by Josh Grossberg | Tue., Nov. 22, 2011 10:15 AM
Moviegoers who thought the Muppets would never be the same without Jim Henson are in for a real treat.
The franchise, which was once top banana at the box office with 1979's The Muppet Movie and 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, went into decline following its creator's untimely death in 1989. But now Kermit & Co. are getting a 21st century makeover thanks to an unlikely assist from Jason Segel.
On the eve of The Muppets' Nov. 23 release, we sat down with one of the film's producers, Todd Lieberman, and discussed the five things you need to know about the new movie.
1. Jason Segel: If it wasn't for the star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and TV's How I Met Your Mother, we wouldn't be talking about The Muppets in the first place. A lifelong fan of Henson's fuzzy foam and fleece friends (not felt FYI), the actor commissioned the Jim Henson Company's puppeteers to create puppets for the Dracula musical sequence at the end of Sarah Marshall. When he learned Disney owned the rights to the Muppets, having bought the characters in 2004, he pitched Mouse House execs an idea for a movie and the rest, they say, is history. Disney subsequently signed on to a film starring Segel that's a perfect bookend to The Muppet Movie.
The original was a meta-story telling how Kermit and Co. came to Hollywood. The Muppets, on the other hand, starts with the gang broken up and reuniting for one last time to save the theater where they filmed The Muppet Show from an evil oil man named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). They're aided in the quest by Segel's everyman character, Gary, his fiancée Mary (Amy Adams) and a new Muppet named Walter who's the instigator of the whole thing, a sort of EveryMuppet who doesn't realize he's really one of them.
"Jason came up with this idea that they were very culturally prevalent at one point and it's not that they've gone away but they're not as all-pervasive now. You don't see them everywhere you were seeing them 20 or 30 years ago," says Lieberman, who's the president of Mandeville Films, which scored an Oscar nomination last year producing The Fighter.
The effect, as Lieberman tells E! News, is to immediately get the audience on the Muppets' side, especially children who aren't familiar with Henson's creations as they see them for the first time through Walter's eyes. A wildly successful viral video campaign also didn't hurt.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.com; Jesse Grant/WireImage
2. Surprisingly, the Henson Family and Frank Oz Were Not Involved—But That's Okay: Henson's son, Brian—who produced and directed 1992's The Muppet Christmas and 1996's Muppet Treasure Island, and supervised 1999's Muppets from Space—prevented the Muppets from sinking into obscurity (but some critics felt the post-Henson entries still lacked the wit and creative spark of their predecessors).
But in the case of The Muppets, Disney surprisingly took a hands-off approach, letting superfan Segel, his fellow screenwriter Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords) put a new spin on the material. For instance, they included hilarious pop culture parodies (a Muppet barbershop quartet version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" anyone?) while retaining a cynicism-free sensibility and the kind of comedic mayhem today's adults who grew up with the Muppets would instantly recognize.
"We didn't want to gear it for kids," adds the producer. "We wanted to make something that would make [adults] laugh, make them feel something that would hopefully also translate to kids. But we weren't speaking down to them. We were kind of talking to contemporaries. As filmmakers and fans, we have the utmost respect and admiration for the Henson family and Frank Oz and we're thrilled that the Henson family gave us their stamp of approval."
The Henson family did give the new installment a thumbs-up, calling it "a love letter to the Muppets," according to Lieberman. (Oz—Henson's right-hand man and the voice of Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Animal, among others—had been working on a rival reboot that was ultimate shelved. He and several other original Muppet puppeteers have groused that the new version doesn't do justice to the original.)
Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images
3. Jim Henson and Frank Oz Aren't Pulling the Strings—and That's Not a Bad Thing: When Henson's passing robbed the world of a visionary, for many Muppet fans a dividing line formed: There was Kermit before Henson's death and some guy who sounds like Kermit after. While Oz soldiered on for the three post-Henson flicks, he formally retired in the late '90s and handed over the reigns to puppeteer Eric Jacobson.
Now the good news: Given the infectious humor, which plays to both adults and kids like the best Pixar film, and the exuberant musical numbers, moviegoers would be hard pressed to notice it's not Henson and Oz here but longtime Henson protegé Steve Whitmire as Kermit and Jacobson as Piggy. In fact, The Muppets is so good, many critics hardly noticed the difference, let alone thought about it.
"Those of us who grew up on Jim Henson's Kermit are used to that voice, but post-1990 those kids who've grown up on Steve Whitmire's Kermit voice think Jim Henson's voice is off," says Lieberman. "Obviously, they're such identifiable characters, our goal as well was to be able to really make three-dimensional characters in each of those roles and each one of those puppeteers are so brilliant."
4. A New Muppet, More Musical Numbers and More Cameos: Bringing in Walter—a muppet stuck in a world of humans who embarks on a journey of self-discovery and whose singular talent helps the Muppets in the end—was an inspiring choice.
"The emotional core of the movie is Walter," remarks Lieberman. "The idea is that he's not comfortable where he is now but ends up finding a place where he's comfortable at. That's a really great lesson."
As for the tunes, besides six new originals including a rap number(!) performed by Cooper and Segel's show-stopper "Man or Muppet," longtime fans will be happy to know "Rainbow Connection" is getting a reprise, along with "The Muppet Show" theme. Along the way, as in the earlier entries, Segel and company pepper the film with a slew of smart cameos from the likes of Emily Blunt, Jack Black, and Zach Galafianakis among others.
Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage.com; HBO
5. James Bobin: Hard to believe the British filmmaker is making his feature debut with The Muppets, but he is. And he's the perfect fit, bringing a comedy background that includes helping create Sacha Baron Cohen's characters Ali G, Borat and Bruno for Da Ali G Show and helming HBO's The Flight of the Conchords.
"He really honed in on telling that story of Walter, figuring out how to get the most emotional bang for the buck," noted Lieberman, adding that Bobin also "brought his experience shooting musical numbers" on Conchords and didn't pander to kids.