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The Risk of Reviving the Muppets

Illustration: Edel Rodriguez
Edel Rodriguez

Fozzie Bear invents fart shoes and Kermit lives in a mansion as purists fret over Disney's relaunch of a beloved franchise in need of a makeover.

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.

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."

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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The Muppets involves a new character, Walter, who is on vacation in Los Angeles with his friends from Smalltown, U.S.A. (Segel and Adams). After they discover a Texas oilman's plot to raze the Muppet Theater, they reunite the Muppets, who have broken up. Fozzie is playing with a tribute band in Nevada, Miss Piggy has been working at Vogue Paris, and Gonzo is a plumbing magnate.

The concern among Muppets insiders is that Segel and director James Bobin (a writer on Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Conchords) didn't have a complete understanding of the Muppets characters or were willing to sacrifice the characters' integrity to land a joke. "They're looking at the script on a joke-by-joke basis, rather than as a construction of character and story," says one.

A small example is in one of the many trailers Disney has released, when Fozzie makes a fart joke. "We wouldn't do that; it's too cheap," says another Muppets veteran. "It may not seem like much in this world of [Judd] Apatow humor, but the characters don't go to that place."

There is a list of similar concerns: Kermit would never live in a mansion, as he does in this movie. The Muppets, depicted in the script as jealous of Kermit's wealth, would not have broken up in bitterness. The script "creates a false history that the characters were forced to act out for the sake of this movie," says an old Muppets hand.

 "I'm very hopeful the characters are as warm and loving to each other as they were when Jim was directing," says Bonnie Erickson, executive director of the Jim Henson Legacy, dedicated to keeping his work in the public eye. Erickson, who designed and built the original Miss Piggy, says she's "very excited" that Disney is putting so much energy into bringing the Muppets back but acknowledges that she's nervous. "I'm hoping the standard of excellence that Jim set is maintained," she says.

Frank Oz, the most famous living Muppets performer -- known best as Miss Piggy -- spoke more harshly in a recent interview with the British paper Metro. "I wasn't happy with the script," he said bluntly. "I don't think they respected the characters. But I don't want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie."

The irony is that Segel wanted to make the film because he is such a passionate Muppets fan. Even the old guard acknowledges that Segel wants to do right by the Muppets, but many feel the pervasive attitude on the film was dismissive of those who originated the characters.

Disney and Segel's reps declined comment on issues raised by Muppets insiders. A source involved with the production says he is aware that some of the Muppets performers had concerns but believes those were largely allayed as they saw the passion of Segel and others involved in the movie. "Maybe they were saying things behind our backs," he acknowledges. "But to our faces, they seem happy."

The tension involved in reviving the faded Muppets franchise is one that should have familiar echoes at Disney. After the death of Walt Disney in 1966, executives at the company became so engrossed in wondering "What would Walt do?" that Disney became almost paralyzed. In the case of the Muppets, the tendency to enshrine the creator might be magnified by the fact that the bearded Henson died so young and unexpectedly at 53.

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."

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.

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."

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."

THE NEXT BIG MUPPETS PROJECT?: If the new movie does well, a biopic about Jim Henson could go forward

When rookie Aussie scribe Christopher Weekes wrote the screenplay The Muppet Man, a fanciful take on the life of Muppets creator Jim Henson, who died in 1990, it was designed as a writing sample. In short order, it topped the 2009 Black List of unofficial "most liked" screenplays, scored Weekes work on a number of studio projects and found its way to the Henson Co., which came on as a producer. Disney, which already was working with the company to reboot the Muppets franchise, got involved with the project in late 2010. Henson and Disney are mum on plans for the biopic, but the performance of The Muppets' relaunch surely will determine whether it moves forward anytime soon. In the meantime, Henson Co. CEO Lisa Henson has brought on a new writer: David Magee, who penned the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Finding Neverland, about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie.  -- Jay A. Fernandez

Scott Garfield/Disney
Henson Associates/Everett Collection