It’s time to meet the Muppets again

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After decades in the wilderness, Jim Henson’s felt and ping-pong ball creations are back on the big screen and, thankfully, under the creative control of long-term fans. Alistair Harkness examines their appeal

WHEN The Muppet Show first aired on British and American television in the late 1970s, creator Jim Henson perhaps suspected his anarchic, transatlantic blend of puppets, vaudeville humour, music hall songs and pop culture gags would find an audience. But he couldn’t have known just how deeply it would become embedded in popular culture. Surviving long after Henson’s premature death in 1990, it has come alive once more in the form of a new Muppet film, one that has been made by the lifelong fans who comprised the first generations of kids to watch the show.

Indeed, with The Muppets hitting UK cinemas next week – making it the first new Muppet theatrical release in nearly 13 years – things have come full circle for its British director James Bobin.

“I do remember it being this amazing thing in that it was a show that felt like my brain was being put on TV,” he says in the midst of reminiscing about watching it every Sunday at his granny’s house. “It was very attuned to what I liked at four, and it still feels the same at 40.” But while Bobin – hitherto best known for co-creating Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Conchords – got the gig in a rather pedestrian fashion (“I got an e-mail from my agent asking if I like The Muppets”), bringing the Muppets back has been anything but a walk in the park…


Despite Disney acquiring the rights to the Muppets in 2004, it took the enthusiasm of Henson obsessive Jason Segel to get the ball rolling on another movie. “In his house, he has a large collection of puppets, which is weird and good at the same time,” jokes Bobin of his human star and the film’s co-writer. “He had a very good sense of who The Muppets are and, after I signed on as director, I started helping out with the script and it became apparent very early on that we all liked the same thing in terms of humour.”


One of the things they liked was the “let’s put on a show” aspect of the series and early films such as The Muppet Movie (1979) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). The Muppets marks a return to that format with Kermit and co reuniting to put on a telethon in order to raise $10 million to save the derelict Muppet Theatre from destruction. Part tribute to the 1979 movie, this Muppetational approach was also a practical decision.

“It felt like enough time had passed to be able to do a story about where they were and how they got back together again,” says Bobin. “Also, children don’t believe you when you tell them something is great, so I really wanted to do a film whereby you have the main Muppets introduced one by one and, within that sequence, give you an idea about why people loved them in the 1970s and why they love them so much now.”


Part of the reason the film works hard to re-establish a connection with today’s kids is that The Muppets have experienced wilderness years when no-one really knew what to do with them (take your pick from Muppet Babies, Muppets Tonight, Kermit’s Swamp Years, Muppets from Space…). Henson apparently worried about keeping his creations in the public eye and, after he died, ownership of the felt franchise repeatedly changed hands, making consistently good Muppet productions difficult to sustain beyond occasional triumphs like The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). Consequently, they fell out of favour with kids, with the ultimate diss coming in 1996 via The Simpsons when a horrified Lisa casually enquired “What’s a Muppet?” after catching them on TV. Bobin knew he had to address this in the film. “I think it’s nice to have a tip to that,” he says in reference to a scene featuring a sarcastic kid sneering, ‘What is this, 1978?’ “And it’s nice to firmly answer all those taunts by showing that The Muppets are great and you should know who they are, because they’re important.”


The other thing Bobin had to get right was the music. As the co-creator of Flight of the Conchords, Bobin’s only real choice to pull this off was Conchords star Bret McKenzie, who oversaw the music and composed three new songs, among them the Oscar-nominated, existentially themed Man or Muppet. “As you can imagine, Bret is one of the humblest people you could hope to meet, so for good things to happen to nice people is always great,” says Bobin of McKenzie’s recent Oscar nod. With a 50/50 chance of winning (only one other song has been nominated), he’s also got a good chance of righting the wrongs of 1979 – when Rainbow Connection lost to It Goes Like it Goes from Norma Rae. “Yeah, that was a shame,” laments Bobin. “One of the greatest film songs of all time and it didn’t win.”


Of course, the lyrics of McKenzie’s Oscar-nominated song also get to the heart of one of the other great qualities of The Muppets: they feel real. As someone who had to take care of the above and below-the-waist performances, Bobin says the illusion was never ruined: “I’ve been doing this for two years now and I feel like I know Kermit and I know [Kermit performer] Steve Whitmire and they’re two different people, but obviously fundamentally connected – so that magic never goes away.”

Bobin’s four-year-old daughter Madelaine could testify to this: a frequent visitor to set, her attention never deviated from Kermit, even if Whitmire was in sight. Bobin says the same happens with journalists. “At press conferences I can answer questions from hard-bitten journalists and go from me to Piggy and Kermit and no-one ever pulls the curtain back. The idea that puppets and humans coexist is very appealing. Even at our advanced age, we still want to believe in that.”


A new Muppet movie wouldn’t feel authentic without special guest stars. Peter Sellers, John Cleese and Jack Lemmon were just some of the legends that graced the original TV show, and Orson Welles, Liza Minnelli, Richard Pryor and Bob Hope all popped up in the early movies.

“There are two sorts of cameos in the Muppets,” explains Bobin, who knew he had to get the balance right between legends and contemporary stars. “There’s the Bob-Hope-as-an-ice-cream-man cameo; then there’s the cameo where you’re playing yourself.” Mickey Rooney, Emily Blunt, Zach Galifianakis and Dave Grohl are among the many faces appearing this time out. Jack Black, meanwhile, is literally roped in as the reluctant celebrity host of the new show. That, says Bobin, was a little nod to the John Cleese episode in which the former Python was tied up because he didn’t want to be there. “To me that’s a defining idea for the guest in the show.”


Indeed, one of the best running gags in the history of the Muppets – one that Waldorf and Statler have reiterated in every episode and every movie – is that no-one really wants be in business with the Muppets because, as Bobin puts it, “they’re not really very good”. That, however, is the key to their success: “Fozzie is a terrible comedian, but he perseveres,” elaborates Bobin. “And Piggy can’t act or sing or dance, but she really tries and it’s hard-wired into our DNA to root for people who want to give it a try.” It also helps that they’re so optimistic. “Kermit has this great belief in his fellow Muppets,” says Bobin. “He reminds me of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s an absolute hero to me. It’s such a rare quality for a piece of felt.”


Apart from being critiqued by Waldorf and Statler, the finished film has only really come under fire from Fox News, whose partisan pundits blasted the film for trying to “brainwash kids against capitalism” by making the villain an oil tycoon. “There are a lot of ways you expect people to respond to a film,” chuckles Bobin, “but that was not one I saw coming.” One beyond-parody crackpot tried to blame The Muppets’ alleged history of anti-corporate propaganda for the Occupy Wall Street movement, while Follow the Money host Eric Bolling actually said – out loud! – that films like this are “teaching our kids class warfare” before rhetorically exclaiming: “Where are we? Communist China?”

Just for the record, Bobin wasn’t trying to advance a dangerous socialist message. “That’s a very weird way to think about it,” he says, adding: “I mean the character’s name is Tex Richman. I think it might be a joke.”


In the end, anyone left in any doubt about the seismic impact the Muppets have had need only listen to Jason Segel wax lyrical about the them being his gateway into comedy, or Bobin likening The Muppets to Flight of the Conchords (“they exist in a similar world”), or examine their legacy in terms of the way Pixar appropriated their ability to deploy a vast array of cultural references to make jokes funnier.

“I think Jim Henson’s genius with the show was to make it appeal to adults and children alike,” says Bobin, “and even though that’s been done before and since, I can’t think of another show where adults and kids watch it with the same amount of joy.”

l The Muppets is in cinemas from next