Kermit as Mogul, Farting Fozzie Bear: How Disney's Muppets Movie Has Purists Rattled

2:04 PM PST 10/20/2011 by Kim Masters
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Scott Garfield/Disney
Kermit the Frog and Wanda Sykes in "The Muppets"

Some of the old guard wonder whether screenwriter and star Jason Segel has a true grasp of the characters they helped create.

The Muppets involves a new character, Walter, who is on vacation in Los Angeles with his friends from Smalltown, U.S.A. (Segel and Adams). After they discover a Texas oilman's plot to raze the Muppet Theater, they reunite the Muppets, who have broken up. Fozzie is playing with a tribute band in Nevada, Miss Piggy has been working at Vogue Paris, and Gonzo is a plumbing magnate.

The concern among Muppets insiders is that Segel and director James Bobin (a writer on Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Conchords) didn't have a complete understanding of the Muppets characters or were willing to sacrifice the characters' integrity to land a joke. "They're looking at the script on a joke-by-joke basis, rather than as a construction of character and story," says one.

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A small example is in one of the many trailers Disney has released, when Fozzie makes a fart joke. "We wouldn't do that; it's too cheap," says another Muppets veteran. "It may not seem like much in this world of [Judd] Apatow humor, but the characters don't go to that place."

There is a list of similar concerns: Kermit would never live in a mansion, as he does in this movie. The Muppets, depicted in the script as jealous of Kermit's wealth, would not have broken up in bitterness. The script "creates a false history that the characters were forced to act out for the sake of this movie," says an old Muppets hand.

 "I'm very hopeful the characters are as warm and loving to each other as they were when Jim was directing," says Bonnie Erickson, executive director of the Jim Henson Legacy, dedicated to keeping his work in the public eye. Erickson, who designed and built the original Miss Piggy, says she's "very excited" that Disney is putting so much energy into bringing the Muppets back but acknowledges that she's nervous. "I'm hoping the standard of excellence that Jim set is maintained," she says.

Frank Oz, the most famous living Muppets performer -- known best as Miss Piggy -- spoke more harshly in a recent interview with the British paper Metro. "I wasn't happy with the script," he said bluntly. "I don't think they respected the characters. But I don't want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie."

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The irony is that Segel wanted to make the film because he is such a passionate Muppets fan. Even the old guard acknowledges that Segel wants to do right by the Muppets, but many feel the pervasive attitude on the film was dismissive of those who originated the characters.

Disney and Segel's reps declined comment on issues raised by Muppets insiders. A source involved with the production says he is aware that some of the Muppets performers had concerns but believes those were largely allayed as they saw the passion of Segel and others involved in the movie. "Maybe they were saying things behind our backs," he acknowledges. "But to our faces, they seem happy."

The tension involved in reviving the faded Muppets franchise is one that should have familiar echoes at Disney. After the death of Walt Disney in 1966, executives at the company became so engrossed in wondering "What would Walt do?" that Disney became almost paralyzed. In the case of the Muppets, the tendency to enshrine the creator might be magnified by the fact that the bearded Henson died so young and unexpectedly at 53.

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