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Disney’s Muppets: Coming to Terms with Life after Jim

By Annika Abel
February 19, 2004

Ever chosen a guardian for your kids? It isn’t easy. Your parents are old, plus you are intimately familiar with their parental failings. Remember when your sister cut all the hair off your favorite doll and your brother locked you in the trunk? Are these the people you would trust with your child? Your friends seem good on the surface—you have common interests and ideas and they’re probably already a part of your child’s life. But then you start seeing them a bit more critically. At 30 shouldn’t they be settling down? Getting a ‘real’ job? Will they take little Susie bar-hopping with them? Will they love little Joey less than their own kids? Once you make the choice the situation may not improve. You find yourself judging every decision the prospective guardian makes through the lens of a parent who wants the best for their child. The fact is no one will raise your child the way you would.

Imagine the difficulty of being named guardian to someone else’s kids and then discovering that you cannot meet all of their needs. Imagine realizing the best interests of those kids would be better met by someone else. Imagine having to find that someone else in the public eye and under public scrutiny. Imagine that those kids are your father’s life work, his legacy, his passion. Imagine having to admit first to yourself and then to your siblings, your mother and the world that you don’t want your father’s legacy to be your life’s work.

Kids grow up and find their own dreams. I think the first thing we, as Muppet fans, have to do is come to terms with the reality that Brian, Lisa, Cheryl, John, and Heather have their own dreams and have every right to follow them. The idea of a Muppet world owned and operated by Brian and Lisa was comforting to us. It allowed us to pretend that Jim lived on and his vision would continue to breathe life into Kermit, Gonzo, Piggy and company.

The truth is Jim’s vision died with Jim. The first side effect of this sale is that, in a very real way, Muppet fans are forced into the final stage of grief: acceptance. Jim Henson is dead and the Muppets will never be the same. Sounds kind of silly to say that at this point, but I think a lot of us held onto the belief that as long as Brian and his siblings were in charge we still had a part of Jim and the Muppets wouldn’t have to change, at least not too much. That was an unreasonable expectation on our part. In a way that expectation turned the past fourteen years into an agonizingly slow grieving process in which we saw, time after time, that the post-Jim Muppets have to evolve if they are to survive.

 

We, the fans, have to let go of the illusion that the Muppets can be what they were. They can’t. It’s been almost 14 years and it’s time to see what’s next for the Muppets. It doesn’t matter whether you like Disney or not, Disney is home now.

 
It is to their credit that Brian and his siblings stepped up and cared for the Muppets with such love and respect. It is to their credit that they cared enough about their father’s work and the Muppets to buy the company back from EM.TV. It is to their credit that they recognized the limits of what they could offer the Muppets on their own. It is to their credit that they have brought the Muppets to the best home they could find.

WHY DISNEY?

What brought the Muppets to Disney? The bottom line is that JHC doesn’t have the money. They can scrape together the funding to make a movie, but there isn’t enough left to market the movie. Minimal advertising means minimal profits. Minimal profits mean they face the same situation with the next film. It’s easy to believe the networks aren’t interested in a Muppet series meant to be as entertaining for adults as it is for kids. Jim’s concept of family entertainment that was entertaining for the whole family was unique in the 70s and if anything it is rarer now.

But what about the Fox series one asks? Truth is, we don’t know. Did someone at Fox have a brief fit of nostalgia after picking up a Best of the Muppet Show DVD? Was it an idea they kicked around for five minutes before moving on? Did Fox want a Muppet series that was too ‘edgy’ for Henson, giving Gonzo a vocabulary that would have made the series inappropriate for a young audience? Did they simply decide advertisers wouldn’t pay for spots in a puppet show? Who knows. But I find it easy to believe Henson couldn’t get a series deal in today’s market. For the past fourteen years the Muppets have been in a holding pattern. The engines rev, they take a step forward, and they get blown back to the starting line. It’s time to move forward.

So, without the money they needed to get the Muppets up and running again, and with the pull of their own dreams and career paths, what choice did the Henson kids have but to find a new home for the Muppets? And what homes were available? They needed a company with deep pockets. Disney has those. They needed a company with distribution and production capabilities. No one can build hype like Disney. They needed a company grounded in family entertainment. I’m not sure Disney can still do family entertainment, but Walt was a master and they have the market cornered on children’s entertainment.

I don’t think we have to worry about Piggy having costume mishaps during the next Super Bowl or Rizzo smoking pot. Disney’s Muppets won’t do those sorts of things. Is it better to have the Muppets turned into kiddie fodder and mass marketed up the wazoo than to see the franchise slowly dwindle away due to lack of funding or turned into some trendy foul-mouthed teen fad? The decision has been made by those with the responsibility and power to make it and those sorts of ‘what if’ games are the intellectual equivalent of, well, I can’t say what it is here because, like the Muppets themselves, Muppet Central is family friendly.

When a charismatic leader is lost it is particularly hard to go on. Jim Henson could get movies made by sure will. He could throw out the script and follow his instincts, or the instincts of the amazingly talented people with whom he surrounded himself, and he could make it work. Jim Henson could turn his mother’s old coat into an internationally celebrated phenomenon who has given commencement speeches and performed for royalty. We, the fans, have to let go of the illusion that the Muppets can be what they were. They can’t. It’s been almost 14 years and it’s time to see what’s next for the Muppets. It doesn’t matter whether you like Disney or not, Disney is home now. I’m not saying I won’t cringe every time I see Disney’s Muppets or Disney presents Jim Henson’s Muppets, but it’s time to stop treading water and move into life after Jim.

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