mock-serious prison guard Nadya and Gulag prisoners played by Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta and more appear in the most inventive and amusing scenes in “Muppets Most Wanted.” In this musical comedy partially set in prison, southeastern Louisiana residents will recognize a certain New Orleans R&B classic that gets its silliest performance in history.

“Muppets Most Wanted” also derives much humor from accents, especially Russian accents. Fey does a great one and Matt Vogel, providing the voice of the notorious Constantine, milks his elongated syllables for all they’re worth.

The same can’t be said for Ty Burrell, co-starring as ever-eager-to-relax French detective Jean Pierre Napoleon. An obvious knockoff of the late Peter Sellers’ “Pink Panther” series character, Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Napoleon fails to amuse.

Weak spots threaten “Muppets Most Wanted,” including long stretches barren of entertainment, but the familiar Muppets characters, Gervais and, best of all, Fey, save the day, supplying enough entertainment to keep this Muppets show on the road.