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
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
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.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor