Getting snapped up by Disney is often hailed as a remedy for a flagging franchise: it revamped Star Wars following an underwhelming prequel trilogy and – temporarily at least – boosted Spider-Man’s screen credibility by bringing that character into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But it’s not exactly been smooth sailing for the Muppets since they were purchased by the House of Mouse back in 2004.
Back then, Lisa Henson – daughter of Muppets creator Jim and joint CEO of The Jim Henson Company – said: “In the months before his death in 1990, my father… pursued extensive discussions with The Walt Disney Company based on his strong belief that Disney would be a perfect home for the Muppets. As such, the deal we announced today is the realisation of my father’s dream, and ensures that the Muppet characters will live, flourish and continue to delight audiences everywhere, forever.”
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The first major Muppets project under Disney was a 2008 festive special, A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa, which aired on NBC on 17th December that year. But the new era really got under way in earnest three years later, with the release of 2011’s The Muppets movie.
Billed as a “creative reboot“, the film – which saw Kermit and pals work to save the Muppet Theater from a corrupt businessman – was co-written by and starred Jason Segel, with the Forgetting Sarah Marshall star enthusing at the time about his “pure love” for The Muppets.
“We set out to make a Muppet movie that harkened back to the late-’70s, early-’80s Muppets that we grew up with,” he told NPR. “I had the opportunity to work with my childhood idols, and I wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer. So I set out to make that happen.”
Segel’s enthusiasm shone through in a movie that went on to become both a financial and critical success – it made back quadruple its budget at the box office, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song (for Bret McKenzie’s ‘Man or Muppet’) and currently holds a 95 per cent approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Things had got off to a very strong start, but in the eight years that have followed, Disney’s struggled to recapture that early success – and the big problem appears to be the lack of a single unifying vision for the Muppets, one like Segel’s that everyone can agree on.
The box office returns on the 2011 film meant that a sequel was inevitable, but while co-writer Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin returned, Segel did not, saying in 2012: “My goal was to bring the Muppets back and I did that, leaving them in very good hands.”
The finished product, though – 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted – received mixed reviews and, financially, it performed below expectations, with Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures distribution chief Dave Hollis admitting that the film’s opening box office was “definitely disappointing“.
More recent Muppets ventures have been less warmly received still. 2015 saw the characters score their first ongoing prime-time TV series since ’90s favourite Muppets Tonight, with The Big Bang Theory co-creator Bill Prady bringing The Muppets to US network ABC.
The project – a parody of mockumentary series like The Office and Modern Family – followed the personal and professional lives of the Muppets during production of the (fictional) late-night talk show Up Late with Miss Piggy, and the early buzz was good, with a screening of an early pilot episode earning a standing ovation.
But when the series launched in September 2015, it again split the critics – conservative groups in the US slammed the series for being “unsuitable for family viewing”, citing scenes featuring innuendoes (gasp!) and the Muppets drinking booze, while reviews ranged from calling the show “smart and often witty” (The Washington Post) to “tame and lifeless” (Forbes).
An attempt was made to revamp the show midway through its first season, with original showrunner Bob Kushell departing, but by then it was too little, too late and ABC ended up canning The Muppets after a single season.
The latest attempt to revive the Muppets’ fortunes came courtesy of Frozen’s Josh Gad, who had teamed with Once Upon a Time creators Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis on a new take called Muppets Live Another Day.
But again, the lack of a single, consistent vision was allegedly what did it for the project, with The Hollywood Reporter suggesting that Disney’s David Lightbody, who’d recently taken over Muppets Studios, didn’t chime with Gad, Horowitz and Kitsis’s idea, which would’ve taken place after the events of beloved 1984 film The Muppets Take Manhattan.
The show, which was primed to launch on new streaming service Disney+, has now been scrapped altogether, though a second, unscripted project – Muppets Now – is still in the works, featuring short, unscripted celebrity interviews conducted by Kermit, Miss Piggy and friends.
But if Disney wants to restore the Muppets to the heady heights of the 1970s’ The Muppet Show, or even the 2011 movie, it needs to get all its ducks (or should that be chickens?) in a row and, in Jim Henson’s absence, hire a person or team with a real vision on how to reboot the franchise and then allow them the creative freedom to do just that. Because nobody, bar Statler and Waldorf, wants the Muppets to be permanently cancelled.