Walt Disney’s obsession with maintaining the pixie-sprinkled “Magic Kingdom” facade of his corporate empire – up to and including forbidding cartoon voice-actors to publically admit that the characters weren’t “real” for fear of angering children – is the stuff of legends. His methods may have been extreme, but they were more than mere eccentricity. Walt understood, like few before or after him, the power of having an audience see the purveyor of their entertainment as a figure of innate, intangible goodness as opposed to “just” a business.
Someone else who understood that – albeit while operating on a smaller plane and aesthetic – was Jim Henson. If you’ve ever seen the behind-the-scenes materials associated with his Muppet productions, you understand how hard he and his people worked to make their intricate artistry look like an effortless, hippie-infused “groove.”
One imagines if either man were reading these headlines, they’d be instantly reminded WHY they so carefully managed public image. Apparently there’s been serious bad-blood in the production of the new “Muppets” movie; and it’s just spilled out into the open. That spinning sound you hear is Disney P.R. reps, getting ready to justify the existance of their jobs…
The big “hook” of the new Muppet movie is that it’s an in-narrative relaunch of the franchise: The Muppets have broken up at some point in the last decade (the last feature movie was in 1999) and are being reunited “Blues Brothers” by a starstruck fan.
Jason Segel, who plays the human sidekick to said fan (a new Muppet named Walt. Heh) and real-life Muppet fanatic, is the driving force behind the new film, which is also the first to be set up entirely by new the Muppet owners at Disney. That’s ALL new territory for the remaining members of the “original” Henson Muppet-crew, who’d previously done everything including writing and directing “in-house, so there were always going to be bumps to be worked out. Unfortunately, it sounds as though “worked out” didn’t fully happen.
In an interview two days ago with Metro, Muppet O.G. Frank Oz dropped a bombshell: The reason he’s not back as the voice of Miss Piggy in this new film is that he didn’t like the script… and that he felt it “disrespected the characters.” That’s nightmare-scenario stuff for Muppet diehards, who’ve feared that Disney would overhaul the signature Hensonian soul out of the characters since they were first purchased. The Hollywood Reporter followed up on the story (and nicely summarized the difficulty the franchise has suffered over the last decade) and uncovered that a substantial number of the longtime Muppet crew felt the same way – up to an including wanting to take their names off the film.
So… yeah. So much for the “happy happy fan film” vibe this had been selling itself on so far. THIS would be why guys like Disney and Henson wanted to keep corporate shenanigans as far in the background of their projects as possible.
On the one hand, one wants to “side” with the originators on things like these. On the other hand, the issues raised (risque jokes, altered characterization) sound more than a little like overprotectiveness and resistance to new blood. Deep as my respect for Team Henson runs, it can’t really be ignored that the franchise was on a long downswing after “Muppet Christmas Carol;” and the last “in-house” feature “Muppets From Space” just wasn’t all that good. Also, some extra information in the THR article – namely that Oz was actually developing a Muppet-reboot of his own that got sidelined in favor of “it-guy” Segel’s pitch – casts some of the reaction in a different light altogether.