It’s time to play the music! It’s time to light the lights! It’s time to raise the curtain on…what could turn out to be the biggest pop culture comeback story of 2011. After more than a decade spent largely out of the spotlight, mostly doing whatever felt puppets do when no one is watching, Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and the rest of the Muppet repertory company are poised to return to the big screen on Nov. 23 in Disney’s splashy, star-studded musical comedy The Muppets.
In this week’s cover story, EW goes behind the scenes of this high-stakes effort to bring back one of the most revered franchises in Hollywood history – an effort spearheaded by the unlikely screenwriting duo of Jason Segel and Nick Stoller (Get Him to the Greek), two guys far better known for R-rated comedies than anything close to a family movie. Even execs at Disney, which has owned the Muppets since 2004, were initially surprised by Segel’s passion to make a kid-friendly movie with puppets.
“Especially at the time, I wasn’t exactly a Herbie the Love Bug kind of dude,” says Segel, who had just come off going full-frontal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall when he sat down with Disney. “I pitched them our idea and at first they thought I was joking. They didn’t know what to say.”
Though younger audiences may only be vaguely familiar with Kermit and the gang, for Gen X-ers who grew up watching the classic late-’70s primetime variety series The Muppet Show and its spinoff movies, the characters created by the late Jim Henson are like cherished old friends. “Kermit is my personal Jesus,” says Sarah Silverman, who has a cameo in The Muppets. Messing around with such potent childhood nostalgia can be a perilous business. “The Muppets are one of America’s crown jewels,” says the new movie’s director, James Bobin, who co-created the HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords. “We’re incredibly aware of that.” With that in mind, the team behind The Muppets—which stars Segel, Amy Adams, and Chris Cooper alongside the Muppets, as well as a host of celebrity cameos—was bent on keeping the film as faithful to a traditional Muppet movie as possible. No CGI. No hipster detachment. And no teen-friendly pop songs on the soundtrack. “My aim was to make the music feel Muppety, for lack of a better word,” says former Conchords star Bret McKenzie, who wrote most of the film’s songs. To that end, he notes, “I removed all the swear words. You can’t say things like ‘motherfrogger.’”
Despite the obvious love Segel & Co. have for the Muppets, some in the old Muppet guard were concerned about the prospect of outsiders taking over the franchise and steering it away from Henson’s original vision. Henson’s closest collaborator, Frank Oz, publicly stated he didn’t feel the script “respected the characters,” and at least one veteran puppeteer reportedly considered taking his name off the credits at one point. “The puppeteers had always been a family,” says producer David Hoberman. “And now here come the stepparents—and who are they? In a situation like this, I would have been shocked if we were hailed across the board.” But despite a bit of Statler-and-Waldorf-style criticism from certain quarters, Henson’s daughter, Lisa, who’s now CEO of the Jim Henson Company, is completely supportive of the movie—and that Henson stamp of approval is sure to carry a lot of weight with diehard Muppet fans. “I think the movie is like a big, glorious love letter to the Muppets,” she says. “The whole gist of the movie is, ‘These guys are important—let’s bring them back!’”
For more on The Muppets – including an interview with the newest Muppet character, Walter, and some tips from long-time Muppet puppeteer Bill Barretta on how to bring a Muppet to life – pick up this week’s Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday, Nov. 4.