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Disney’s Muppets: Trapped in the Magic Kingdom

By Annika Abel
February 20, 2004

It’s not the home most of us would have chosen, but then again, it wasn’t our choice to make.

There will undoubtedly be negative consequences. Will the Muppets be dumb-downed? Will we see more Muppet Swamp Years only with increased violence and none of the clever sketches that first brought the Muppets to prominence? Maybe. Will we have to say goodbye to the Palisades figures and hello to cheap PVCs and poorly crafted plushes of the main Muppets? Maybe. Will Kermit cover the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street? Probably not.

Back in college I used to make regular trips to Disneyland with a friend. We were both pretty anti-Disney yet our pilgrimages developed into a well-loved tradition. A tradition that began with the fairly innocuous act of counting the number of parents who had dressed their kids in their best clothes (little girls in row after row of ruffles and lace) so they’d look nice in the pictures and then spent the entire day yelling at the kids not to get dirty. (The phenomenon is less common these days but fifteen years ago it happened far more than you’d think.) From there we moved onto counting the number of parents
 

99% of the time the Muppets better remain Muppets—foam and puppeteer. If we lose the puppetry we will have lost too much.

 
who were beating their kids in the ‘happiest place on earth.’ That led to some pretty tasteless jokes about the bell tower on "It’s a Small World" and the even more tasteless game of pointing out all the spots one could release the super flu (the blow darts in the Indiana Jones ride were a favorite). I’m happy to say we put that particular game to rest before 9/11.

My point is, my relationship with Disney has always been contradictory. On the one hand I enjoy the parks and some of the movies (the older ones). On the other, I am offended by the crass commercialism, excessive violence and thinly veiled racism and sexism that populates so many Disney creations. I don’t respect Disney, but I admit they’re the best at what they do.

JHC has always had depth. Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock; you won’t find more socially responsible programming. Muppets From Space wasn’t exactly a moral compass for kids, but the basic message in that movie, as in so many Muppet productions, was friends stick together. Your best pal may be a weirdo wearing tin foil and driving a lawn mower, but he’s your best pal and you risk life and limb and medical research experiments to save him. I feel anyone producing entertainment for children has a responsibility to think carefully about what they are saying to kids and how they are saying it. Disney has made great family entertainment and they’ve made some good movies in the past twenty years. But Disney isn’t a family company anymore. Disney is responsible first to its shareholders and board of directors and profits, not kids, are the bottom line.

Change is always unsettling and the sort of massive change facing the Muppets, and by extension Muppet fans, is likely to make the most stoic a bit queasy. When this kind of change involves a company like Disney it’s hard to avoid outright nausea. Let’s look at a few of the particulars causing concern.

MERCHANDISE

Yes, there will probably be more merchandise. Yes lots of it will probably be cheap and aimed at kids. But remember Disney does make high-end collectibles. Plenty of ‘em. Is there anything more collectible than Mickey Mouse? The difference is Disney is more imperialistic than JHC. Disney makes low-end stuff for the masses and high-end stuff for the elite. Disney’s high-end collectibles are often billed as investments, art, things that will increase in value and thus are worth the mega bucks one has to sink into them. Henson’s high-end collectibles have, for the most part, been along the lines of the Sideshow busts and Palisades figures and the old Sigma line. Quite attainable by the majority of fans. So the question is not will we lose the high-end collectibles, rather it should be: will we lose the mid-range collectibles. And the answer is maybe.

MUPPETFEST

First it should be noted that there was no guarantee of another MuppetFest with JHC in charge of the Muppets. I think we can safely assume there will never be a MuppetFest like the 2001 MuppetFest. The small size allowed that to be a more personal experience than we could expect from a second. Ultimately MuppetFest was the amazing experience it was because of the dedication and heart of the Muppeteers, the Hensons (most notably Brian) and the rest of the Henson folk who were involved. It was their appreciation of the fans and their willingness to give of themselves that made MuppetFest.

Disney might do a fan convention. It gives them the opportunity to fill rooms at one of their hotels during the off-season and sell passes to one of their parks. It doesn’t take a lot of work on their part because they already own the hotels and the parks. It would let them show off some new Muppet themed rides. Sell some merchandise. I think it is entirely plausible that Disney could decide to do a MuppetFest. What I don’t think it would include is the personal touch we got in December 2001. I don’t think Jane Henson would be walking around the lobby talking to fans. I don’t think the Muppeteers would be allowed to stay and sign autographs for every fan who waited in line. So I’d say it is possible but with more flash and probably less substance than we got before.

FRAGGLE ROCK

Just because Disney isn’t buying Fraggle Rock now doesn’t mean Disney won’t acquire the brand in the future. Disney has problems of their own right now. It is possible that Eisner concentrated on the franchises the Disney board was most familiar with, the franchises they could most easily exploit. Maybe once the dust settles and the Muppets are hard at work on new products and Bear has new video releases Disney will make another shopping trip through JHC. Or maybe Brian and Lisa have plans of their own for Fraggle and Dark Crystal and the other properties. Or maybe they will truly be lost in the shuffle.

MUPPETEERS

JHC has long held puppetry workshops where they find new talent and begin grooming puppeteers for the role of Muppeteer. It’s been worth the expenses involved for JHC to develop new talent because they used those puppeteers for the classic Muppets, Sesame Street, and various other projects (Fraggle Rock, Dark Crystal, etc.). Now JHC only has the ‘various other projects’ to staff. Maybe they’re planning Dark Crystal II, the re-launch of Fraggle Rock and other puppet-based (or at least puppet-heavy) productions but that isn’t the sense I’m getting. From the press releases and articles it sounds like Brian and Lisa want to take their careers in other directions, further away from the puppetry foundation they inherited. It doesn’t seem likely they’ll pour the limited funds of JHC into puppet workshops.

So who will train the puppeteers? What will happen when Sesame Street needs to hire new puppeteers? Maybe that isn’t much of an issue because the reduced Sesame seasons have left plenty of New York-based puppeteers looking for work (and creating it for themselves in innovative ways that make us long for a trip to Avenue Q). But what happens if (when?) Disney goes to work on the next Muppet movie? Or a Muppet production ten years from now? What happens if Jerry retires and Dave wants to cut back and Brian and Frank are both busy directing their own films? Bill can’t do all the characters. Even if Kevin is available (and the current Sesame schedule makes that pretty likely) we’ll still need new Muppeteers. Is Disney going to carry on the talent development programs? Actually, they’d have to create their own because the JHC program still belongs to JHC and some of the staff was lost when the Sesame Muppets were sold to Sesame Workshop. Dividing the main Muppet franchises means more than no more Muppet Family Christmas style crossovers. It means the infrastructure that supported the Muppets, the infrastructure that has sustained some heavy blows in the past few years, may be crumbling fast.

MUPPETS WITHOUT MUPPETEERS

One theory on the 1989 talks with Disney holds that negotiations broke down, in part, over Muppeteer ownership of the characters. JHC has always had great respect for the tie between puppeteer and character. Many of us would be horrified to see Gonzo without Dave or Pepe without Bill. Disney has always been more concerned with character than performer. That could mean the return of Scooter, Rowlf, and a host of other Muppets rarely seen and even more rarely voiced since the deaths of Jim and Richard. But it could also mean drastic changes in all the Muppets. Disney has more experience with cartoons than puppets. The Muppeteers bring so much more to their characters than simply movement and voice. They bring them soul. They bring them to life. Time will tell whether Disney recognizes and respects the tie between character and performer.

It is the talk of CGI Muppets that concerns me the most. It could be great. I can see a fabulous new movie opening with the Muppets in CGI. Kermit and the gang are up to their usual tricks and Muppet hi-jinks ensues. An increasingly stressed out Kermit tries to rein in the others and runs smack into the computer screen. He realizes he’s computer generated. He realizes there is no one underneath him. It was hard enough on Kermit when he had to adjust to Steve instead of Jim, but this is too much for him. He starts to panic, he’s banging on the computer screen, and he wakes up. Back in regular Muppet foam form his nightmare has woken the others. A sleepy-eyed Robin asks what all the commotion is about and Floyd tells him to go back to sleep, Kermit just had another one of his CGI dreams. I can see some fabulous Muppety stuff done that way. The next time Piggy needs to skate through Central Park, CGI it by all means. But 99% of the time the Muppets better remain Muppets—foam and puppeteer. If we lose the puppetry we will have lost too much.

Kermit and his loveable troupe of pigs and bears and rats and whatevers are packing their bags. Let’s hope they aren’t treated like second-rate step-children. Let’s hope they aren’t relegated to preschool direct-to-video snoozes. Let’s hope they aren’t swallowed by computers. Let’s hope the focus isn’t on theme park rides but on quality films and if not a new series at least some TV specials with the Muppet humor we know and love (and the jokes that went over our heads when we were kids).

On one particularly memorable visit to Disneyland my friend and I fell asleep on Tom Sawyer’s Island. (Actually, we fell asleep on pretty much every ride except Space Mountain, long story involving less than considerate roommates and coed dorms.) We woke up sunburned and disoriented. Waking up in the Magic Kingdom is disconcerting. At least for me it was only one afternoon.

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