x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Puppet masters: The Muppets return

Jason Segel explains why he wanted to bring The Muppets back for a new generation of children - and adults - to enjoy.

Jason Segel and Amy Adams as Gary and Mary in The Muppets. Patrick Wymore  / Disney Enterprises
Jason Segel and Amy Adams as Gary and Mary in The Muppets. Patrick Wymore / Disney Enterprises

Jason Segel explains why he wanted to bring The Muppets back for a new generation of children - and adults - to enjoy

Jason Segel was balancing a bowling pin on top of his head.

The jolly actor-screenwriter perched on the stage of a makeshift Muppet Theater that has been erected inside a mammoth Universal Studios soundstage in Universal City, California. He was grimacing nervously while the furry blue daredevil Gonzo the Great wound up his arm in preparation to launch a bowling ball toward Segel for a stunt the pair were filming for The Muppets.

Segel, who co-wrote the movie with the Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller, is balancing more than just a bowling pin on his head these days. The Walt Disney Co, which acquired The Muppets franchise from The Jim Henson Co in 2004, entrusted him with the first big-screen adventure starring the felt-covered performance troupe in 12 years.

The effort, which seems to be proving a slow-burn box-office success in the US, will see its UAE premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival at a red carpet event on Friday afternoon.

"I think at some point, The Muppets changed a little bit," said Segal during a break from filming earlier this year. "Our goal with this movie is to reintroduce The Muppets to kids in a way that is reminiscent of the movies from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The great thing about those movies and what Pixar does now is they don't pander or condescend to children."

Segel, a hard-core Muppets fan best known for his roles in such movies as Knocked Up and I Love You, Man, petitioned Disney brass to resurrect The Muppets with Stoller in a way that would appeal to both nostalgic adults who grew up watching The Muppet Show and children more familiar with computer-generated 3D animation than big-eyed puppets.

In the film, Segel and Amy Adams play the small-town couple Gary and Mary who, along with Gary's puppet brother Walter (portrayed by Peter Linz), work to reunite The Muppets. It seems the felt ones have found themselves irrelevant in an entertainment landscape dominated by over-the-top fictitious game shows such as Punch Teacher.

The musical's storyline mirrors The Muppets' own reality. They have not starred in a film together since the 2005 made-for-TV movie The Muppets' Wizard of Oz and have been absent from cinemas since 1999's The Muppets in Space.

"It's funny that the success of the movie might undo the story itself," said the director James Bobin. "That's what actually drew me to the story. I was struck by how honest it was and with real artistic licence, portrayed how people perceive The Muppets at this time. One of the great emotional drives in any story is getting the band back together." The new movie finds The Muppets off doing their own thing: Fozzie Bear is languishing in a tribute band called The Moopets, Miss Piggy is sashaying around Paris as a fashion editor, Animal is treating his anger management issues at rehab, Dr Teeth and The Electric Mayhem are performing in the New York subway and Scooter is working at Google.

The filmmakers, most of whom have never worked with puppets, let alone The Muppets, closely collaborated with the puppeteers who have been manipulating these characters for years. One particular meeting with them led Segel and Stoller to axe any self-referential jokes and puns about The Muppets being puppets. "I wonder how that felt", for example, was a goner.

"We're all partners on this movie," said the producer Todd Lieberman. "We grew up on The Muppets, but these guys have been living it for 20 years. They know these characters better than any of us possibly could because they've been doing it for 20 years. They know the characters, and they know the style. They know what to do and what not to do for the brand."

Adams, who ran the awards show gauntlet this year for her role in The Fighter, found it more difficult to switch between flashy gowns at night and Mary's conservative ensembles by day during production than working with puppets. She said acting opposite puppets such as Walter was not any more difficult than working opposite actors such as Mark Wahlberg.

"Once you accept that the puppet that you're working with is an actual character, it really is no different from working with another human actor," said Adams. "The puppeteers are geniuses at disappearing. I don't know how they do it, but they do it. I see Peter and Walter as two completely separate beings. Peter is Peter, and Walter is Walter."

The immersive set design helped, too. For the new Muppet Theater, which is supposed to look like it is abandoned until The Muppets give it a makeover, the production designer Steve Saklad and his team incorporated the towering theatre set built in 1924 for ThePhantom of the Opera, which is still standing inside a soundstage on the Universal Studios backlot.

"We were originally going to shoot the parts of the Muppet Theater scenes that face the audience in a historic downtown Los Angeles theatre, but it would have been limiting for the director to split everything up," said Saklad. "I think it worked out for the best because now we've got this huge, luscious theatre covered in a thousand coats of paint."

Saklad said the new Muppet Theater set was put in storage after production on The Muppets, just in case it's required for a sequel, and he is hoping that no one paints over the Phantom of the Opera walls. However, the prospect of The Muppets as a rejuvenated franchise featuring Segel is one he cannot seem to fathom.

"That would certainly be amazing," Segel said, sheepishly.

"It's not something I'm even thinking about right now. I'm still focused on this movie. My big goal was just to re-establish The Muppets where they belonged. From there, everything else is gravy. I just wanted to see The Muppets again the way I remembered them."

The Muppets is showing at the Madinat Arena at 3pm tomorrow

* Derrick J Lang, AP

artslife@thenational.ae