Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Muppets not entirely warm and fuzzy

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Beverly HILLS, Calif. -- At a press conference for Muppets Most Wanted at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, a question comes up about a dream sequence that imagines Miss Piggy and Kermit the frog finally tying the knot and having children.

Ricky Gervais, who plays a bad guy named Dominic Badguy in the film, cheekily asks Kermit why their speculative offspring are cute little frogs and pigs but not...

"An abomination?" volunteers Tina Fey, sitting on the other side of Kermit, a canny amphibian who doesn't rise to the bait.

"We actually haven't consummated the experiment," Kermit says.

For a movie featuring lots of singing, dancing puppets, the humour at the press conference can be a little raw, with Gervais even dropping an F-bomb at one point when asked about critics. A generation or two ago, Disney publicists would have been rushing Gervais out the door. Today... not so much.

That's the way it is with the Muppets, though. They've always walked/waddled/hopped along that fine line between children's entertainment and more adult sensibilities. Just look at the podiums, with Kermit and Miss Piggy sitting alongside Fey and Gervais, two erstwhile Golden Globes hosts who redeemed the award show with their edgy humour.

At another podium sit director James Bobin and songwriter Bret McKenzie, both creators of the not-really-for-kids cable series Flight of the Conchords. Bobin, as director, and McKenzie as music supervisor and songwriter, easily made the transition to Muppet World with the 2011 reboot The Muppets, which starred Jason Segal and Amy Adams, and return for the sequel.

Muppets Most Wanted sees Kermit fall prey to look-alike/criminal mastermind Constantine, who takes Kermit's place on a Muppet world tour while the real Kermit is consigned to a Russian gulag under the command of the ruthless Nadya (Fey), an unlikely musical theatre fan-girl. It falls on super-patriot Sam Eagle to partner up with French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napolean (Ty Burrell) to uncover the deception, as they track Constantine's crime spree across Europe.

On screen, the Muppets remain kid-friendly, even if the jokes may hearken back to the era of Vaudeville.

"Kids that are eight, nine and 10 take a lot of pride in getting the jokes," says Fey, who has two children of her own. "It makes them feel big."

"It doesn't patronize to them," Gervais says. "It aims higher. I remember when I was a kid watching the Muppets, I had older brothers and sisters and they were laughing, and so I sort of knew it was cool."

A few notable facts from the press conference: -- Kermit chose not to play both himself and Constantine in the film.

"It didn't make sense for me to play Constantine because we do have a few scenes together, and I don't really work on green screen," Kermit says.

-- Constantine has ambitions beyond the Muppet franchise.

"I am actually thinking about doing some Netflix original programming," he says in his thick Russian accent. "I will call it House of Toads. I will executive-produce and show-run. So let's take meeting, yes?"

-- Miss Piggy got to work with Céline Dion, although she sees it the other way around.

"It was a joy for her, naturally," Miss Piggy says. "I'm only too happy to let her ride my coattails up to the Oscar stage."

-- It helps, when writing songs for the Muppets, if you can impersonate them reasonably well.

McKenzie demonstrates he can do a very good Miss Piggy during the press conference. The CD soundtrack for the film has five demo tracks of McKenzie singing Muppet parts. "Some of them you can't even tell," says producer Todd Lieberman of McKenzie's Muppet impressions.

"The Muppets can tell," McKenzie says. "They're horrified."

Muppets Most Wanted opens in theatres on Friday.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 G3

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