When Kermit is framed and imprisoned—interchanged with Constantine—the Muppet Show world tour slowly begins to erode, because the family loses that essential linchpin of what makes it hold together. When they lose Kermit, the Muppets lose their way. They become selfish dreamers who don't play to their strengths. They lose the blessed purpose underlying their foolishness.
But it's not just what happens to the Muppets in Kermit's absence. Don't forget: Kermit ends up in the Gulag. He attempts to get out of prison and is forced by Nadya to take charge of the prison talent show, but he still manages to make order out of chaos, arranging talent so it shines as brightly as it can, and earns the most happiness from the audience for whom he happens to be performing.
Even in the Gulag, Kermit can make stars out of the incarcerated marginalized.
For me, this Gulag moment comes closest to reaching the heights of 1979's The Muppet Movie. But Muppets Most Wanted lacks a certain vitality embedded in the maxim that "life's like a movie."
Jones notes that while Henson was hesitant to allow critics to compare him to Kermit, it was more than a little true that Henson was the creative dreamer and lover who held things together. I can't help but sense in these recent Muppet films that, while enjoyable enough, they don't quite have a spiritual gravitas about them that should underwrite the mixture between humor, song, and puppeteered animation.
You might say that while this film is about the absence of Kermit and what that means for the Muppet family, it's also, in an unintentional sense, a story about the absence of Henson—though the spirit of what he created lives on well enough to make a trip to this latest Muppet Show worth your while.
My young toddler watched and enjoyed The Muppets Movie (1979) and The Muppets (2011), but I'm glad I didn't take him with me to see Muppets Most Wanted. That's not because of any specific mature content that I wouldn't want him to see (not any problem here), but more because of some of the darker tones of the movie, when it is caricaturing the heist/prison break themes and the toddler may not register the light hearted intent of the depiction. This is a warning for very young ones, though, and I'd generally recommend the film for all audiences.
Nick Olson is Assistant Professor of English at Liberty University, a regular contributor to Filmwell, and co-editor of the upcoming third volume of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema. He tweets at @Nicholas_Olson.