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Greener Pastures: Muppets make a comeback with a Christmas caper

The fuzzy franchise, whose lovable creatures have popped up in commercials and a Weezer video, now adds an NBC movie

Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly
November 17, 2002

It is not now -- nor has it ever been -- easy being green. For evidence, look no further than Kermit the Frog, who trudges through the opening of his new TV movie, ''It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie'' (airing Nov. 29 at 8 p.m. on NBC), looking every minute of his 47 years. He's frustrated and emotional -- and not just from the pressure of working on an estimated $10 million production with Whoopi Goldberg, William H. Macy, Kelly Ripa, and Molly Shannon: His theater is being sold by a ruthless business titan (Joan Cusack). ''Corporate synergy,'' he sighs, lifting a flipper to reveal the NBC Peacock on the sole. ''It's out of control.''

Kermie should know; he's had his share of big-business woes. The venerable (and still profitable) Muppets franchise has languished in a creative lull since the Jim Henson Co. was sold in 2000 to German entertainment megalith EM.TV for a reported $680 million. EM.TV has been looking for a buyer for the Muppet empire for the past year. Now -- whatever its corporate future -- the Henson Co. is staging an all-out comeback campaign. In addition to the NBC telepic (and another in development for a yet-to-be-determined network), Kermit and the gang are featured in a recent MasterCard commercial, NASCAR endorsements, a new line of toys pegged to ''The Muppet Show'''s 25th anniversary, and even the video for Weezer's latest single, ''Keep Fishin'.'' There's also talk of a new Muppet Show, developed by Jennifer and Suzanne Todd (producers of the ''Austin Powers'' movies) and slated for a possible fall slot on Fox. Says Charles Rivkin, president and CEO of Henson, ''We've had more activity with the Muppet franchise in the last six months than we've probably had in the last five years.''

How can an idealistic band of puppet bohemians survive in the jaded age of ''Crank Yankers'' and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (who gamely cameos in the telepic)? The trick, according to Henson TV exec Juliet Blake, is balancing old and new: ''It's about being true to our characters and not trying to make them ridiculously hip.'' Recalls ''Simpsons'' vet Tom Martin, who cowrote the ''Muppet Christmas'' screenplay, ''There were arguments if the [movie] should have a lot of heart or if we should just make it funny. But the director, Kirk Thatcher [who wrote 'Muppet Treasure Island'], made a good point: He said, 'Look, these Muppets have enough heart. They have too much heart. Let's just concentrate on funny.'''

That might be why ''Christmas'' includes such grown-up TV adventures as a scene where Scooter cage-dances at a rave, a bit where Animal funnel-chugs eggnog, and the implication of frog-human romance. But some of the new attitude was too edgy: A Snoop Dogg cameo (where he swaps stoner koans with the Electric Mayhem) was cut after execs realized the rapper was releasing a self-produced porn film; a suggestive scene with Pepe the Prawn and Cusack was trimmed; and a dig at Irish rowdiness was dropped.

For Blake, taking risks was worth it: ''I feel this movie is a big step in the right direction for the franchise.'' Adds Martin, ''This could be a turning point for the Muppets. Otherwise, Kermit becomes Mickey, the symbol of a company rather than a viable character.'' Which is something the famous frog -- not to mention the late Jim Henson -- surely wouldn't want a hand in.

 
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