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Chris Cooper is passionate about purity in ‘The Muppets’

The Muppets are back in a new movie - but are they still relevant?

By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2011

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PLYMOUTH - A dozen years have passed since the Muppets last appeared on the big screen. Their founder, Jim Henson, died in 1990. Most Muppet characters, with the exception of the “Sesame Street’’ stable, were sold to Disney in 2004. All of which explains why Chris Cooper, who stars in their new movie, “The Muppets,’’ has concerns. And he’s not alone.

One fear: that the Muppets might not be ready for 2011. Or that we’ve grown up and don’t need them anymore. And then there’s the reality of our evolved techno-savvy: To pass off the shared delusion that is the Muppets - to make a new generation of fans believe in a world where googly-eyed cloth puppets and humans overlap - would require a CGI Kermit interacting with a motion-capture Fozzie.

“I know there are some Muppets purists who have some concerns,’’ said Cooper, who plays the film’s dastardly arch nemesis Tex Richman. “But I think I can say with some accuracy [we’ve] kept it pretty pure and not pushed the envelope.’’

“The Muppets,’’ which opens nationwide on Wednesday, is their comeback story. Fans can rejoice: Their purity - their wholesome, G-rated and pun-filled, slapstick-style comedy - remains intact. As does their low-fi, sock-puppet technology.

“These Muppets are . . .’’ Cooper said, pausing for effect over lunch near his home in Kingston. “. . . Muppets. There was no special effects. This is an old, old process going back to the late ’60s and ’70s.’’ In early rehearsals, Cooper said he first wondered how he was going to act opposite a hand shoved inside brightly colored cloth. “My imagination gets the better of me,’’ he recalled, munching on a panini, and without a trace of the smirk that dominates Tex. “On the first day of work, with all these handlers and Muppet characters, it took about a half hour [to fall for the illusion].’’ As soon as a performer put his hand in a Muppet, “he became that character,’’ Cooper said.

Ever since “Sesame Street’’ debuted in 1969, no one batted an eye when a man-on-the-street journalist wielding a microphone was actually an amphibian, a stand-up comic was a bear, or a pig could beat out “real’’ lovely ladies to be crowned a beauty queen. “The Muppet Show’’ (1976-81) further blurred that fuzzy fringe between fantasy and reality, asking: What if the Muppets had to stage a weekly variety show and we were privy to both the musical-comedy numbers and the chaos backstage? The first “Muppet Movie’’ in 1979 provided additional layers, giving us back stories and exploding beyond the confines of a puppeteer’s maneuvers and the soundstage. It gave these creatures’ dreams.

In the new movie, Muppets still inhabit our world. But the larger question remains: Are they at odds with the current times? Will audiences be unfazed by the old-timey villainy of Cooper’s character, who wants to raze Muppet Studios and drill for oil? “Those Muppets - they think they’re so funny,’’ Richman sneers. “We’ve all moved on. The world is a cynical place.’’ In the words of the jaded TV executive Kermit and Co. try to convince to give them airtime, “In this market, you guys are no longer relevant.’’

Maybe. Or maybe their sweet, dream-catching credo is just what our money-grubbing planet needs.

To share in Muppet aspirations, we’ve always had to extend a rainbow-colored bridge. “The Muppets’’ adds the logical next step in the illusion, making the question of their cultural relevancy part of the plot. Time has passed since the 1970s and ’80s and the hippy-dippy humor of Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, and Mel Brooks. Some assumed the Muppets were dead when Henson, voice of Kermit, died of bacterial pneumonia at age 53, and Frank Oz, the lifeblood of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, retired in 2000. The last full-length Muppet feature, the made-for-TV “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz’’ (2005), was considered a failure. Their influence has lapsed, evidenced by their last theatrical feature, 1999’s “Muppets From Space.’’ Aside from appearances in YouTube parody videos, the Muppets have largely disappeared from America’s cultural radar.

“I guess people sort of forgot about us,’’ Kermit laments, in his empty, Beverly Hills mansion.

Ignoring the intervening Muppet movie capers, Christmas stories, and trips to Treasure Island and outer space, the plot is in keeping with the nostalgic theme, focusing on the characters’ “real’’ lives, just like their movie debut. Muppet super-fans and brothers Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (a new Muppet character) must persuade Kermit to stage a telethon to save the endangered Muppet Studios. Cue the “let’s reunite the gang for one last show’’ road trip: Miss Piggy works in Paris as the plus-size fashion editor at Vogue, Gonzo is a plumbing magnate, and Fozzie is a member of a cheesy Reno casino tribute band called the Moopets. Dr. Teeth’s Electric Mayhem Band may or may not have smoked controlled substances back in the day, but Muppetland is too wholesome for any rehab narrative. Instead, Animal has to be sprung from the anger management recovery program he’s joined, led by Jack Black. (His trigger word - “drum’’ - must never be spoken.) Wakka wakka wakka.

A Muppet fan since he was five, 39-year-old British director James Bobin, creator of “Da Ali G Show’’ and “Flight of the Conchords,’’ was eager to introduce the joy and irreverence of what he called a “national treasure’’ to his own children. Knowing what fondness older fans have for these felt and foam beings, he didn’t want to disappoint. “My inner child told me make sure this is good, do it justice.’’

Bobin felt that his work on “Flight of the Conchords’’ was the perfect training ground. “Both are musical comedies,’’ Bobin said via telephone from Los Angeles. “ ‘Conchords’ is a very warm-hearted and gentle and positive comedy. Never mean spirited.’’ And both share a tongue-in-cheek, self-referential sensibility. “It can be surreal - the world where puppets and humans coexist. But it has a very positive feel.’’

While neither Bobin nor others involved in the film wanted to change the essential Muppet psyche, they did want pizzazz. One, A-list cameos are again in abundance. Two, Segel, as massive a Muppet fan as the character he plays, co-wrote the script. If you recall, Segel’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall’’ ended with a Muppet-like musical. Writing and starring in that movie got Segel fired up to update the Muppets for a new generation.

For younger fans to glom onto the new goofy antics, the music and comedy needed to reference current, edgier pop culture. Which explains the hip-hop send-up Cooper raps and hoofs to: “Let’s Talk About Me.’’

“I have an early background in song and dance. The opportunity to do that was terrific,’’ said Cooper. “I have a huge new-found respect for hip-hop.’’

The new movie also makes sure that the Muppet blend of satire and silliness endures. “The great joy of the original series was that Jim [Henson] never wrote down to children,’’ said Bobin. “It’s for everybody. Grandparents can watch it, kids can watch it, parents can watch it. Everyone can get something out of it.’’

Henson may be gone. Oz may have hung up Piggy and Fozzie (Steve Whitmire now performs Kermit; Eric Jacobson takes on Oz’s roles). Fans may be jaded since Henson’s heirs sold the Muppets to the House of Mouse. But the new movie’s riff on the highs and lows of fame is an argument for, and proof of, the very relevancy of these creatures. “The Muppets’’ also doles out sentimental moments, including a reprise of “The Rainbow Connection,’’ that remind us why we loved these characters so much in their heyday, which might be our heyday, too.

Perhaps nothing’s changed. Including the hokey, obsolete, yet necessary need to fall under their spell - lovers, the dreamers and, as Piggy would add, Moi.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.

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