The frog prince
An often off- colour sitcom star has lured Kermit back to the big screen, writes Vicky Roach
WHEN funnyman Jason Segel announced he was writing a comeback vehicle for Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of Jim Henson’s anthropomorphic icons, the revelation was greeted with a significant degree of suspicion.
‘‘ I understand,’’ says the star of sitcom How I Met Your Mother and the Judd Apatow- produced comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. ‘‘ I was the R- rated guy.’’
Segel’s audacious pitch came out of left- field even for Disney, which hadn’t done much with Henson’s Muppets franchise since acquiring it in 2004 – possibly because the last movie, Muppets in Space in 1999, had grossed only $ 22 million worldwide. In an era in which the family box office is dominated by computer- generated animation, nobody knew quite what to do with the Muppets’ lo- fi brand of Vaudeville- inspired comedy.
Twelve years is a long time between drinks for any actor. And Kermit is not just any actor. At 56, the world’s best- loved amphibian was staring down the barrel of early retirement.
‘‘ A lot of frogs never leave the swamp,’’ Kermit says. ‘‘ I made the decision early on to get out in the world and try to pursue my dream. But when you are a two- foot tall green
frog in Hollywood, you often get passed over. There were roles – like Yoda, The Hulk, Gollum – that I would have been suited for. I could have done those.’’
While Segel’s unexpected overtures were hardly unwelcome, there was a good deal of concern over what the 31- year- old – born a year before The Muppet Show went off air – had in mind.
‘‘ There was trepidation that I was doing it with a sense of irony, or that I was going to somehow try to reinvent The Muppets,’’ Segel says.
Many of the Muppet- keepers’ worst fears – not to mention those of puppeteers such as Steve Whitmire, who has voiced Kermit since Henson died in 1990, and Bill Barretta, who has been voicing the Swedish chef for two decades – would have been allayed simply by meeting the 1.93m- tall Segel.
‘‘ I had to do my scenes standing on a box next to him. He’s taller than Big Bird,’’ Kermit says.
Himself a puppeteer, Segel admits his life- long interest in Henson’s fabulous felt fixtures borders on obsession.
‘‘ I guess fanatic is a fair description, given that I devoted five years at the start of a burgeoning career to make this movie,’’ he says.
Renowned for exposing himself in Forgetting Sarah Marshall , Segel nevertheless felt right at home with the PG- rated material in the new Muppets film. He co- wrote it with Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller.
‘‘ It was actually right in my wheelhouse,’’ says Segel, who also wrote music for Stoller’s follow- up film Get Him to the Greek.
‘‘ That’s where my brain is most of the time. I used to fall asleep to this stuff.’’
‘‘ Actually, we have never been about aiming our stuff at kids,’’ adds Kermit.
‘‘ We have always been relatively sophisticated in our humour and just tried to make it so kids can watch it.’’
Segel was introduced to The Muppets by his mother, a ‘‘ keen student of comedy’’.
‘‘ She was a stay- at- home mum and I think she just wanted somebody to talk to,’’ he laughs. ‘‘ But her passion was infectious.’’
Far from giving Kermit and the gang a modern makeover, Segel’s aim was simply to introduce his favourite characters to a new generation of fans.
‘‘ Hollywood goes in cycles. And comedy certainly goes in cycles,’’ he says. ‘‘ Maybe the world just needed a little reminder of what a formidable force in comedy the Muppets are. They are like
Saturday Night Live or Monty Python.’’ The end result, simply titled The
Muppets, is a sweet, timeless musical comedy that introduces a new Muppet character into the mix – Walter, Segel’s vertically challenged brother.
The Muppets opened No. 2 at the US box office behind Twilight: Breaking
Dawn, and it has taken a respectable $ 81.6 million to date.
While the Muppets never completely disappeared, Segel and Kermit believe it’s fair to describe the new film as a ‘‘ comeback’’.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Kermit has aged extraordinarily well.
‘‘ What’s my secret? I don’t know that it’s actually a secret, but I try to stay moist,’’ Kermit says.
‘‘ Muppets are forever youthful. Of all of us, I think Piggy is the only one who has had any work done.’’
Traditionally, it’s been Miss Piggy who pursues Kermit. But in the seventh Muppet movie, the roles are reversed.
To save the Muppets’ theatrical home, Kermit must persuade his porcine paramour to leave her job at French Vogue.
‘‘ I had a long talk with Jason about that when he was writing,’’ Kermit says. ‘‘ It was out of character for me. ‘‘ But it was the best way to get her to do the film.’’
At a time when the majority of filmmakers are inclined to test technological boundaries, Segel says he didn’t even consider a digitally enhanced version of the Muppets.
In fact, he and director James Bobin ( co- creator of HBO comedy Flight of
the Conchords) chose to actively celebrate the characters’ old- school roots – right down to using batteryoperated, remote control Muppets from the 1970s.
‘‘ You can never meet Shrek because he lives in a computer, but some day you could meet Kermit,’’ Segel says. ‘‘ You could shake his hand or hug him. It feels different.’’
The Muppets’ reputation is such that they generally have no trouble attracting celebrity talent and this new movie is no exception.
Amy Adams stars as Segel’s longsuffering girlfriend, along with cameos from Jack Black, John Krasinski, Mickey Rooney, Rashida Jones and Neil Patrick Harris. Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl plays drum hero Animal.
There was one star, however, that Kermit and Segel couldn’t persuade to join them.
‘‘ That was a tough one,’’ Kermit says. ‘‘ We really wanted Elmo, but that didn’t work out. He’s a pretty big name.’’
THE ODD COUPLE: Jason Segel and the latest Muppets character Walter.
OLD SCHOOL: of Mary ( Amy Adams) Muppets, including and Gary world- famous ( Jason Segel) frog Kermit star with and new the entire gang recruit Walter