The Muppets hit the yellow-brick road in new 'Oz.' The comeback trail leads to Emerald City as Kermit, Piggy and the gang regroup for their first TV movie in three years
Ashanti, The Muppets' Wizard of Oz
Credit: MUPPETS WIZARD OF OZ: Chris Helcermanas-Benge/ABC

The Muppets' Wizard of Oz

It’s hard to believe that the illustrious Miss Piggy — star of stage, screen, and sty — has never won a major acting award. But with her tour-de-force turn as four separate witches in ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney movie The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, the porcine diva hopes to rectify this shocking insult. Taking a break from her shopping (”I practically live at Louis Vuitton”), Piggy is relaxing in her spacious trailer on Oz‘s Vancouver set. ”Yes! Four roles!” she squeals, waving a bling-and-glove-covered hand (or is that a hoof?). ”Four Emmys! Ha-ha! Spread the word to the Academy. You’re going to see all the different sides of moi.”

Finally! It’s been three looong years since Kermit the Frog, Piggy, and their creature crew appeared in NBC’s It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. But with Disney’s headline-making February 2004 buyout of the treasured characters (after a disastrous tenure with cash-strapped German company EM.TV), the fuzzy franchise is again mixing tart pop-culture barbs with tyke-friendly comedy. ”[Disney] was clear that they are interested in going back to that adult humor that kids also like,” says Henson Company co-CEO Lisa Henson. ”In recent years, we felt market pressure to age down the Muppets, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

But Oz, adapted not from the 1939 movie (or, as Piggy calls it, ”the one with what’s-her-name”) but from L. Frank Baum’s fanciful novel, packs loads of zeitgeist references, from Kabbalah to American Idol to a wink-wink ”friends of Dorothy” moment. The flesh-and-blood stars are contemporary too: R&B singer Ashanti plays Dorothy Gale, an aspiring celebrity trapped in the body of a Kansas waitress; Jeffrey Tambor plays the Wizard; Queen Latifah takes over the role of Auntie Em; and Quentin Tarantino cameos as himself. Piggy’s Wicked Witch of the West, meanwhile, is a patch-wearing meld of rock goddesses Cher and Chrissie Hynde — a combo that works well for her hell-raising musical number ”The Witch Is in the House.” She elaborates: ”Kermie loves me in leather. I dress up for him sometimes.”

Okay, then. Speaking of America’s most famous felt frog, he stars as the Scarecrow, who joins Dorothy, her pet crustacean, Toto (played by Pepe the Prawn), the Cowardly Lion (Fozzie Bear), and the Tin Thing (Gonzo). ”It’s a long-drawn-out makeup process,” sighs Kermit. ”I have to get in at four in the morning. They use spirit gum and latex and put burlap all over my skin. I’ve had to adopt this whole new skin-care regimen. Piggy starts the night before and just sleeps in her makeup sitting up, like a horse.” Gonzo took a more creative route to get into character: ”When I got the part, I immediately went down to Melrose Avenue in L.A. to get a tin suit. The trick is finding something that fits in the waist, hangs right in the shoulders, and doesn’t pinch under your arms.”

For Ashanti — who says she was ”infatuated with [the 1980s Henson series] Fraggle Rock” as a child — re-creating a classic character was a far easier process. ”I love children, and to me, the Muppets are just like little kids,” she says. ”The director had to give me a few pointers and tips for acting with them. The most important thing that I learned was to keep eye contact.”

That’s never been an issue for Piggy, whose 29-year affair with her beloved frog is a cornerstone of Muppet lore. But the odd couple share few scenes, a development that Kermit — under pressure from this visiting reporter — finally admits to enjoying. ”All I can say is, uh, yes,” he stammers. ”Because if I go too much further, it’s bad for my health. They can’t get enough production insurance to cover what could happen to me.”

The Muppets' Wizard of Oz
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