A perfect family film can be like a seesaw. On one side, you find characters or jokes or action aimed at children; on the other, a little something extra -- a cameo, a witty pun, a deeper theme -- for adults.
"Muppets Most Wanted" tilts too much toward the grown-up side, with sophisticated references to Ingmar Bergman (not the first time in Muppet history) and Hannibal Lecter trussed up in "The Silence of the Lambs" and quickie appearances by Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga and Christoph Waltz, among many.
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, voice of Steve Whitmire.
Rating: PG for some mild action..
As a result, it sometimes loses sight of its primary audience.
It addresses naysayers early with a splashy production number, "We're Doing a Sequel," in which Kermit and others don gold-trimmed tuxedos, top hats and canes and sing, "We're doing a sequel. That's what we do in Hollywood. And everybody knows the sequel's never quite as good."
This time around, a stranger named Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) offers to arrange a global tour for the Muppets who are, as he says, "having a moment."
The gang doesn't realize Badguy is really the second in command to the world's most wanted criminal, Constantine, a green frog who looks just like Kermit except for a mole on the right side of his face and a slightly shorter collar around his neck.
The no-goodniks plot to have Kermit change places with Constantine in a Siberian prison while Badguy books the Muppets in European theaters near museums or banks he can burgle. The thieves are working their way up to a fabled treasure while imprisoned Kermit doesn't understand why his friends aren't missing or rescuing him.
"Muppets Most Wanted" cranks up the caper quotient. It brings everyone together for an event Miss Piggy has dreamed about for years, a confrontation between the look-alikes and additional guest stars, songs and stunts -- and a chance to test the bonds of friendship.
It has been more than two years since "The Muppets," starring Amy Adams and Jason Segel, rebooted the franchise with a story about getting the felt friends back together for a reunion show to save Muppet Studios from an oil baron.
This time, they hop around the world as Interpol and the CIA -- represented by Ty Burrell and Sam Eagle -- begin investigating the heists and Kermit taps into his show business roots thanks to Nadya, a Russian prison guard portrayed by Tina Fey.
Many of the key filmmakers are back from 2011: director James Bobin, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, who worked with Mr. Segel on the previous script, and songwriter Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords) whose "Man or Muppet" tune won an Oscar. His Flight partner, Jemaine Clement, turns up as a rugged Russian prisoner turned song-and-dance man.
The songs are lively and clever with a line about how the studio wants more "while they wait for Tom Hanks to make 'Toy Story 4,' " or a tribute to "The Big House," in which Nadya shows Kermit his new dank digs, "Excellent in service since 1932, don't believe what you read in the online reviews."
As usual, the Muppets seem as remarkably real as any flesh-and-blood characters, and the cameos are impressive if slightly over the top.
But at 106 minutes and with a "Monsters University" short preceding it, it seems a bit long -- it could have used one less tour stop -- and the references too rooted in pop culture. Missing is the sweetness supplied by Mr. Segel, whose character's puppet brother, Walter, became and remains a Muppet.
The Jim Henson creations, here making their eighth big-screen appearance, always are welcome in the multiplex, but sometimes you can be too hip for the room even if the dastardly doppelganger is a doozy.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.