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Published: Tuesday, 4/12/2011

Muppets set for comeback

NEW YORK TIMES
The gang's all here, along with a character named Walter, for a film that hopes to return Kermit and his Muppet pals to the irreverent humor and nonsensical plots that made them a hit in the first place. The gang's all here, along with a character named Walter, for a film that hopes to return Kermit and his Muppet pals to the irreverent humor and nonsensical plots that made them a hit in the first place.
NEW YORK TIMES Enlarge

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. -- 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 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 -- 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 pictures together had less in total domestic ticket sales than Toy Story 3 collected in its first five days.

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 Co., and a TV series died in the planning stages.

Todd Lieberman, left, and David Hoberman are producing the new Muppet movie that's scheduled for a Thanksgiving release. Todd Lieberman, left, and David Hoberman are producing the new Muppet movie that's scheduled for a Thanksgiving release.
NEW YORK TIMES Enlarge

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.

No one is talking of tie-in theme park rides, TV specials, or related merchandise, or a companywide franchise.

It all boils down to making a hit movie.

Scheduled for release at Thanksgiving, The Muppets hopes to reboot the property by doubling down on signature attributes: irreverent, even biting humor; catchy song-and-dance numbers, and unexpected story- lines that can ricochet from dancing chickens to stand-up comedians to pigs in space.

"You have to walk a careful line between respectful and reverential," Leslie B. Stern, a Disney stalwart given oversight for rejuvenating the Muppets, said. "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, people behind the new film say. Flops like The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island put them into classic tales, losing the verve that came from the TV series and first movie.

By Mr. Henson's design, the Muppets live in the real world, believe they are alive, and -- this is a biggie -- play to adult audiences.

"People started to forget that the Muppets were never designed as children's entertainment," Todd Lieberman, a producer of the new film, said.

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, who come from R-rated comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, wrote the screenplay.

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 hunt for the famous Muppet Studios.

They find the place "rundown and for the most part abandoned," Mr. Lieberman said. But Kermit & Co. fix that by reuniting the gang, Blues Brothers-style, for a variety show fund-raiser to save the studio from villain Tex Richman, played by Chris Cooper.



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