The fuzzy, felty, fabulous return of the Muppets

How did a 1970s TV puppet show end up on the Oscar shortlists?

Three years ago, following the double-whammy of Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the writer and actor Jason Segel found himself elevated to the status of Bright Young Thing.

He was duly invited to a "development meeting" by some senior suits at Disney who asked if there were any dormant "assets" from their back catalogue in which Segel might be interested. He didn't have to think long to come up with an answer: the Muppets.

The end product of this fruitful discussion has been garnering rave reviews. Segel's all-new Muppet movie, co-starring Amy Adams and a lot of creatures made largely from felt, is a smart, joyous, and often extremely funny addition to the oeuvre of Kermit the Frog and friends.

It was made for $45m, has already banked almost three times that amount, and is nominated for an Oscar thanks to sublime musical interludes by Bret McKenzie, of Flight of the Conchords. And it deserves the success: Rotten Tomatoes, the influential website which ranks movies according to critical acclaim, has declared it the best studio movie of 2011.

High praise indeed. But the re-emergence of Kermit and Miss Piggy also begs a question: what, exactly, keeps the Muppets fresh and funny, after all these years? How can a franchise that's been mothballed since 1999's Muppets in Space be hot again? And in the era of CGI, why are puppets still the stuff of a box-office hit?

Segel is hardly alone in believing in the timelessness of the Muppets. The new film features enthusiastic cameos from a slew of modish comic stars (including Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, and Zach Galifianakis). They are, in a way, paying tribute to an institution which shaped their craft.

To understand why requires a minor history lesson. The Muppets were created by Jim Henson, the man behind Sesame Street. His original TV show was made in the UK between 1975 and 1981 (after being rejected by US networks), meaning that the American writers were thrown out of their comfort zone into a Britain in the midst of a comedy revolution.

"I can't help but think that when those guys wrote the Muppet show in the 70s, they used to go home at the end of a day's work and watch The Goodies, or Monty Python," says James Bobin, the new film's British director. "If you watch it now, it's way more surreal than any American show at the time. It's a post-Python 70s show."

If the timing was right, so was the product. The Muppet world revolves around highly stylised characters, who manifest human emotions and adhere to strict, but artificial rules of behaviour. Similar conceits underpin The Simpsons, or Family Guy. These days, it's a well-worn technique. Back then, it was revolutionary.

Like those shows, Muppets speak to both children and adults. "Henson never wrote down to kids; he wrote up to adults," is how Bobin puts it. His work was full of "meta" conceits; characters would occasionally break the fourth wall. "As a kid one of the reasons you enjoy it is because of a sense that there's something you don't understand."

The Muppets retain the power to spark deep feelings. The movie is currently at the centre of heated viral controversy in the US, after a Fox commentator claimed that its villain, an oil baron called Tex Richman, promotes a left-wing agenda to children.

Bobin says that "to take that message from the film is an extraordinary way to look at the world," adding that the TV series Dallas,also features an oil magnate as its baddie, yet was never accused of promoting socialism. Politicising the Muppets: "makes me really sad." Like so many people who work in comedy, Bobin regards them as part of his soul.

'The Muppets' is on general release

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk