Kermit as Mogul, Farting Fozzie Bear: How Disney's Muppets Movie Has Purists Rattled

2:04 PM PST 10/20/2011 by Kim Masters
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Scott Garfield/Disney
Kermit the Frog and Wanda Sykes in "The Muppets"

Some of the old guard wonder whether screenwriter and star Jason Segel has a true grasp of the characters they helped create.

This article first appeared in the Oct. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

We're trying to get the old gang back together again!" says a voice that unmistakably belongs to Kermit the Frog, in one of the many Muppets trailers the Disney marketing machine has lobbed onto the web in recent weeks.

"We haven't done this in a long time," says another, somewhat anxious voice, recognizable to some as Fozzie Bear's.

And it's true -- they haven't done it in a long time. A whole generation might not recognize Fozzie Bear or even Kermit in the fur‚ much less the sound of their voices. And that's the challenge as Disney prepares to launch the Muppets into theaters for the first time in more than a decade.

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The stakes are high, but not because the film's budget, in the $40 million range, represents an enormous financial gamble or because the hit-hungry Rich Ross regime could use a win. If The Muppets scores, Disney finally will have figured out how to relaunch a neglected franchise that was among the most storied in the media world, solving a puzzle that has baffled the company since it acquired the iconic characters in 2004.

Disney has been working with a vengeance in anticipation of the film's Nov. 23 release to trend up the characters online, including amusing spoofs of such films as The Hangover Part II and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. A song sung by stars Jason Segel and Amy Adams premiered on Ryan Seacrest's radio show Oct. 12. The studio has been buoyed by strong test screenings, and based on Internet chatter, anticipation for the film is high. But the Muppets haven't been in theaters since Muppets From Space tanked for Sony in 1999.

According to a Muppets veteran, toward the end of his life, Muppets creator Jim Henson was finding it a challenge to keep his creatures in the public eye. He was operating independently in an era of media concentration, which helps explain his decision to sell to Disney.

"It was difficult  even before Jim died [in 1990], and it became very, very difficult after Jim died," says this insider ruefully. "We had the characters still doing things but without a constant, in-your-face exposure that something like The Simpsons has. … They lost a generation."

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So this is the Muppets' big chance. "A feature film can be a very powerful way to relaunch a brand," says kids TV veteran Toper Taylor, president of Cookie Jar Entertainment. "Hopefully they'll be able to bottle lightning once again."

Certainly it worked for Sony with The Smurfs. It had been a couple of decades since the blue creatures had their heyday, and the studio brought them roaring back with a worldwide gross of more than $540 million. (With a $110 million budget, the wager was far higher than Disney's on the Muppets.)

But in relaunching brands, Taylor says, it's crucial to make sure you "don't disenchant their core audience." That is where the path for the Muppets is challenging. The old Muppets guard -- a group of writers and performers involved in creating the franchise -- is eager for the neglected troupe to shine again, almost desperate in their longing for the film to work. But though they have not yet seen it, some wonder whether screenwriter and star Segel -- an obsessed Muppets fan -- has a true grasp of the characters they helped create.

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