LOS ANGELES -- Cinema has plenty of classic couples -- Hepburn and Tracy, Bogart and Bacall, Brad and Angie -- but few are as ageless or as lovable as Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.
The charming amphibian and his porcine paramour are reunited on the big screen for the eighth time in "Muppets Most Wanted," which opens today. In this Disney caper, the Muppets fall into the clutches of the world's No. 1 criminal, Constantine, who, with the exception of a facial mole and a vaguely Eastern European accent, bears a striking resemblance to Kermit.
After a case of mistaken identity leads to Kermit's imprisonment in a Siberian gulag run by Tina Fey's warden Nadya, Constantine -- disguised as the Muppets frontman -- travels with the gang to major European capitals to pull a series of heists with the help of his second in command, Dominic Badguy (it's pronounced "Bad-gee"), played by Ricky Gervais, posing as an international tour manager.
"Most Wanted" arrives as a follow-up to 2011's "The Muppets," which returned Jim Henson's foam-and-felt superstars to theaters for the first time in more than a decade and introduced a new Muppet, Walter. Written by Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segel and directed by James Bobin, that film grossed $88 million at the box office and won an Oscar for Bret McKenzie, the "Flight of the Conchords" comedian who penned songs for the musical.
It also helped bring the Muppets to the attention of a new generation of viewers. "I have a whole new army of fans now at my disposal. I just say the word and they'll come running," said Miss Piggy.
"Whatever that word is, don't say it right now because we're in a small room," Kermit the Frog responded.
Bobin and Stoller wrote the script for the sequel -- McKenzie also returned to write numbers such as the gleefully self-aware opening song "We're Doing a Sequel" -- with an eye toward maintaining Muppet tradition (puns, fourth-wall breaking, celebrity cameos and other assorted silliness) while simultaneously expanding the scope of the story.
The film was shot primarily in England last spring, and Kermit the Frog described the experience as a creatively satisfying one.
"It was different," he said. "The first one we did with James was wonderful, but he was just getting his feet wet."
"This movie is 100 times better," Miss Piggy said.
Such candor is a rare thing in Hollywood, but Kermit and Piggy aren't conventional stars. Neither is Gervais, the confrontational comedian best known for boundary-pushing TV comedies such as "The Office" and "Extras," who joined the famed Muppets duo for a quick chat about the new movie recently at a Beverly Hills hotel. An edited version of the conversation follows.
LAT: Ricky, many comedians cite the Muppets as an inspiration. Were they a creative influence for you?
GERVAIS: As much as people think that I'm some sort of shock jock or a cynic, I'm really not. I love people who fail and get back up and brush themselves off and start again. I love that quality. I loved it from Laurel and Hardy. Everything I've done has had that -- they failed, but they were trying their best.
That's these guys really -- not (Miss Piggy) so much really, but this guy (points to Kermit the Frog), this man is the heart and soul of humanity.
MISS PIGGY: I like to see people pick themselves back up. And I like to help them do that by cutting them down to start with.
LAT: Piggy, you've long been a role model for pigs and women. Is that something that you take very seriously?
MISS PIGGY: Absolutely, yes, of course. I have to always bring my A-game, so to speak, because people look up to moi. Everyone looks up to moi. All of Hollywood turns to me for inspiration. I'm sort of like every actor's Stanislavski in this day and age. They watch and learn from the master. It's a lot of pressure, but I am a professional. I just focus on the work.
GERVAIS: The strange thing is, she actually is a bit intimidating. I think it's because I do think of her as a woman as opposed to a pig.
LAT: Ricky, what was your reaction when you were approached to play Dominic?
GERVAIS: "Yes." I was worried that I couldn't do it because I was doing other things, but everyone said, "You're crazy. Of course you've got to do it." Then when I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago, a little chill went down my spine thinking I nearly didn't do it. I would never have forgiven myself. I can't tell you how proud I am to be part of this. I've loved them for ages.
LAT: How do you prepare for the role? Did you go back and look at great Muppet villains of the past?
GERVAIS: I think I said, "I assume you want me to do the smarmy English git act?" And James went, "Exactly." That was it I loved turning up and saying the lines that I remembered and making the other ones up. Honestly, it was a breeze for me.
MISS PIGGY: Was there a script for this movie?
GERVAIS: I didn't read it. I knew the gist of it.
LAT: Where did you find Constantine? Did he have much previous acting experience?
KERMIT: He's from a very large amphibian crime family. He was in trouble as a kid. He's a distant cousin on my dad's side. I found him in the swamp, and I thought, it's his chance to make good. Basically, it was a matter of bringing in a whole bunch of frogs until we lined them up and Piggy couldn't recognize me anymore. Then we knew we had the guy.
MISS PIGGY: None of them kiss as well as you do, Kermie. If you kissed Constantine and Kermit
GERVAIS: You'd get two princes
KERMIT: And two warts.
GERVAIS: That's toads.
KERMIT: Well, Constantine has some toad blood in him. Don't lick him. You'll be all loopy.
LAT: Kermit, you shared many scenes with Tina Fey. Did you enjoying working with her?
KERMIT: It was very nice. I was a prisoner, she was a guard, like two ships passing in the night, only in a cell. I was in a jail cell, but we did a lot of rehearsing together. We shot this film in England and every night we'd sort of go back to the hotel, just sit around and order in some coffee, rehearse our lines together.
MISS PIGGY: You and Tina?
LAT: Where was Piggy when that was happening?
KERMIT: Gee, I'm not sure.
MISS PIGGY: I was rehearsing with Constantine. That's what I was doing.
LAT: So looking ahead, I assume there are plans for another Muppets film? Any ideas what shape that might take?
MISS PIGGY: I'd like to do a disaster movie. A disaster movie that has a happy ending where we get married.
KERMIT: I'd like to do a movie that's not a disaster. That would be my goal.