A new muppet movie is on the way

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John F
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Joined: Mon Mar 26, 2007 4:41 am
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A new muppet movie is on the way

Post by John F » Sun Nov 20, 2011 1:51 am


November 16, 2011
Wocka, Wocka, Wocka! Muppet Antics Resume

LOS ANGELES - Disney didn’t become the world’s largest entertainment company by guessing what people want. Sure, it trusts its creative instincts. But the Magic Kingdom also employs squadrons of black-ops researchers to poke, prod and pry. What psychological hooks should be built into a children’s television show? What colors are most likely to move princess dolls off store shelves?

So imagine how Disney reacted when the time came to create a new Muppet as part of a big-screen, last-ditch effort to resuscitate the 1970s-era TV franchise. One of the producers of its new film “The Muppets,” David Hoberman, who is also a past president of Walt Disney Studios, could easily envision the company delivering an 18-wheeler full of market research with conclusions like: must be cute and fuzzy (to interest moms), spunky and skateboard toting (to hook boys) and square shaped (for easy stacking in toy store displays).

It didn’t happen. Disney — Mr. Hoberman and other members of the movie’s senior creative team said, speaking in separate interviews — was remarkably hands off about Walter, the Muppet at the center of that new film. The studio’s instructions: “Just make a good movie,” Mr. Hoberman said. “It’s pretty amazing that teams of people from consumer products didn’t descend. If they had, God knows where we would have landed.”

Nicholas Stoller, who helped write the screenplay for “The Muppets,” backed him up. “There was shockingly little interference,” Mr. Stoller said. “It turned out to be a pretty strange movie in a totally awesome way.”

Audiences will have to decide awesome for themselves, but strange is true enough. In an obsessive re-creation of the oddball antics that made “The Muppet Show” beloved to a generation of TV viewers, the new movie features dancing chickens, a rapping villain (played by Chris Cooper) and a barbershop quartet that harmonizes Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Disney thinks “The Muppets,” which opens on Wednesday and cost under $50 million to make, has blockbuster potential. But it’s anyone’s guess whether puppets can resonate in the Pixar era. (To quote one of Kermit’s catchphrases, “Don’t count your tadpoles until they’ve hatched.”)

What is certain: “The Muppets” — as underscored by how Walter came to life — is a rare example of the corporate committee getting out of its own way and letting the creative folks take the lead. (Previous efforts to revive the Muppets were built more around consumer products than compelling content.)

There were moments, of course, when Disney tried attaching synergistic baggage to “The Muppets,” said Jason Segel, who also wrote and stars in the film. “Somebody asked in one meeting, in all seriousness, what part of the script would make the best theme-park ride,” he said. But Disney executives, perhaps partly because they were distracted by a painful studio restructuring at the time, did not manhandle the film, allowing it to be weird, witty — “Muppety” in Mr. Segal’s words — and even a bit risqué (as evidenced by a close encounter between Miss Piggy’s pelvis and Jack Black’s face).

“The Muppets” also does not tiptoe around the elephant in the room, which is the dilapidated state of the entire franchise. It’s a sore point for Disney, which has struggled to figure out what to do with the family of felt misfits created by Jim Henson. Once international superstars, Henson’s Muppets have not had a major box-office hit in 32 years. The last five Muppets pictures garnered less in total domestic ticket sales than “Toy Story 3” collected in its first five days. As Kermit, contemplating a comeback in his lonely “Sunset Boulevard”-style mansion, sings in the new movie, “Would anybody watch or even care, or did something break we can’t repair?”

The film, directed by James Bobin, a movie first-timer whose TV credits include the HBO series “Flight of the Conchords,” follows a small-town couple (Amy Adams and Mr. Segel) as they bring young Walter, who doesn’t realize he’s a Muppet himself, to Los Angeles to visit Kermit’s old studio. After discovering that an evil oil tycoon is going to tear it down, Walter helps find Kermit and crew — Fozzie is cracking bad jokes in Reno, Nev.; the bespectacled Scooter works at Google — for a variety-show fund-raiser.

The film trots out Henson’s most famous creations, including Gonzo, the Swedish Chef, Animal, Beaker and those balcony blowhards, Statler and Waldorf. But Walter is very much the star. He’s a shy, squeaky-voiced little guy whose lack of self-confidence manifests itself in crumpled shoulders and long stares at the floor. But bring Walter within 500 feet of a Muppet and he lights up and starts vibrating with excitement, if he doesn’t faint first.

“We wanted a simple character who was pure innocence and pure enthusiasm as an entry point for kids who aren’t necessarily as familiar with the Muppets as their parents,” Mr. Stoller said. For his part Mr. Segel — known for his full-frontal moment in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and for his lovesick goofball in the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” — explained Walter like this: “He’s a stand-in for me, a hard-core Muppet superfan who wants to know what the hell happened to them.”..

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/movie ... w-era.html
John Francis

John F
Posts: 19972
Joined: Mon Mar 26, 2007 4:41 am
Location: Brooklyn, NY

Re: A new muppet movie is on the way

Post by John F » Sun Nov 20, 2011 2:43 am

On Composing for Kermit the Frog

Published: November 17, 2011

Before we get to the Flight of the Conchords or the tricky art of writing funny songs for beloved puppets to sing, we need to talk about Figwit. Because should you enter “Bret McKen­zie” into Google, you’ll find that the first suggested search is not, say, “Bret McKenzie Conchords” or even “Bret McKenzie Muppets” but “Bret McKenzie Lord of the Rings.” Intrigued, you will investigate further. And you will learn that McKenzie, a native New Zealander, had a three-second role as a nameless elf in “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001. (His father, Peter McKenzie, is a part-time actor who played a larger role in the film, as the human Elendil.)

Furthermore, a sharp-eyed Israeli woman spotted the then-not-famous McKenzie and, smitten by his elfin beauty, dubbed him Figwit. (It’s an acronym for Frodo Is Great . . . Who Is That?!?? which she claims is a more or less accurate transcription of her original reaction to seeing the elf.) This woman then established a Web site, Figwitlives.net, dedicated to all things Figwittian. There were local news stories. There were roving bands of Tolkienites that trailed McKenzie to Conchords shows. There was even a tongue-in-cheek documentary created in part by McKenzie’s girlfriend (now his wife), Hannah Clarke, which contains this quote from Ian McKellen when asked about Figwit: “I do remember there were some very attractive young girls. Which one was he?” McKenzie explains the Figwit phenomenon like this: “My brother was also an extra. Basically all tall and skinny New Zealanders were elves in the film.”

McKenzie is now much better known, of course, as one half of the Flight of the Conchords, a musical-comedy group he’s in with Jemaine Clement. (During a recent effort by this reporter to distinguish McKenzie from Clement to a relatively random selection of people, McKenzie was described as “the cute one,” which touched off a Hatfield-versus-McCoy-style feud.) The Conchords were the stars of a self-titled HBO series from 2007 to 2009, which followed McKenzie and Clement, playing even-further-slackerized versions of themselves, as they ambled about the Lower East Side, failing, looking for musical gigs, failing some more, and every so often bursting into song. Which, come to think of it, McKenzie says now, is not so different from how the Muppets operate. “Conchords is definitely very Muppety,” he says. “It’s like a mixture of the Muppets and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ ”

So it makes sense that McKenzie should apply his rare talents to a sacred and definitely more daunting Muppets-related endeavor; he has written three songs for the forthcoming movie “The Muppets.” It’s a sacred endeavor because, to a certain generation, of which McKen­zie is part (he is 35), the Muppets are a found­ational part of childhood; writing a song for Kermit is a bit like writing a song for a blankie that millions of children shared. And it’s daunting because, well, these are the Muppets, and the Muppets have rules. And as of 2004, the Muppets, as a property, are owned by Disney. And Disney has rules.

For example: At one point, McKenzie wrote a lyrical joke for Kermit, in which he would sing, “I remember when I was just a little piece of felt.” That didn’t fly. “I was told: ‘You’re not allowed to do that. The Muppets have always existed. You can’t break down their world.’ ” Another rule: Frogs and bears and pigs can talk, but penguins and chickens can’t. They can cluck or squawk musically, but they can’t say words. “So I was like, ‘Can we get the penguins to sing?’ And they’d say: ‘No. Penguins don’t sing.’ ”

McKenzie got involved with the film when James Bobin, who co-created the Conchords’ HBO show, signed on to direct “The Muppets” and encouraged McKenzie to submit a demo. One song McKenzie wrote, “Life’s a Happy Song,” became the de facto anthem for the movie. It’s a light, bouncy, expertly calibrated number that’s fun without being sharp, witty but with no taint of irony. He contributed two other songs: “Me Party” and “Man or Muppet?” which is an angsty ballad that has a bit more of the Conchords’ deadpan flavor. (An ’80s-style sax solo would not be out of place.)

While he worked on the songs, McKenzie tried not to fret too much over the impressive history of Muppet movie music, which includes several iconic hits, not least being “Rainbow Connection.” When I mentioned that song, McKenzie laughed. “So many people would say to me: ‘You’re doing music for the Muppets? Hmmm. Well, you’re not going to write anything as good as ‘Rainbow Connection.’ And I’d say: ‘Yep. You’re right.’”

There was also the problem of writing a song for a man who sounds like a pig. The Muppets, it turns out, may be infinitely adorable, but they have very limited vocal range. “If Miss Piggy goes too high,” McKenzie says, “she sounds like a mouse. And if she goes too low, she sounds like a dude.” This, in part, is because (children, stop reading now!) Miss Piggy is a dude: Eric Jacobson. And when they recorded the songs for the film, it’s not as if it was Miss Piggy ambling up to the microphone. Instead, McKenzie encountered the slightly odd sight of a regular-looking man channeling a very familiar voice. “It’s a funny environment in the studio,” McKen­zie says. “You’re like, ‘Can you try doing it a little higher?’ And you’ve got this guy in there doing this bizarre voice. Then, in between takes, he still talks to you as Piggy. Because he doesn’t want to break character.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/magaz ... ppets.html
John Francis

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