x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Muppets director talks about his experience with the famous characters

James Bobin directs The Muppets, the first big-screen outing for Jim Henson's fuzzy creations in 12 years.

The actor Jason Segel, left, takes direction from the director James Bobin on the set of The Muppets. Scott Garfield / Disney Enterprises, Inc
The actor Jason Segel, left, takes direction from the director James Bobin on the set of The Muppets. Scott Garfield / Disney Enterprises, Inc

Few would question the skills of Fox News to uncover left-wing agendas in the most ridiculous of scenarios, but it's unlikely anyone thought a group of colourful furry puppets would be their next target. However, in a story that might easily have surfaced on the pages of the satirical newspaper The Onion, the US news network accused The Muppets of pushing a liberal bias and attempting to brainwash our innocent children.

Fox's quickly viral argument centred around the new Muppets musical - the first big-screen outing for Jim Henson's fuzzy creations in 12 years - in which Kermit and company must save their forgotten studios from the clutches of evil industrialist Tex Richman, who wants to turn it into an oilfield.

"Liberal Hollywood depicting a successful businessman as evil - that's not new," claimed Fox host Eric Bolling in a segment two weeks ago, kick-starting the near-farcical conversation, before later wondering out loud why the Muppets couldn't for once give the role of baddie to someone in the Obama administration.

"It's amazing how far the left will go just to manipulate your kids," remarked a guest on the show, adding that oil could also be used to "light a hospital" or "fuel an ambulance".

Sadly, for any anti-capitalist groups who might be looking to Kermit, Fozzie Bear or even Beaker as their new poster boys, the film's plotline is - according to the director - simply in the interests of fun.

"Tex Richman is a ridiculous name, it's a joke, so I can't believe anyone takes it seriously," says The Muppets director James Bobin. "He's a bad guy because he's evil, not because he works for an oil company."

Rather than recruiting a new generation of leftist activists, Bobin says his real intention in The Muppets film was to return to a more traditional form of comedy. "We've had a lot of observational, cynical humour for a long time," he says. "Like everything, comedy is cyclical and I feel we're coming back to puns, fourth-wall-breaking jokes, essentially comedy with heart. And I think there's no better proponent of comedy with heart than the Muppets."

And the new film is filled with heart, with a new unashamedly positive Muppet - Walter - helping reunite the old gang, who were spread far and wide, for a fund-raising concert to keep hold of the studio that has fallen into disrepair. Among the group is Gonzo, now running his own successful toilet company, and Animal, undergoing anger-management treatment.

"I wanted them all to be in different places and at different levels," says Bobin. "For Fozzie Bear, who's such an endearing, sweet guy, I thought he would be the one who ended up in a tribute band somewhere."

Fozzie rejoins the Muppets after a miserable stint fronting Muppets covers band The Moopets. "There's nothing sadder than being in a tribute band - especially a tribute band for your own thing you did originally."

The last one to come on board is the preening frog-loving princess herself, Miss Piggy, who is enticed from her role as editor of Plus-Size Vogue in Paris. "Piggy is terrible at her job, but I can kind of see that she would have lucked her way into it somehow just through sheer bravado," says Bobin.

Working with Muppets was no different from working with human actors, claims the director, who said he learnt to talk to the puppeteers rather than the puppets. But there were some who failed to notice the human hands involved.

"My four-year-old daughter would come on set and see Steve [Whitmere], who does Kermit, wearing a half body puppet, with the sticks into Kermit's arms. And she would never ever look at Steve. She'd come on and hug Kermit and it'd be the sweetest thing you'd have ever seen. And this is the secret of their success. Whether you're four or 40, you want to believe that they're real."

While The Muppets may be Bobin's first full-length feature, his credentials make him the ideal man to carry on such an established entertainment institution. His previous directing role was for the TV series Flight of the Conchords, another musical comedy, while before this he worked with Sacha Baron Cohen to help devise the initial Ali G show, followed by his later incarnations, Borat and Bruno.

The intended audiences may differ (although there's enough in The Muppets to keep most grown-ups amused), but there are clear similarities between the styles. The beauty of both Ali G and Flight of the Conchords lay in characters who were blissfully unaware of their absurd nature, and it's the same with The Muppets, a collection of hilariously colourful characters going about their ridiculous business while the 21st century rolls behind them.

"It's a beacon of hope in a dark world," Bobin says with a laugh. "You watch The Muppets and you're smiling for an hour and a half, and then you go outside and the economy is in crisis."

Or so we've been led to believe - isn't that right, Fox?

 

aritman@thenational.ae