In this photo provided by Disney Enterprises

In this photo provided by Disney Enterprises

The Muppets stage a comeback

Jason Segel is balancing a bowling pin atop his noggin.

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Jason Segel is balancing a bowling pin atop his noggin.

The jolly actor-screenwriter is perched on the stage of a makeshift Muppet Theater that’s been erected inside a mammoth Universal Studios soundstage.

He’s nervously grimacing while the furry blue daredevil Gonzo the Great winds his arm up in preparation to launch a bowling ball toward Segel for a stunt the pair are filming for The Muppets.

Segel, who co-wrote the movie with 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, has entrusted him with the first big-screen adventure starring the felt-covered performance troupe in 12 years.

“I think at some point, The Muppets changed a little bit,” said Segel during a break from filming earlier this year. “Our goal with this movie is to reintroduce The Muppets to kids in a way that’s reminiscent of the movies from the late ’70s and early ’80s. The great thing about those movies and what Pixar does now is they don’t pander or condescend to children.”

Segel, a hardcore Muppet fan best known for his R-rated 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 3-D animation than big-eyed puppets.

In the film, out Wednesday, Segel and Amy Adams play a small-town couple named 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 such over-the-top fictional game shows as Punch Teacher.

The musical’s story line mirrors The Muppets’ own reality. They haven’t starred in a film together since the 2005 made-for-TV movie The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz and have been absent from theatres since 1999’s The Muppets in Space.

“It’s funny that the success of the movie might undo the story itself,” said director James Bobin.

“That’s what actually drew me to the story. I was struck by how honest it was and with real artistic license 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 portraying 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 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 award show gauntlet earlier 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 like Walter wasn’t any more difficult than working opposite actors like 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 that’s supposed to look like it’s abandoned until The Muppets give it a makeover, production designer Steve Saklad and his team incorporated the towering theatre set built in 1924 for Phantom 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’ve 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’s 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 the actor-screenwriter can’t seem to fathom.

“That would certainly be amazing,” said Segel 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.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The future of Westerner Park continues to be plagued by many unknowns, including when city council will make a decision about financing its operations. (File photo by Advocate staff).
Red Deer city council delays making decision on Westerner Park financing

It will mean missing the next opportunity to apply for a provincial loan

Nineteen-year-old Amanda enjoys a ride during a visit to Spirit’s Respite Ranch near Stettler. photo submitted
Busy days at Spirit’s Respite Ranch near Stettler

The ranch, which launched operations last summer, provides support through animal interaction

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer at the announcement that the city will be getting a drug treatment court Thursday. Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, looks on.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Veer concerned about rising COVID-19 cases in Red Deer

The City of Red Deer is reminding citizens to protect themselves against… Continue reading

Rode
Volunteering played major role in RDC awards

Under normal circumstances, the RDC Red Deer Bottling Athlete of the Year… Continue reading

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Thursday that the province has seen its first case of the B.1.617 variant. (Photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Red Deer nears record number of active COVID-19 cases

Alberta reports 1,857 new cases of COVID-19, 1,326 new variants

Curtis Labelle (second from left) and his band are planning a cross-Canada tour in 2022. Meanwhile, Labelle is continuing to host his weekly livestreamed talk show, Chattin 88. (Contributed photo).
Red Deer rock pianist takes on a talk show role

Curtis Labelle’s Chattin 88 gets views from around the globe

Toronto Maple Leafs' Nick Foligno (71) and Mitchell Marner (16) celebrate Marner's goal on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Laurent Brossoit (30) during second-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Thursday, April 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Leafs end five-game winless skid with 5-3 win over Jets in North Division battle

Leafs end five-game winless skid with 5-3 win over Jets in North Division battle

Taylor Pendrith from Richmond Hill, Ont. salutes the crowd after sinking a birdie on the 18th hole to come in at five under par during first round of play at the Canadian Open golf championship Thursday, July 24, 2014 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
PGA Tour Canada splits into Canadian, American circuits for 20201

PGA Tour Canada splits into Canadian, American circuits for 20201

Like father, like son: Floreal emerges as one of Canada’s top sprinters

Like father, like son: Floreal emerges as one of Canada’s top sprinters

Toronto Blue Jays center fielder George Springer (4) walks on the field during a team workout, Wednesday, March 31, 2021, at Yankee Stadium in New York. The Blue Jays face the New York Yankees on opening day Thursday in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Injured Jays OF Springer to play in intrasquad game Friday

Injured Jays OF Springer to play in intrasquad game Friday

Toronto Raptors' Khem Birch (24) defends against Brooklyn Nets' Blake Griffin during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
Raptors ride strong 3rd quarter to 114-103 win over Nets

Raptors ride strong 3rd quarter to 114-103 win over Nets

Team Canada's Jocelyne Larocque celebrates her goal past the U.S.A. with goaltender Embrace Maschmeyer during first period of Women's Rivalry Series hockey action in Vancouver, Wednesday, February 5, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Stunned Canadian players head home after women’s world hockey cancellation

Stunned Canadian players head home after women’s world hockey cancellation

Health Minister Patty Hajdu is shown at a COVID-19 press conference in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Kawai
Health Canada proposes new restrictions on talc in some personal care products

Health Canada proposes new restrictions on talc in some personal care products

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady passes under pressure from Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Alex Okafor during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 55 football game, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. Lawmakers are debating legislation to legalize single-event betting as a bill reaches final reading in the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mark Humphrey
Bill on single-game sports betting on cusp of passing — but not for first time

Bill on single-game sports betting on cusp of passing — but not for first time

Most Read