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

Kermit the Frog and Wanda Sykes in "The Muppets"
Kermit the Frog and Wanda Sykes in "The Muppets"
 Scott Garfield/Disney

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

It might be that some of the original Muppets crew are overly possessive. But so great are the concerns of some Muppets performers who were involved in making the film that sources say a couple of key players -- including the performer behind (or beneath) Kermit the Frog -- considered removing their names from the credits. But they didn't, and a Muppets veteran says the gesture would have been costly to the performers and fruitless. "It doesn't send any message," he says. "[Disney] wouldn't care."

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Disney's acquisition of the Muppets was born in bitterness. Former Disney chief Michael Eisner had worked furiously to get Henson to make the sale, starting in the late 1980s, but Henson died before negotiations wrapped. His heirs sued Disney for exploiting the characters, even though no deal had closed. In 2000, they sold the company to Germany's EM.TV for a reported $680 million, half of it in EM.TV stock. When that company subsequently collapsed, the heirs bought back the classic Muppets (excluding the Sesame Street characters, which had been sold separately) for $89 million and soon flipped them back to Disney in 2004.

Eisner expressed hope that Kermit and Miss Piggy would "have an opportunity to be seen and loved by millions … through Disney's distribution channels at home and abroad, including home video, family television programming and consumer products."  But just a few weeks after the deal closed, Eisner -- engaged in an ill-considered war with Roy Disney -- lost his chairman title. He remained at the company only for another year.

Those who were close to Henson say that though he wanted the Muppets to wind up with Disney, he expected to use his own power to safeguard them. But he wasn't in the picture, and a longtime Muppets observer says there was a clash of cultures from the start. Used to fungible animated characters, Disney did not grasp Henson's hallmarks: meticulous puppet construction and design and a close circle of writers and puppeteers who are "performers" assigned exclusively to their characters.

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Even before Eisner left, remembers a Disney insider, the company was not at all sure what to do with the Muppets. The company found that, as Muppet insiders would say, not just anyone could "wiggle the dollies." A Disney insider confirms, "Once we had them, they became an orphan in the company." The Muppets were handed over to Disney's consumer products division, where "they languished."

"They treated us like a stepchild nobody really wanted," says a Muppets veteran. "Suddenly, they've got Michael Eisner's prize, and nobody knows what to do with it."

Until 2006, when custody of the Muppets was transferred to the film studio. Then-chairman Dick Cook couldn't interest his own movie executives, so Kermit and friends were assigned to the studio's special-events group. Cook engaged Oz to develop a script, which Oz was to direct. (He had directed The Muppets Take Manhattan as well as live-action movies including Little Shop of Horrors and What About Bob?) But as that film was on the brink of getting a green light, Cook was ousted.

While the special-events unit was developing the Oz script, Cook's executives were talking to Segel. When he pitched the idea for a Muppets movie, those previously unenthusiastic executives became more interested. The fact that Disney moved ahead on the script Segel wrote with Nicholas Stoller left the old Muppets pros suspicious, as one puts it, that "this is a case of Disney wanting to get into the Jason Segel business," as opposed to reviving the franchise. This insider adds, "My biggest hope is that it comes across as a Muppets film and not a Jason Segel film that the Muppets happen to be in."

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But even those who are most concerned hold out hope. Looking at the latest trailer, a Muppets veteran says: "There are scenes where my heart is touched. Despite everything, the truth of these characters comes out. If we have to get through fart jokes to get there, so be it."

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