It's Time To Meet The Muppets. But Does Disney Know How?
Recently, Frank Oz (Muppet Legend, Director, Jedi Master) said of Disney's handling of the Muppets, “As much as Disney loves the Muppets, and wants the best for the Muppets, and they truly believe they can do it, they don’t get it.”
He then says, "They don't get the true rebellion and true affection underneath those characters."
I generally am very positive of Disney's acquisitions. In fact, I just wrote a blog entry about why Marvel is thriving at Disney. But, I can't say I disagree with Mr. Oz.
For some reason, Disney can't seem to capture the glory of the Muppets. Maybe it was lightning in a bottle that could have only existed under Jim Henson who was known for nurturing his performers, taking their feedback and always couching his criticisms with praise. However that translated, it turned into something special.
He does go on to say that he does believe in Disney's sincerity to make the Muppets work, "By the way, I don't mean to knock Disney, they really want to do a good job. They've never asked me, and they have not asked the performers how to do it."
"If they just did that – the performers are so brilliant – instead of an outside person, let the performers lead. Then it would be a whole different deal. The audience would appreciate the purity of that."
If this is the case, based on the way Jim Henson worked with his performers, this could be the missing element.
I felt The Muppets was a great attempt to bring back the Muppets. Jason Segel had a loving and nostalgic reverence with a story (co-written with Nicholas Stoller) that had a fun way of taking the characters out of retirement. And it was well received. I enjoyed it. No, I loved it. It reminded me on some levels of the original The Muppet Movie.
When The Muppets Most Wanted came, it was a pleasant film. I really liked it. But, without Jason Segel, it felt like it was missing something. I almost felt like, if The Muppets showed reverence to The Muppet Movie, then The Muppets Most Wanted tried to do the same for The Great Muppet Caper. But it felt a little more derivative than reverential. And most the of the humor actually ended up being with the human stars than the Muppets themselves.
It then felt that Disney kind of lost its way with the Muppets, never really knowing what to do with them.
In 2013, the Muppets were part of the Lady Gaga and the Muppets Holiday Spectacular. In all honesty, I loved this special. I am a Lady Gaga fan. I thought she was on point and made her more accessible. I thought the human guest stars were fun. And I admittedly watched it about 100 times. But, when it came to the Muppets, I felt they were essentially props. I also wondered who this special was geared for. Obviously me! LOL! But I think I'm a very specific kind of audience. I didn't think it necessarily embraced the entertainment for everybody motto for the Muppets.
In 2015, ABC tried to use the Muppets in a The Office style mocumentary situation comedy. The Muppets basically all worked on a talk show hosted by Miss Piggy which aired after the Jimmy Kimmel Show. I, honestly, enjoyed the series and appreciated the different style of storytelling they were doing. But, again, I am a very specific kind of audience. I definitely don't think the Muppets need to be children's fare, but I do think they need to be part of the equation. The Muppets ended up being too adult oriented for some families.
This was a case where I wonder if the performers were asked input on the characters they've grown and developed for years. I think entertainment has become so tight. In this case, they hired two incredibly accomplished writers in the television industry. I might be wrong, but I can imagine there was not a lot of free thinking and improvisation was involved. Which is a shame because this is how the Muppets thrived under Jim Henson.
It is interesting that Muppet Studio doesn't fall under Walt Disney Studios or Disney Media Networks, but under Disney Parks, Experiences and Consumer Products.
A couple years ago, Walt Disney World added The Muppets Present...Great Moments In American History to the Magic Kingdom, an interactive show that seems to be well done. It's all prerecorded, so there's not a lot of improv, but from what I've seen (sadly, I've only been able to watch it on YouTube), it does what it needs to do - entertain and provide audience participation.
So, hopefully, this means that there will be more Muppet entertainment in other parks as well. *cough* *cough* Disneyland Resort *cough* *cough*
But, it's sad to think that this company who's roots is in media entertainment does not have priority at either the studios or the television channels.
Nowadays, aside from their Magic Kingdom show, the Muppets have been relegated to Internet shorts and Muppet Moments on Disney Junior. Although, speaking of Disney Junior, today, the new Muppet Babies shows premiered on network. I got a chance to watch the first episode. I am not the target demographic for this show, but I found the show enjoyable and the animation to be really great. It is true to the spirit of the original. The show is about using your imagination, but, as typical for Disney Junior shows, there are lessons to be learned.
I do think Muppet Studio needs an advocate who can promote Muppet projects for both the movies and television shows. Muppet Babies is great, but it is animated. They need another outlet that can highlight the artistry of puppetry performances without canned dialogue. Let the Muppets truly be the Muppets. I feel bad that Disney has never known where to place the Muppets. It has bounced from one division to another in the company. When it was part of the Studios, nobody wanted to prioritize Muppet projects. Now, it looks like its future lies within the streaming service Disney is developing and, hopefully, more theme park presence. So, let's hope that Disney will take some of what Frank Oz has said to heart and turn to its performers for input.
It's time for Disney to really meet the Muppets.