Animal animosity in the new Muppets movie

The famous human faces appearing alongside the Muppets include Tina Fey and Ty Burrell (above). -- PHOTO: WALT DISNEY MOTION PICTURES, SINGAPORE
The famous human faces appearing alongside the Muppets include Tina Fey and Ty Burrell (above). -- PHOTO: WALT DISNEY MOTION PICTURES, SINGAPORE
The famous human faces appearing alongside the Muppets include Tina Fey (above) and Ty Burrell. -- PHOTO: WALT DISNEY MOTION PICTURES, SINGAPORE
The famous human faces appearing alongside the Muppets include Tina Fey (above) and Ty Burrell. -- PHOTO: WALT DISNEY MOTION PICTURES, SINGAPORE
The less-famous members of the Muppets, which number in the hundreds, had to ‘lobby’ for roles in the latest caper. -- PHOTO: WALT DISNEY MOTION PICTURES, SINGAPORE
The less-famous members of the Muppets, which number in the hundreds, had to ‘lobby’ for roles in the latest caper. -- PHOTO: WALT DISNEY MOTION PICTURES, SINGAPORE

The Muppets are back in another movie, but tensions run high among the cast members

They look like one big happy family on screen, but like the cast of any long-running show, The Muppets are not immune to the odd bout of professional jealousy.

And to the delight of the international press, some of the behind-the-scenes tensions bubbles over at a recent publicity event, where Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and their Muppet co-stars fight like, well, pigs and frogs, bickering and bantering as only friends do.

Suspension of disbelief is a given as journalists delightedly engage the Muppets during a question-and-answer session at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles last month.

They are there to promote their new film, Disney's Muppets: Most Wanted, a sequel to the 2011 hit that successfully rebooted a franchise that began with a popular 1970s children's television show.

After the success of the previous film, which earned US$165 million (S$207 million) worldwide, the stakes are high for this follow-up - widely seen as a test of whether a classic brand can find a new audience among a generation of children that is not as familiar with or fond of it as their parents are.

Perhaps that explains the slightly charged atmosphere at the press conference, especially with newcomers such as the human co-stars, Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell, in the mix.

Also present is Constantine, the sinister new amphibian in the group.

Miss Piggy, of course, is nowhere to be seen at first because "she insists on being fashionably late", explains Kermit.

Flanked by the humans and facing dozens of reporters, he, Constantine and Sam Eagle talk about the Muppets' eighth feature film, which opens in Singapore tomorrow.

The story has the gang and their dubious new manager, Dominic Badguy (Gervais), touring Europe with their loopy musical variety show, only to have Kermit kidnapped and spirited to a Siberian gulag halfway through.

He is replaced by his doppelganger Constantine, a Russian criminal mastermind who looks exactly like Kermit except for the mole on his cheek.

Constantine is a brand-new addition to the Muppet cast, which already contains hundreds of characters - a fact that has been a source of tension, it seems.

In a scene in the new movie, Rizzo the Rat complains bitterly about how much screen time Walter, who was introduced in the 2011 film starring Jason Segal and Amy Adams, got to enjoy at the expense of more established Muppets such as himself.

Life! tries to get Kermit and Sam Eagle, who plays a CIA agent in the new film, to spill the beans on behind-the- scenes politicking this may have caused.

Kermit kicks the question to his co-star: "Sam, you're good at behind- the-scenes politicking..."

Sam clears his throat and says: "Also very good at diplomacy. So, uh, I will just say… I am happy with how this movie turned out."

He shifts awkwardly in his seat.

"And the screen time that everyone here..."

"Sam, you didn't answer the question," counters the frog.

"Exactly. That is the point," says Sam.

Director James Bobin, who was behind the camera on the previous film as well, says it was heartbreaking for a Muppet fan like himself to have to decide which characters to include and which to leave out.

"There're a lot of people here, it's hard. Because, of course, we have a huge family of fantastic people to involve, and this time, we brought a lot of people back that we didn't use in the last movie, like Annie Sue (the pig) and Pops (the doorkeeper). But there are still lots more out there," he says.

Producer Todd Lieberman, however, hints that there was furious lobbying going on.

"While we were in pre-production, Rizzo sent us a video basically begging to be in the film," he says.

"And it kind of worked," Bobin admits. "That's a tip to the other Muppets out there."

It is clear, however, that some cast members are just more popular than others - neither have the years mellowed Miss Piggy, the show's resident diva, one bit.

"She gets no easier, I'll tell you that," Bobin says.

Still, the making of the latest movie forged some enduring friendships: Burrell, who plays an Interpol agent investigating a string of burglaries that seem to follow the Muppets as they tour, says that the eagle has become his "life coach" after the two shared numerous scenes.

Gervais, predictably, bonded with his on-screen partner-in-crime Constantine, whom he insists is just misunderstood.

"You see, he had a bad upbringing. He was born in a Russian pond with 800 siblings and many of them died," says 52-year-old Emmy-winning comedic actor.

"Right, eaten by fish," Constantine affirms in heavily accented English, although he has admitted he speaks no Russian.

"And he came over here and we met and we bonded, didn't we?" Gervais says, smiling indulgently at his co-star. "We bonded over our mutual hatred of most of the other Muppets."

"Of a particular pig," snarls Constantine.

"Yeah, don't get me started," the actor says.

Kermit, ever the sensible and even-keeled one, is the only Muppet who seems unaffected by the recent changes to the cast.

For example, the world's most famous frog - who made his debut in a 1970 episode of Sesame Street - bears no acrimony towards Constantine, even though, as one reporter pointed out, he could probably have played both parts himself.

"Well, that didn't make sense to me because we have to do scenes together," says Kermit matter-of-factly.

"And I don't really work on green screen, so..." He is referring to a computer effect where the colour green is not seen on screen.

In this film, he also has a new love interest to contend with: prison guard Nadya, who is played by Fey.

This and other aspects of the movie, which Bobin describes as an "action musical comedy", were daunting even to a veteran actor like Kermit.

"It may surprise you to hear, but I'm actually stretching myself quite a lot as a dramatic actor in this thing."

One example was the romantically charged scenes he filmed with Fey, especially given that both are attached in real life.

The 43-year-old 30 Rock creator and actress is married to composer Jeff Richmond, with whom she has two young daughters, and Kermit, famously, has had a long-standing, are-they-or-aren't- they entanglement with Miss Piggy.

"I did many many scenes with Tina, but one particular scene stands out for me, and it was filmed on a closed set: the scene where she licks me.

"But I want to clear it up with the press that Tina is happily married. Jeff was there during the shooting," says the frog, a touch defensively.

"My husband was there," Fey says. "He was being kind of controlling and creepy…"

"Yes, but supportive," Kermit interjects.

Neither had filmed such a scene before, which made things even more tricky.

"I was nervous but Kermit put me at ease," says Fey, although she adds that, after the lick, she "did hallucinate for three or four hours".

Kermit shakes his head ruefully. "That's odd because I had blood tests before and I thought my blood toxins were low."

Still, the two appear to be on good terms now - which is more than can be said for Fey and Miss Piggy.

Shortly after that tender moment between Fey and the frog, the porcine star swans into the press conference - 30 minutes late, wearing a low-cut, figure- hugging dress and tossing her elaborately coiffed locks over her shoulder.

"The show's not over, it's just begun," she trills, before purring at her boyfriend: "Hello Kermee."

"Hi, Miss Piggy,'' says Fey deferentially. "We actually haven't met..."

"Oh, we didn't actually do very much together on the movie," says the pig.

"You refused to meet me," the actress points out, but adds: "You look so pretty."

"Thank you, thank you," says Piggy in her usual dulcet tones. "I'm sure you look pretty too."

As far as she is concerned, of course, the new movie is largely about her, even though she shared only a duet with singer Celine Dion in one of its many starstudded cameos.

"Working with Celine Dion was a pleasure - it was a joy for her, naturally," she says breathily.

"I'm only too happy to let her ride my coattails up to the Oscars stage. We spent only a little time together but it was very meaningful... for her."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Disney's Muppets: Most Wanted opens in Singapore tomorrow.

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