R-rated movie star Jason Segel resurrects his idols and introduces a younger generation to Jim Henson's beloved puppet gang in a new Muppet movie, writes Michele Manelis.
The return of the Muppets to the big screen started out as one hardcore fan's crazy idea.
Fortunately, that fan was Jason Segel, the Los Angeles actor-writer known for his role on the TV series, How I Met Your Mother, and R-rated comedies such as Knocked Up, I Love You, Man, and Bad Teacher.
The notion to bring back the franchise came to Segel while filming the raunchy Russell Brand comedy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the romantic comedy which he wrote and in which he stood naked and bewildered as the titular woman dumped him.
"It was a childhood dream of mine to do a Muppet movie. During the puppet musical in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I got to know the Jim Henson team, and I realised then that I should just go for it."
He did, somehow convincing Disney, which bought The Muppets franchise from The Jim Henson Company in 2004, to let him, English director James Bobin, (Flight of the Conchords, Da Ali G Show), and writing partner Nick Stoller (Get Him to the Greek) get the gang back together for the first Muppets cinematic release since the 1999 flop Muppets from Space.
Given the trio's background in risque, subversive humour, they might have seemed an unusual choice to bring back the beloved family-friendly characters.
Says Segel: "I didn't start out my career with the desire to make R-rated comedies but it obviously turned out that way. And, with The Muppets, people assume we might be making a different kind of hip or edgy movie, but we weren't trying to do it with a sense of irony. It wasn't us making The Muppets with a wink, wink attached to it. We had a pure love and we wanted to restore it to the late 70s, early 80s Muppet movies."
Those films spun off the original The Muppet Show which was a primetime television hit for six years from 1976, creator Jim Henson having developed the puppetry techniques and characters from Sesame Street into a weekly variety show filmed in Britain and sold around the world. It was one of the first franchises made for children that also appealed to adults, and spin-off hit feature films followed, like The Muppet Movie (1979), and The Great Muppet Caper (1981).
The latest movie has Segel as Peter and Amy Adams as his girlfriend trying to save the original Muppet theatre from demolition by an evil oil baron.
A new Muppet named Walter - Peter's brother, the lack of family similarity left unexplained - joins the old gang of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and the rest.
Bobin encouraged the Conchords' Bret McKenzie to write some songs for the film, like his duet with Kermit, Life's a Happy Song as well as Me Party, and Man or Muppet?
"Bret McKenzie was a perfect match for The Muppets," says Segel. "Flight of the Conchords, two wide-eyed innocents making their way through tough New York is very Muppet-ish. Actually, I think Bret should be nominated for an Academy award for the song Man or Muppet?"
Songs aside, Bobin faced some odd challenges directing the film.
"Everything about this movie was difficult ... we had 200 dancers, 500 extras and 100 puppets or so. And obviously, when one of your stars is six foot four and the other is two and a half feet, and a frog, that is a complicated way to shoot anything."
The project film suffered a backlash of sorts from Henson's old cohorts like Frank Oz (the original voice of Miss Piggy and Fozzie) and some other Muppet Show veterans who weren't pleased with the end result. Though Jim Henson's daughter, Lisa Henson, who is CEO of The Jim Henson Company, says the film "is a glorious love letter to the Muppets."
Says Bobin: "I feel that we did the memory of the Muppets justice."
And for Segel the film has fulfilled a dream - to make Kermit mean as much to a new generation as the little green guy meant to him.
"He's the everyman. He's the one I wanted to be as a kid." He pauses. "And actually, we have a lot in common - we both do full frontal."
Who: Jason Segel
What: The Muppets
When: Opens Boxing Day