By Mark Searby
At one point or another, everyone has laughed at a Muppet joke. Whether it was during their successful stint on Sesame Street, or maybe when they had their own TV show, or one of their numerous film outings (OK, some were better than others). And yes, even the times when they have popped up in a TV show or a film for a cameo.
The Muppets will last forever. Jim Henson created them with so much enthusiasm that we can’t help but love them. And yet... and yet... they have lacked any real focussed direction for a couple of decades now. One of the biggest franchises on the planet just seemed to be relegated to the direct-to-DVD market for most of the 1990s.
Step forward Disney. In 2004, the studio paid $60 million to acquire the rights to The Muppets from the Jim Henson estate. If anyone could make the ragtag bunch of funny puppets into a revitalised worldwide phenomenon, then it would be the company that has enjoyed success on such a grand scale in every decade since inception.
Walt Disney knew how to make TV shows and movies that all ages would enjoy, and that ethos – as well as his rules – have been passed down to each generation that has worked for the company. Michael Eisner, the chairman and CEO at the time of the purchase, was a huge fan of The Muppets even before he worked at Disney. He said at the time: “Since the time I worked with Jim Henson on the first Muppets TV special in the 1960s, it was obvious to me that his characters would make a deep imprint on the hearts of families worldwide, and this announcement is the culmination of a long-time desire to welcome them into The Walt Disney Company.”
But since that buyout in 2004, what has Disney done to promote The Muppets? One TV movie called The Muppets’ Wizard Of Oz starring R&B singer Ashanti, which was enveloped in nothing but negative reviews. A direct-to-video release of Kermit’s Swamp Years and only three TV specials – all in 2008.
The original Muppet Show TV series (which ran for five seasons) is only partially available on DVD. The first season was released while the ink was still wet on the takeover contract, but musical numbers were cut due to copyright. It then took them two years to release season two, but this came uncut. Another year and season three was pushed out uncut with a nice collection of extras too. However, season four was announced but failed to materialise due to musical and Star Wars copyright issues. The original films languished on VHS and poor transfers to DVD. And we had no new film from 1999 up until 2011’s The Muppets.
Yet The Walt Disney Company seemed reluctant to push The Muppets further during their 2011 rejuvenation. Why? What is Disney afraid of? Is it keeping Kermit and friends down because a decades old rivalry when Henson’s TV programmes would constantly win the ratings battles against Walt’s shows? Are they more interested in churning out merchandise than putting them back on the big screen?
The answer seems to be that The Walt Disney Company just didn’t know what to do with The Muppets. So many ideas have been floated about since the purchase. A new start for The Muppets never happened as they got pushed between different corporate divisions; a new TV series called America’s Next Muppet (a riff on America’s Next Top Model) completely died at the planning stages. Further shuffling around the Disney corridors continued, and then in 2008 Henson’s creations were pushed into the new, expanding teen High School Musical/Hannah Montana market.
Dick Cook, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios at the time, said: “Developing the kind of high-quality entertainment we have planned for the global relaunch of The Muppets takes time.” Three TV specials with various teenage music/film stars, alongside seeing their furry faces adorn clothes in stores that were happy to stock them – Macy's had a limited edition tote bag and department store F.A.O. Schwarz created a Muppet-themed boutique where customers could design their own Muppet. But this new direction didn’t take hold and soon they were relegated to their boxes again.
But maybe, just maybe, there is light at the end of The Muppet-verse. In part due to Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, who had to virtually beg Disney to let them near the franchise. It may have taken the duo (and other writers) the best part of three years to finally get a script together that reintroduced The Muppets to the new movie world, but it seems to have done the trick. The Muppets was a commercial and critical success around the world in 2011-12.
The new film, Muppets Most Wanted, looks set to continue the trend of getting the gang back together on the big screen for further outings. Ten years on from the purchase of Henson’s creations, Disney executives seem to have got their heads around how to make The Muppets a proper money-spinning and hugely popular franchise all over again.
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