Thursday, October 20, 2011

Still Not Easy Being Green

The Hollywood Reporter recently published a very interesting article regarding the new Muppets movie and the two risks Disney is taking with it, both of which are interesting to look at.

The first is the Muppets themselves and how Disney has treated them- or rather, until recently mistreated them. Michael Eisner wanted the Muppets badly in 1990, but negotiations were impeded by Jim Henson's untimely death in May of that year. Negotiations went onward, but eventually went nowhere due to a sticking point discussed at length in Michael Davis's book Street Gang: Eisner wanted the Sesame Street characters to be part of the deal. Henson did not want the Sesame Muppets used for commercial purposes and wanted the rights to the characters to revert to the Children's Television Workshop upon his death. However, this was never formally written out. Eisner and Disney eventually got the Muppets, but long after they actually wanted them. CTW (now Sesame Workshop) bought the rights to the Sesame characters in 2000, and Disney bought the rights to Kermit and the Muppet Show cast four years later. Eisner was forced out shortly thereafter, and the Muppets languished at a company that had no idea what to do with them. The characters haven't had a big-screen outing for over a decade, with their last feature, Muppets from Space, produced while still under Henson ownership. Disney's only major projects featuring the characters have been a mediocre made-for-TV movie retelling The Wizard of Oz and a thankfully more Muppety-feeling Christmas special. Thankfully, the Muppets were brought back into the public eye in style a few years ago, reappearing in various realms of entertainment- including the Internet, becoming the talk of the Web with a series of viral videos, including the now-legendary "Bohemian Rhapsody", which almost made the Queen hit the #1 UK Christmas single- a big thing in music over there- for a record third time (the first being its original release, then its resurgence in popularity after appearing in Wayne's World).

Disney seems to be doing a good job reintroducing the Muppets as far as promotion for this film is concerned, both for those who know them and those who have never heard of them. But there's another interesting factor involved and it's the second risk: some of the retired Muppet old guard are concerned with how the characters are being depicted in trailers and teasers for the film, believing that Kermit and company are doing and saying things that they- or the late Henson- would not particularly do. Perhaps the most well-known of these, Frank Oz, the original Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, recently told the British press that he felt the script didn't "respect the characters."

"What would X do/say", both in the terms of an actual person no longer with us such as Jim Henson or a fictional character, is a question that I would imagine comes up a lot in discussing well-known franchise characters. I agree that Kermit buying a mansion and the Muppets breaking up because of his greed does seem out-of-character, but from what we've seen in the trailers, the basic concept of the film is that the Muppets have languished for years and are staging their comeback, which is what they're trying to do in real life with this movie. It may be a bizarre plot decision, but as a parallel to the Muppets's real-life languishing, I guess it works. As for Fozzie's fart shoes, it's clearly a joke to appeal to the young kids who go for that sort of humor, but I think it's justified "in-universe" in that it's called out for what it is- a cheap joke. And that's sort of Fozzie's thing. He's the type who'll do anything to get a laugh, so why wouldn't he resort to what's basically a wearable whoopie cushion?

The other thing I found interesting in the article is that Disney may put forward the "Muppet Man" biopic if this film does well. A biopic of Jim Henson sounds like a winner, and the script was the darling of Hollywood when it circulated in late 2009, but the script has a number of things against it as well. The first being that the scriptwriter basically admitted he made most of it up and used Wikipedia for a lot of his research. The other being a storytelling device used in the film that the Muppets actually exist in a sort of alternate universe- perhaps in Henson's imagination?- and Kermit's life parallels Henson's. (Kermit and Henson have a long discussion with each other at the hospital before his death.) At one point, Kermit is an alcoholic fed up with how his relationship with Miss Piggy is going. I'm sure Disney would be fine with the former, but not so much with the latter. I'd imagine the script would have to go through a lot of revisions if it went forward.

I can understand the fears of some of the retired Muppet veterans, but looking at the trailers and promotional appearances as a whole, I think the Muppets's heart and offbeat sense of humor are where they always have been. Hopefully, Disney's all-out promotion of the movie pays off in the long run. This may be a risk, but hopefully it's one that turns out well for both Disney and the Muppets- in both their and our universes.

THE MUPPETS ©Disney. No ownership intended or implied. Photo by Patrick Wymore/Disney

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