May 27, 2024

It’s Time for Your Face-Lift, Miss Piggy

KERMIT THE FROG, perched on a log inside a soundstage here a few weeks ago, was pouring on the charm. None of those smart-mouthed, skewering asides. No prickly dismissals of Miss Piggy’s unwanted love.

The Green One was simply strumming his banjo in a digitally engineered rainstorm, crooning the words of his dreamy signature song — “someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection ” — as if his professional life depended on it.

And it just might.

It is probably too much to say that the Muppets — those wacky, witty, hand-operated anarchists of mid-1970s comedy — are down to their last shot at show-business glory. But they are certainly long overdue for the kind of hit that gets a 56-year-old frog’s calls returned in this town.

Once international superstars, Jim Henson’s Muppets have not had a major box-office hit in 32 years. That was “The Muppet Movie,” which took in $65 million for the Associated Film Distribution company in 1979, or about $197 million in today’s currency. The next five Muppets pictures, which were increasingly uneven, together had less in total domestic ticket sales than “Toy Story 3” collected in its first five days. (As Kermit might say, “Sheesh.”)

The oddball gang hasn’t had a regular TV gig in two decades. A 2005 effort to revive the characters sputtered as they were lobbed between divisions of the Walt Disney Company, and a new TV series died in the planning stages. In 2008, a resuscitation effort built largely around retail offerings suffered from the recession and from inexperience — Disney inexplicably reassigned the Muppets to an events team responsible for organizing movie premieres.

But Disney is giving another chance to Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Dr. Teeth, the Swedish Chef, Beaker and those balcony blowhards, Statler and Waldorf. This time, there is no talk of new tie-in theme park rides, TV specials, elaborate lines of related merchandise or the other trappings of a companywide franchise. This time, it all boils down to making a hit movie.

Scheduled for release at Thanksgiving, a marquee position on Hollywood’s calendar, “The Muppets” hopes to reboot the property by doubling down on signature attributes: irreverent, even biting humor; catchy song-and-dance numbers; and chaotic, unexpected storylines that can ricochet from dancing chickens to standup comedians to pigs in space. (The film will be up against “Arthur Christmas,” an animated movie from Sony about Santa’s high-tech operations at the North Pole.)

“You have to walk a careful line between respectful and reverential,” said Leslie B. Stern, a Disney stalwart who has been given oversight for rejuvenating the Muppets characters. “Make it feel contemporary, but do it in a way that preserves what made these characters so engaging and endearing in the first place.”

CERTAIN rules of Muppetdom were forgotten or bent too often over time, people behind the new film say. One is that the characters play best when they are playing themselves. Flops like “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island” put the critters into classic tales, losing the verve that came from the TV series and the first movie — in which Rowlf the piano-playing dog was just a piano-playing dog, and audiences loved it.

By Mr. Henson’s design, the Muppets are supposed to live in the real world, steadfastly believe that they are alive and — this is a biggie — play to an adult audience. He was so insistent that his non-“Sesame Street” stars embody a grown-up personality and tone that he gave this title to the 1975 pilot that would introduce them: “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence.”

“People started to forget that the Muppets were never designed as children’s entertainment,” said Todd Lieberman, a producer of the new film. (Kermit, created in 1955, is the only character that appeared regularly on both “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.”)

Keeping all that in mind, Disney, which has owned the Muppets since 2004, assembled an unusual creative team known for cheeky, offbeat humor. Nick Stoller and Jason Segel, whose experience largely comes from R-rated comedies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek,” wrote the screenplay. The director is James Bobin, a movie first-timer whose television writing and directing credits include the HBO series “Flight of the Conchords” and “Da Ali G Show.”

The film, with a budget of just under $50 million, follows a small-town couple (Amy Adams and Mr. Segel) as they take a young Muppet named Walter — a new creation — to Los Angeles. They are on a hunt for the famous Muppet Studios, largely because the iPhone-toting Walter hasn’t quite sorted out his identity.

After finding the studio, they go on a tour — Alan Arkin plays the cranky guide — and find the place “rundown and for the most part abandoned,” Mr. Lieberman said. (Sound familiar?) But Kermit Company decide to fix all that by reuniting the gang, Blues Brothers-style, for an old-fashioned variety show fund-raiser that saves the studio from a villain named Tex Richman, played by Chris Cooper, who thinks he can smell oil under the famous Muppet Theater.

Filming of a big song-and-dance number shut down Hollywood Boulevard for two days. The movie eventually involves at least 100 Muppet characters and as many hip cameos as Mr. Stoller and Mr. Segel could fit into the script.

In an outpouring of good will, some of Hollywood’s brightest young stars have lined up behind reviving the Muppets with a film that is, appropriately, about reviving the Muppets. Over the last several months, Ricky Gervais, Emily Blunt, Zach Galifianakis, Jack Black and two dozen or so peers have flocked to rented stages on the Universal Studios lot for roles.

“Pretty much the best day of my entire life,” said Ms. Blunt, who, in a reprisal of her character in “The Devil Wears Prada,” plays an assistant to Miss Piggy, who is the editrix of “Vogue Paris.” “Everyone who was on that set just walked away giddy,” Ms. Blunt added. “It was like touching your childhood.”

Like a lot of aging people in Hollywood, the Muppets were pretty much sitting on a shelf at Disney when Mr. Segel visited the studio in 2008 to talk about projects after his full-frontal moment in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Mr. Segel suggested a Muppet movie, and Disney was open-minded.

Mr. Stoller signed on to a team that includes Mr. Lieberman and his business partner David Hoberman, perhaps best known lately as producers behind “The Fighter.” Ms. Adams, a star of that film, joined “The Muppets” one night over dinner, Mr. Lieberman said.

“As it turned out, nostalgia for the brand went way beyond our little circle,” he said of the unusual wave of interest that eventually swept celebrity after celebrity into the project. In a single scene, Whoopi Goldberg, James Carville, Neil Patrick Harris, Judd Hirsch and Selena Gomez all make cameos, according to producers.

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