The Muppets are back… again! Just a few years after their 2011 comeback film Kermit and the gang are singing and dancing their way back into theatres with Muppets Most Wanted.
Director James Bobin is at the helm once again, working with frequent collaborator and Oscar-winning songwriter Bret McKenzie, as well as a number of familiar faces both in front of the camera and behind it, not to mention crouching just below frame. We recently had a chance to sit and chat with James and Bret, producer Todd Lieberman, and the newest addition to the Muppets gang, Constantine.
For Muppets fans (and those too young to know that they ought to be Muppets fans), The Muppets deliver a peculiar kind of joy that, in hindsight, seems rather unbelievable. While the Muppets as a cast of characters are hardly new, musical comedy isn’t exactly modern film’s most popular genre, and before the 2011 film, it had been years since the Muppets had been on the big screen. But The Muppets brushed that notion aside and went decidedly old-school, belting out earnest, self-aware, and–most importantly–hilarious songs that called out audiences for forgetting just how badly the movies need the Muppets. The combination of nostalgia and humor hit home with audiences, and so, naturally, the studio ordered a sequel. The Muppets asked for our attention and they got it. So what next? If you’re the Muppets, you write a song called “We’re Doing a Sequel,” and you do just that!
“It felt like a natural progression to do this story, which is based on the question I had of myself, which is what to do next,” James told us. “Fozzie says in the beginning, ‘What are we going to do?’ And I thought that was a very good way of addressing it. Obviously, sequels have a reputation; they’re difficult. They’re hard because people have expectations and they have a different sense of what it should be and what it shouldn’t be. So I thought, rather than just hiding from that question, face it full on. Because you’re the Muppets, and you’re allowed to do that, so we did. And I think it really works.”
See for yourself in the opening scene of the film, including the song “We’re Doing a Sequel”:
When we asked about directing The Muppets, James told us that “there was a certain weight of responsibility on the last one of explaining who the Muppets were. Even though they’ve been doing stuff, it wasn’t as much in the public eye. My daughter, for example, is five, and didn’t know who the Muppets were when I first started working with them, which I thought was a travesty.”
“It’s honestly quite an honor,” Todd added. “I knew going into our first film, The Muppets, that there was a responsibility to uphold the traditions, but I didn’t realize how great of a responsibility that was until the movie came out and everybody started writing about it.” The Muppets had become one of the year’s best reviewed films, and the creative team felt a lot of pride for doing right by Kermit and company. “The fact that I loved these movies and these characters and this show as a kid, and it affected me in the same way it affected lots and lots of people,” added Todd. “The goal of The Muppets was to reintroduce this group of characters to a new generation who might not have been as familiar with them as we were when we were growing up, and that goal seemed to be accomplished. It gave us the freedom, in this film, to go a little wackier, go a little crazier, and have a little more fun. Without also losing that sense of sentiment, that sense of heart, that sense of emotion that was really strong in the first film. And so hopefully we’ve found both of those things together. Hopefully, when people see this they’re going to see that we had an enormous amount of fun making the film. There’s a lot of joy and yet, in some of the songs especially, there are some real emotional moments too.”
“I was excited to get to work on it again because I had a lot of fun last time,” Bret told us. “In some ways it’s a dream job for me because I love writing songs and I love comedy and I love the mixture of those two elements and that really is exactly what the Muppets is. There aren’t many musicals, and there aren’t many comedy musicals, so it’s great for me. Looking back at Disney, they have a great history of musicals, obviously. The Sherman Brothers are huge heroes of mine, in terms of how I grew up with those songs and I still love them. I’ve recently been listening to The Jungle Book and watching Mary Poppins and those songs are full of comedy and heart as well. It’s that combo that I strive to get in my work.”
“The first film was very nostalgic and sweet,” Bret continued. “Hopefully, the audience knows the characters now. This film was more of a caper–more of an adventure–and the songs are a little more tongue-in-cheek than last time. They’re a little more self-aware, and that’s one of the great things about the Muppets. The Muppets can talk about how they’re making a movie within a movie, which is pretty unusual. Most movies can’t do that. The opening song, “We’re doing a Sequel,” which is a big, almost Busby Berkeley type number, is the Muppets talking about how they’re doing a sequel and they’re not as good as the original movie–I really liked how that came together.”
When asked how soon after The Muppets James began working on Muppets Most Wanted, he let us in on a little secret: he had actually gotten started on the second film before the first was completely finished. “I’m pretty sure we were talking about it as I was in post [production] for the last one, or possibly whilst doing press for the last one. Certainly, there was an overlap, because I never really got out of the world. I’ve been in Muppet land for four years, which is fine! No problem for me.” The idea that stuck was to look back into the past for guidance on the future. “Historically, the caper movie was the second one, and I liked that movie. You don’t want to do the same movie twice, but it’s a good indicator of the sort of film you could make: a kind of adventure-caper-crime film with songs and comedy. I thought that was a very natural step and therefore the movie became a combination of all those ideas. We had an idea about a big diamond, we had an idea about a bad Kermit, we had an idea about a world tour, and those things just came together in this movie.”
The “bad Kermit” James referred to is Constantine, a Kermit look-alike who uses his famous face to deceive the Muppets (and almost everyone else) as part of the kind of evil plot that you can be pretty sure isn’t going to ultimately succeed, but will be fodder for plenty of laughs. “To be fair, I do not feel that there is a resemblance between myself and Kermit Frog. I do not see it,” Constantine told us, speaking with his signature thick, decidedly not-Kermit-like, Eastern-European accent. During our chat, Constantine came to the realization that perhaps a film career might put a damper on any future criminal activities beyond what he gets up to in Muppets Most Wanted. “I am afraid that I have made bad choice here for now I cannot do evil plotting. People will see who I am and then authorities will be notified and now I am a face that they recognize and aaagghh, it is problem! I should’ve thought of this like year ago. But I did not.” Still, he remained high on the film, citing its many virtues. “There is lots of musics. Lots of singing and dancing and chickens and punching and kicking and plotting and there is nice heists. There is good helicopter sequence. I get to smack Kermit Frog, which is fun. What else? Eh… relationship with Pig, ugh, I would like to avoid this. But I am not director of film or editor.”
Since James mentioned working on Muppets Most Wanted while doing press for The Muppets, we had to ask, is he thinking about the next Muppets film? Avoiding saying too much, he answered our question with a question of his own. “You’d think so, wouldn’t you? When you write, you always think about what you’re going to do next. And the characters are so fantastic, and there’s so much you can do with them, whenever it ends you’re always thinking ‘Oh, what are they doing tomorrow?’ That world, to me, really exists. I’m always thinking about what Kermit is doing. I feel like I know Kermit, and I know [puppeteer] Steve Whitmire, and they’re two different people. So I often ask, ‘What’s Steve doing?’ And I’ll get an answer. And then ‘What’s Kermit doing, where he lives?’ It’s such a funny idea, in my head, that I know Kermit.”
Find out for yourself what Kermit is doing when Muppets Most Wanted opens on Friday, March 21, 2014.