Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What's a Muppet? - Part 4: The Disney Definition

Due to the overwhelming popularity of The Muppet Show, Henson decided it was time to talk to the biggest name in entertainment: the Walt Disney Company. By the 1980s, the Muppets had become an unstoppable brand and, with Henson's growing passion toward non-Muppet related projects, he wanted to make sure he could keep the Muppets afloat without his assistance. So, he turned to then-president Ron Miller and senior executive Roy Disney to discuss a possible merger between the two companies. At this time the Muppets were rivaling Disney in terms of audience numbers, as the Disney Studio was going through a major creative slump in both their animated and non-animated films. A Henson-owned Disney studio was a very possible scenario.

This idea was put on hold and did not resurface until Michael Eisner took charge of the company. And he was a lot less interested in the deal. When he was in charge, the Disney films were just about to start winning back audiences (with Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid in the pipelines) and the demand for Muppets had died down since the end of The Muppet Show. Henson stayed in contact with the company, and a merger was no longer part of the equation. But a buyout was. This was fine for Henson, as he knew the Muppets would be in good hands. But Eisner wanted the rights to all Muppet franchises, including Sesame Street. For Henson, that was out of the question.

As the ties between the Muppets and Disney were becoming tighter, Henson helped develop many Muppet-related productions for the Disney Studio. This would begin with a complete overhaul of the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts. For one year, Disneyland would become "Muppetland," and every attraction would get a Muppet overhaul while the Disney characters "took a break." Down in Florida, more permanent Muppet attractions would be added, including a parody of Disney-MGM's "The Great Movie Ride" called "The Great Muppet Movie Ride," a Gonzo-owned "Pandemonium Pizza Parlor" with animatronic rat waiters, and a 3-D movie Muppet*Vision 3D. Eisner, was willing to make the merger official, even without the Sesame Street puppets, with all of these great projects lined up.

Eisner and Henson, about to embark on a new journey.

But, unexpectedly, Henson died mere days before the contract was to be signed.

Drawn by Disney artists Joe Lanzisero and Tim Kirk

Almost every Disney Park project got scrapped, save for Muppet*Vision 3D, which had already been filmed, and a promotional special celebrating the merger entitled The Muppets at Walt Disney World.

Where dreams come true...

This hour-long special was the final Muppet-related production seen by the world before Henson's death, airing 10 days earlier. The special takes on an odd sense of poignancy due to that fact. It appears to be Henson's actual farewell to his Muppets.

Henson, on location, filming one of his last specials.

The story opens with Kermit gathering all of his friends and returning to his home, the swamp.  He hopes to show them his roots, taking them back to the simple pleasures he had before going to Hollywood and becoming a star.  But when the Muppets learn that Disney World is nearby, they choose to visit the park, much to Kermit's dismay.

Without any tickets, the group sneaks in and separates, as a dim-witted security guard spends the hour trying to track them down.  And, our villain is once again played by the great Charles Grodin.

Always a pleasure.

Each character has their own adventure and somehow they manage to bounce around all three parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, and Disney-MGM Studios) without any trouble. Fozzie tries out some comedy in Frontierland and is ultimately welcomed by the Country Bears. The Electric Mayhem goes on a "world tour in a day" at Epcot. Bean Bunny is cute. Miss Piggy gets dragged onto every ride by Beauregard. Rowlf gets put in the pet care facilities. Beaker gets a bucket stuck on his head. And Animal stalks his prey:

It's weird how they let Animal behave this way in a Disney special.

My favorite part is Gonzo's story, as he becomes enamored with the "less picturesque" aspects of the park. He ends up in the sewers, the off-limits structural portions of rides, and the giant laundry room. I must admit, I am a Disney Park fanatic and the rarely let anyone behind the scenes like this. This story kind of sums up the specials attitude towards Disney World as a whole. Everyone has a negative perspective of the park (except Gonzo, how insists that the best parts of the park are the trash cans). This seems to have been hinting at Henson's own feelings with the corporate entity as a whole and Kermit in particular has a rotten time because of it. Until little Raven-Symone shows up.

By the end, everyone reunites and the Muppets get to meet Mickey Mouse in person.  They all join in song talking about the wonders of dreams, and we get a shot of Mickey and Kermit with their arms around each others shoulders solidifying the new deal.

Alas, fate threw a wrench into the Disney-Muppet plans and the Muppets were aimless for a while.  The Disney Studio unofficially adopted them for the next decade, overseeing the distribution rights of past Muppet projects, developing new television programs like Dinosaurs and Muppets Tonight, and releasing a couple movies through their production studios.  Finally, in 2004, the Muppets became official Disney property.

You can see them there, behind Pinocchio and the Dalmatians.

The Muppets were now a part of the Disney family.  As a result, the Muppet Workshop was no more and new Muppet construction would be handled by the Disney owned Puppet Heap and all Muppet productions were now a part of The Muppets Studio.


Jim Henson's Creature Shop remains a separate entity and they now handle all Sesame Street puppet construction.  They have also branched out in to producing other material that would have originally been considered Muppet territory.  Because of legal reasons, the new "Muppets" created by the Creature Shop are officially "Creatures," abandoning the once clear division between exaggeration vs. realism.

"Muppets," under Disney, now solely refer to the cast of The Muppet Show and related materials.  Although Disney holds the distribution rights to past Muppet movies and Fraggle Rock, thus far, the only Muppet productions have been centered around Kermit and his pals.  While the technical "Muppet" term still applies when referring to the Sesame Street puppets, officially, "The Muppets" refer to one distinct group of characters.

While it seems as if Henson's Muppet legacy has been swallowed up by the Disney giant, it's important to remember that this was actually part of Henson's plan.  It came 14 years behind schedule, but Henson's vision was ultimately, fulfilled.  So, if anyone asks you what a Muppet is, don't get worried about the semantics of "Creatures" or "fancy puppet" or "Sesame Street" or "Disney-owned."

A Muppet is someone who inspires, entertains, loves, and dreams.

The two best Muppets of all time


  1. I get so bummed out every time I think about what could have been. Now that Disney finally owns the Muppets, they should resurrect some of those theme park concepts. At the very least Gonzo's restaurant; it fits next to MuppetVision more than the randomly placed Pizza Planet. And also it would be frigging amazing.

    1. The Gonzo ride could have been lots of fun, too. My distaste for the Great Movie Ride stems from two major issues. First of all, the ride hasn't aged well, as half of the movies didn't really stand out to me. Second, except in a few instances, you don't have much direct interaction with the movies, as they just seem to go according to script. Having Gonzo bring the usual Muppet chaos to the movies would definitely liven things up.

      I kind of wonder if the advertised rides in The Muppets movie reflect those discarded dreams.

  2. Actually, Disney does not have any ownership of Fraggle Rock--that property still belongs to The Jim Henson Company.

  3. The Muppets at Disney World is another one with great outtakes. Particularly the ones involving Fozzie. Frank Oz had such a presence when puppeteering.
    My favourite one is the one where Kermit flubs a line and gets flustered.