Making a feature directing debut is daunting enough. Try tackling a beloved children’s property, as well.
That’s exactly what “Flight of the Conchords” co-creator James Bobin did when he signed on to helm Disney’s relaunch of “The Muppets” for his first bigscreen outing. The film, which stars Jason Segel and Amy Adams, will introduce Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Animal — last seen at the cineplex in 1999’s “Muppets From Space” — to a new generation when it bows Nov. 23.
“It’s a little like being given a family treasure to look after because people love the Muppets so much,” says Bobin, a U.K. native who caught the attention of Hollywood as a writer and director on “Da Ali G Show.” “You obviously feel some pressure because of the weight of responsibility of working with these (iconic) puppets.”
Disney isn’t the only studio clearing off the cobwebs from dormant but timeless kids properties. Fox found box office manna when it brought back “Alvin in the Chipmunks,” which will spawn a third installment this Christmas. Similarly, Sony is already moving forward with a “Smurfs” sequel after the little blue creatures took in $135 million worldwide in their first 12 days.
The latest “Muppets” incarnation enjoyed a typical studio start. In 2008, Disney executive Kristin Burr asked Segel, who was branching into writing, if there were any Disney properties that sparked his interest. Segel, a Muppets fanatic, wondered about the status of the characters created by Jim Henson in the 1950s and bought by Disney in 2004. Though there was a “Muppets” script floating around in Disney’s development arena, Burr gave Segel the go-ahead to pen a screenplay with his “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” cohort Nick Stoller.
“He called me on the drive home and said, ‘Do you want to write a Muppets movie with me?’ and I said, ‘Of course,’ ” recalls Stoller, who counts the Muppets among his comedic inspirations. “We figured out all of the big story beats on that call. We knew that in order to relaunch it, we had to address where the Muppets have been.”
Fozzie joined a Reno casino tribute band called the Moopets, Miss Piggy became a plus-size fashion editor at Vogue Paris, Animal entered a Santa Barbara clinic for anger management and Gonzo segued to a career as a high-powered plumbing magnate.
Stoller and Segel’s take didn’t catch fire until Rich Ross took Disney’s reins in 2009 and put “The Muppets” on the fast track, confident that the family-friendly film could be exploited across the studio’s many platforms. Nevertheless, the property, which had always made heavy use of songs, needed a helmer adept at both comedy and musicals. Enter Bobin, whose HBO comedy “Flight of the Conchords” became a critical darling and Emmy nominee thanks to its unusual blend of song and story.
“(Bobin) really understands how musicals work,” Stoller says. “A lot of his notes were about shifting the storytelling (to serve the music).”
For Bobin, who passed on Universal’s “Bridesmaids” in order to direct “The Muppets,” there’s nothing worse than a forced transition into song. “It’s all about making a song feel natural and as organic as possible so it doesn’t wind up as an inadvertent joke,” he says.
Bobin — who directed TV for Britain’s Channel 4 before teaming with Sacha Baron Cohen to flesh out Cohen’s alter egos, Ali G and Borat — brought in “Conchords” star and composer Bret McKenzie. He also enlisted fellow countrymen like Ricky Gervais to fill out the celebrity cameo lineup in an effort to infuse some “Englishness” into the property (the TV show was lensed in the U.K. from 1976-81).
What’s a director like Bobin, associated with edgy, sometimes sexually explicit comedies, doing in G-rated territory? “In many ways, contemporary comedy these days is moving toward what the Muppets once was,” says Bobin, noting that his comedic sensibility changed after becoming a parent in the years since “Ali G.”
“It’s not cynical comedy. It’s comedy with heart. Comedy can be very generous and warm. ‘Conchords’ is very innocent and sweet and also funny. You don’t have to be mean to be funny. I think the Muppets have always been charming, with their old-style jokes and puns.”