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‘Muppets’ return to the big screen

'Conchords' helmer navigates G-rated territory

Making a feature directing debut is daunting enough. Try tackling a beloved children’s property, too.

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,” explains 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 its 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 invited Segel to the Burbank lot and asked the thesp, who was branching into writing, if there were any Disney properties that sparked his interest. Segel, a Muppets fanatic, asked 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 Disney’s development coffers, Burr gave Segel the go-ahead to pen a screenplay with his “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” cohort Nick Stoller. (At the time, the pair were in postproduction on the Stoller-helmed Segel vehicle that they wrote together.)

“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 myriad TV and film incarnations of the Muppets among his comedic inspirations. “We figured out all of the big story beats on that call. We knew we 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.

Despite Burr’s enthusiasm, 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 known for launching such tunes as Kermit’s Oscar-nominated ballad “The Rainbow Connection,” needed a helmer adept at both comedy and musical genres. Enter Bobin, whose HBO comedy “Flight of the Conchords” became a critical darling and Emmy nominee thanks to its unusual blend of story and song.

“(Bobin) really understands how musicals work in a profound way,” notes Stoller, who befriended Bobin years ago when the director showed interest in one of Stoller’s screenplays that eventually disappeared from the Hollywood radar. “A lot of his notes to me and Jason were about shifting the storytelling” to serve the music.

For Bobin, who passed on Universal’s raunchy laffer “Bridesmaids” in order to direct “The Muppets,” there is nothing worse than a forced transition into song.

“It’s all about making a song feel natural and absolutely as organic as possible so it doesn’t wind up as an inadvertent joke when the song is starting,” notes Bobin, who began directing for TV 16 years ago for Britain’s Channel 4 before teaming with Sacha Baron Cohen to flesh out Cohen’s alter egos, Ali G and Borat. “When you watch a musical done incorrectly, there’s a horrible feel. When you get it wrong, it’s very obvious that it’s wrong.”

Bobin brought in “Conchords” star and composer Bret McKenzie, who wrote many of the film’s songs. He also enlisted fellow countrymen like Ricky Gervais to fill out the celebrity cameo lineup in an effort to infuse some “Englishness” back into the property, which lensed in the U.K. from 1976-81.

Still, what’s a director like Bobin, most associated with edgy, sometimes sexually explicit HBO 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 fathering two children 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.”

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