The frog prince

An of­ten off- colour sit­com star has lured Ker­mit back to the big screen, writes Vicky Roach

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Front Page -

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

( above).

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