In her prime, she was everywhere. A star of film and television, celebrated as a fierce feminist icon, she saw her face splashed across magazine covers, T-shirts, posters, and calendars. She had a best-selling advice book, a workout album, a perfume line, and a grassroots movement urging her to run for president. Over time, though, it all slowly faded. New stars captured the public’s affections, and an entire generation grew up only vaguely aware of who she was. But today, on a rainy January afternoon on a soundstage in Los Angeles, she’s filming a pivotal scene in what her fans hope will be her big comeback movie, a climactic showdown with a rival who’s trying to take her place. Her blond hair perfectly coiffed, a string of pearls around her neck, she strides toward her foe with a steely stare — then, letting out a piercing hi-ya!, dispatches her with a single karate chop. ”There is only one Miss Piggy,” she says, snout pointing proudly in the air. ”And she is moi.”
Yes, we’re talking about a hand puppet — and the puppeteer operating this porcine diva just below the frame, Eric Jacobson, is not even the one who first gave that character life 37 years ago. (That, of course, was Frank Oz, who has unofficially retired as a puppeteer.) Still, the love people around the world have felt for Miss Piggy and her fellow Muppets — the sweet Everyfrog Kermit, the neurotic comic Fozzie Bear, the maniacal drummer Animal, the weird whatever-he-is Gonzo, and all the rest — is very real. So are the stakes riding on Disney’s The Muppets, a star-studded, PG-rated, $40 million musical comedy opening Nov. 23. The last time the Muppets were seen on the big screen, in 1999’s Muppets From Space, Bill Clinton was in the White House and the Backstreet Boys were topping the pop charts. That film grossed just $16.6 million, and since then its stars have been largely out of sight. The Muppets, co-written by actor Jason Segel and Get Him to the Greek’s Nicholas Stoller (both of whom are far better known for R-rated comedies than anything close to family fare), embraces this reality in its premise. Now split up and mostly forgotten, Kermit and the gang reunite with the help of a Muppet fan named Gary (Segel), his girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), and a new Muppet character named Walter to try to save the original Muppet Theater from being demolished by an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper).
It’s a tricky business trying to resurrect any dusty pop culture institution, let alone one as revered as the Muppets. ”They are one of America’s crown jewels — we’re incredibly aware of that,” says Muppets director James Bobin, who co-created the late, lamented HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords. With their blend of comic anarchy and heartstring-tugging emotion, the Muppets have influenced everything from The Simpsons to Pixar movies to the comedies of Judd Apatow. The legacy of their legendary creator, Jim Henson, who died of a bacterial infection in 1990 at age 53, is hardwired into the childhood memory banks of Gen-Xers weaned on the classic prime-time variety series The Muppet Show, which ran from 1976 to 1981. (”Kermit is my personal Jesus,” says Sarah Silverman, who has a cameo in The Muppets.) Disney, which acquired the franchise from the Jim Henson Company in 2004, is hoping that parents who grew up loving the Muppets will bring their children to the movie in droves, pumping new life into the brand. Yet it remains to be seen whether kids raised on CGI animation and 3-D spectacle will go for something as radically lo-fi as felt puppets.
”There’s a whole generation of kids who don’t know the Muppets as well as we’d like them to, and a lot will rest on this movie,” says Martin Baker, an exec producer whose history with the Muppets goes back to the 1970s. ”Years ago, if somebody said to me, ‘What would happen if Jim Henson passed away?’ I’d say, ‘Forget it, let’s pack our bags and go home.’ But thank God we’re here to tell the story that the Muppets lived on.”