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