Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Jim Henson’

Wither the Muppets?

sesame streetMy kids grew up as regular visitors to the Street of Sesame. It was populated by colorful, friendly creatures and kind, smart, people. The Muppets taught my kids important things. How to count, recognize the letters of the alphabet. Also, how to make friends and be a friend, respect others, and accept the differences between us, to name a few important lessons.

At the same time my kids were gettin’ learned, I could enjoy the irreverence, the wackiness the winks and the never ending, parody-infused humor the Muppets brought to those of us on adult streets everywhere. They taught us how to laugh at ourselves and that the “classics”, whether books, music or movies, you could be take them out from behind the museum glass and play. They taught us to not take ourselves too seriously.

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So, what happened? Why have the Muppets not found their audience in the 21st

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Sherlock Hemlock

century? Why is it that Walt’s brand of entertainment far outlasted him, yet Jim Henson’s legacy seems to fade with each passing year? The Muppets have done feature films, television, appeared on countless talk shows, award shows and even have their own hit songs like The Rainbow Connection. Is Disney hiding them in an undisclosed location, plotting a massive marketing campaign? Or is something else going on?

Both men have rightly been called geniuses. Not because they cured a hated disease or helped put a man on the moon. (Although Walt did make that happen every day in early Disneyland, and there was the Muppets in Space. But, I digress) They had a genius for finding new ways to entertain us by taking something old and making it new.

 

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Even the candle is crying

Walt took animation, which was sill in its infancy, and made it into high art, while using story to create enduring characters. Disneyland was a new kind of entertainment based on old style fairs or amusement parks. His animated and live action movies and their characters continue to charm, amuse and evoke other emotions. And, they have become known the world over. When Disney builds theme parks in other countries, they include Mickey Mouse and many other characters that are as recognizable in Shanghai as they are in Anaheim.

 

fantasia posterThe years have not dulled the enthusiasm even for characters who have not been seen on the big screen for decades, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. All of this happened, even as Walt pushed the limits of what audiences would accept in animation. After the success of Snow White and Pinocchio, Walt took a left turn and gave us Fantasia. Then he took a trip to South America which resulted in very Latino feeling Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros. In between those two was Victory Through Air Power, the last feature Walt directed himself, which was more propaganda than entertainment.  He planned but never finished a surrealist piece with Salvador Dali (Finally released in 2003). Audiences might have grumbled, but they still kept coming.

 

THE MUPPETSJim Henson took puppetry out of the fairs and children’s birthday parties and created his own group of enduring characters. He showed us that even puppets that were blue or red, fuzzy and had other un-human like features could, not only entertain, but touch our hearts. I would say that Kermit, Miss Piggy, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are just as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. The appeal of the Muppets bridged generations.

The younger crowd laughed and learned with Bert, Ernie and The Count. While adults could laugh at the sneaky and wacky humor of Fozzy Bear, Sam Eagle and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. A string of popular movies (3 in Henson’s lifetime) combining puppets with actors proved that the Muppets could “act”.

And the weekly Muppet show, which ran for 5 seasons was a magnet for every big name in Hollywood to share the spotlight with Miss Piggy, a group of chickens or other Henson Workshop creations.

Like Disney, Henson challenged his audiences. The movie Dark Crystal and Labyrinth moved away from vaudeville slapstick and pushed further in to Fantasy at the same time he advanced the art of puppetry. In television, Fraggle Rock was intended to be an educational program to help kids deal with complex issues around the world.

After Henson’s passing, the deal to sell the company to Disney was completed and park fans have been enjoy Muppetvision 3d for many years. More recently Muppet characters are making regular appearances in Liberty Square above the Hall of Presidents. But recent attempts to revitalize the Muppet franchise, Muppets Most Wanted, failed with audiences who were less enthralled than the critics. The recent attempt to restart the franchise by going back to television, one of their earliest successes, was cut short after just one season.

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Muppets in LIberty Square

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Oz & Henson

Some have argued, like original Muppeteer, Frank Oz, that Disney just doesn’t get the Muppets. While others seem to think that the Muppets brand of entertainment was a product of it’s time and simply doesn’t translate into today’s reality focused offerings. I think it may be a combination of the two. Perhaps, Jim Henson did not have an opportunity to set the franchise off on a long term track as Walt did with multiple entertainment properties.  Then, Disney took too long to produce anything Muppet related, thereby losing any momentum that might have existed with audiences. I remember being excited about the prospect of deep pockets and potential creative input from the Disney organization. Then, radio silence for 12 years, before a movie was released. Pixar hardly missed a beat after being brought under the Disney brands. And Mickey Mouse went 30 years without being featured in a Disney film. But, it didn’t seem to dull his appeal.

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1983

I’m a big fan of the Muppets style of entertainment. Maybe, in the final analysis, the very nature of Muppet humor doesn’t appeal to as many. Kermit is lovable. But, while Mickey started out as more of an impish troublemaker he evolved into a more lovable character with broad appeal.

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Kermit was always lovable. But he seems stuck in a world of vaudeville, where many of the real jokes go right over the heads of audiences that might extend the franchise — children, who eventually grow into adults and introduce their kids to the characters. Miss Piggy is not very approachable, Dr. Teeth and The Medicine show is product of a 60’s musical era, and Fozzy is, well, an acquired taste for many who grew up with the Carol Burnet Show or even Your Show of Shows.

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It’s still possible that Disney will find a way to keep the Muppets in the mainstream. They are giving the Muppet Babies TV cartoon a reboot. It’s possible that will be the way to gain some traction. Unfortunately, in the face of the blockbuster dollars other franchises like Marvel and Star Wars bring in, the Muppets will forever be an afterthought. I certainly hope not.

 

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Should Disney Have Opened Pandora’s Box?

pandora announcementI get excited about new things Disney will bring to the theme parks. But, I was both confused and troubled by the 2011 Avatar announcement. Universal Studios had just opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which had become an immediate success. It looked like the Disney Company was feeling the heat in a way that had not happened in the history of their prized theme park franchise, which contributes a significant amount to the corporate bottom line. The country was still coming out of the recession/depression, which, I’m guessing, didn’t help Disney World attendance. So, rather than simply accept loss of market share in the Florida area, Disney was going to put up a fight to maintain its position as the world’s pre-eminent purveyor of theme park entertainment. But, the longer Harry Potter remained strong, without a new wow Disney experience, the more likely that more theme park dollars would go to Universal. Thus, time to market was going to make it hard to find something organically Disney which would get the public’s attention.

As first movie to earn more than $2B worldwide the Avatar had sold a ton of movie tickets. Director/Producer Cameron had already announced sequels were already in the works. Disney may have seen this as an opportunity to build on an already successful franchise while they were building the new park area. Looking in the post-LucasArts acquisition, rearview mirror since, Disney may have even tried to buy Avatar, before settling on a partnership with Cameron. I must admit; I was not all that excited about the prospects of having Imagineers working on a product that didn’t come from somewhere inside the world of Disney. Yes, they did acquire The Jim Henson Company and create the very popular Muppet*Vision 3d. But the Muppets were more about a collection of wonderful characters that Disney could use in a variety of ways. The movie Avatar was more than just interesting characters; it was a wholly imagined world. In the meantime, the expected Avatar sequel or sequels have been delayed numerous times, including most recently in March of 2017.

Walt-in-Jungle-2-Placing Pandora inside Animal Kingdom seemed like a workable idea. I’ve been doing some planning for a trip to Disneyland this summer, and realized that I had never been on the Jungle Cruise there. Originally, Walt had wanted to populate the attraction with real animals. But, at the time, it just wasn’t possible, so, Animatronics were used instead. In a way, Joe Rhode’s Animal Kingdom fulfilled one of Walt’s dreams — to give guests an opportunity to come face to face with the wild kingdom, which Walt had once quipped were “some of the most fascinating people I ever met. . “

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Imagineer Joe Rohde

Disney’s Animal Kingdom was never meant to be about Disney films or characters. Rhode wanted to offer guests an immersive “edutainment” experience in a faraway land, filled with adventure, mystery and mystique. Uncle Walt would have been completely behind all those ideas. And, his often quoted belief that Disneyland would always be changing has been taken to another level through the creation of a living theme park, where the animals are unscripted and unpredictable. How many of you have been on the Safari and had to wait while an unhurried rhino or other tenant blocked your truck? And, while it has seen a reduced presence, Animal Kingdom was meant to help raise environmental awareness.

Now, after 6 years of work, Disney, with marketing hoopla commensurate with the effort, is about to unveil Pandora – The World of Avatar. And, while I still think it was an

Pandora-Commericial-600x338odd and unexpected direction for Disney to take, my initial negativity toward the addition has been tempered by putting Pandora into the Animal Kingdom context. I recently re-watched Avatar, and without a doubt, Pandora is very far away and very alien to us. It delivers a movie experience filled with adventure, mystery and magic. We’re being told that guests will enter this strange world and encounter much of the environment in an interactive way. I experienced the Imagineers’ immersive approach long before the area was completed when I went through the Pandora exhibit at the 2015 D23 Expo. The Cast Members were presented as employees of Alpha Centauri Expeditions, a company organizing tours to the planet. There was a salesy video commercial of what would be included in the trip and then we got to view a detailed model and other items we would see there. In typical Imagineer fashion, Pandora Cast Member name Itags, will include, not just origin city and state, but “Earth”, as well.

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I think some of the central themes of the movie are exactly in line with the themes and messages conveyed during a visit to Animal Kingdom. Avatar presents a world and its people that are in tune and interdependent. The respect for one another that the inhabitants demonstrate on Pandora is the same as the edutainment messages we get from It’s Tough to be a Bug and Kali River Rapids as well as reminding us of majesty of nature and the connection between animals and humans in the Rivers of Light show. By allowing guests to get closer to the animals in their natural habitat than most Zoos, Disney gives us the opportunity to get to know creatures with which we share the Earth. They don’t remain obscure images, but take on reality after which most people can no longer resist the temptation to want to insure their survival.

Once past the entrance gate of Animal Kingdom, we are immediately immersed in the1024px-AnimalKingdomEntrance greenness of the Park and all the traditional park trappings maintain the sense of being in a place for away geographically, culturally and societally. Aside from the basic plot, Much of the Avatar movie is spent, in great science fiction fashion, world building. We learn about the native Navi’s religion, family structure, myths, government as well as the world’s rules which maintain harmony within Pandora’s circle of life. The movie stresses what can happen when the balance of nature is upset and how nature will fight to maintain that equilibrium. Animal Kingdom guests can get a look at how the animals are cared for, explore Conservation Station, animal encounters and other interactive, educational areas to learn more. Riding Expedition Everest offers a cautionary tale of the dangers that lurk in unexplored parts of any world.

So, a match that, at first glance, did not seem to make sense, looks different when evaluated against the backdrop of what Animal Kingdom represents. Being transported to Pandora is no different than climbing Everest, going underground with bugs, crossing an African reserve or stopping off at a 1950’s roadside attraction created by an dinosaur bone dig. Walt not only loved natural beauty, but by almost single handedly creating the wildlife documentary format in True Life Adventures, he showed his respect and admiration for our beast, bird and fish neighbors. I’m not sure when I’m going to get there to see Pandora for myself. In the meantime, I’m trying to avoid all the Fan generated video and “reviews” so I can experience it without spoilers or other people’s ideas in my head. I not only expect to be amazed, thrilled and entertained, but reminded that it’s up to us to care for the fragile, little planet Earth that we call home.

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