There's been a lot of talk lately about Disney arguably ruining a certain giant franchise. You know, the one that begins with "star" and ends with a surname-obsessed old woman harassing a bored teenager in the desert. Putting that old debate aside, we'd like to focus on another iconic beacon of nostalgia that was acquired by Disney, only to be run into the ground: the Muppets. Since they currently have no shows running or movies in the pipeline, the biggest recent platform for Jim Henson's beloved creations was an ad for Facebook Portal, an online chat service that presumably opens up a "portal" between you and pervy Facebook employees.
Sure, the Muppets have appeared in tons of commercials before, from their earliest days to the time Denny's forced Miss Piggy to devour her dead friends and relatives on camera. But this ad somehow seems extra depressing -- not just because the Muppets are shilling for Facebook, but also the spot's storyline, which finds them scattered across the globe and only able to talk to each other through Portal (apparently Skype doesn't exist in their universe). Didn't the Muppets just get back together? Is this commercial canon? Regardless, this bummer of an ad perhaps inadvertently serves as a perfect encapsulation of the sad state of the Muppets.
To truly understand modern Muppet-dom, we have to look at the Jim Henson Company's history with Disney, which makes George Lucas' fraught relationship with the Mouse House look downright cozy by comparison. Disney was all set to buy the Muppets in 1989, for $150 million. They even planned to promote the sale by replacing Disneyland's costumed characters with an all-Muppet roster for an entire year. The entrance to the park would be re-dressed to read "Muppetland," animatronics of Miss Piggy and Animal would randomly show up in classic rides, and the Matterhorn was going to be painted Kermit's shade of green -- which, conveniently, would also camouflage any evidence of motion sickness.
After Henson's untimely death, his family had "second thoughts" about the merger, which then fell through. The Hensons even sued Disney for "continued use of the Muppets," accusing them of "outright theft of Jim Henson's legacy." Disney countersued, claiming that they had an oral contract with Henson. Even though things got uglier than a Skeksis butthole, the two sides eventually settled.
While Disney distributed many of the Muppet movies, they weren't able to get their four-fingered gloves on the characters just yet. Oddly, in 2000, the entire Henson Company was sold to German TV outfit EM.TV for a whopping "$680 million in cash and stock." Unfortunately, that same "spending spree" led to massive debt, and the company's stock fell by 95% in less than a year. Which is perhaps why EM.TV proposed that Kermit should break up with Miss Piggy and start dating a "girl mechanic" literally named "Mercedes," all while hosting a TV show with the express purpose of establishing "Mercedes-Benz as the favorite car among children."
Before they got the chance to pitch Big Bird In M Is For 'Marlboro,' EM.TV imploded. The Hensons were able to buy back the company for just $89 million in 2003. Disney finally acquired the Muppets the following year for a reported $75 million -- half of what they were going to pay more than a decade earlier. Disney even bragged about how cheaply they nabbed the characters in a letter to shareholders.
But after finally adding the felt stars to their ever-growing stable of intellectual properties, Disney didn't seem to know what to do with them. They produced a forgettable Muppet-themed remake of The Wizard Of Oz for television. They developed a parody of America's Next Top Model, unsurprisingly titled America's Next Muppet, which "died in the planning stages." They seemed to have finally cracked the code with 2011's The Muppets, which is pretty much the Force Awakens of Muppet movies. It found older, embittered versions of the characters reestablishing their relationships with the help of new characters.
The Muppets is a two-hour toke of nostalgia, but it isn't without self-examination. The film questions whether obsessing over the pop culture of one's youth is a healthy adult activity -- a theme best explored in the form of a power ballad.
"Man Or Muppet" ended up winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. The movie was critically praised, and went on to make over $165 million worldwide. The Muppets were back! Then came Muppets Most Wanted, originally titled The Muppets ... Again! The sequel finds Kermit swapping places with a notorious jewel thief who looks just like him. At face value, it's a hilarious family friendly caper. Delve a little deeper, and it becomes a Kafkaesque horror story about the fragility of identity.
Despite positive reviews, Muppets Most Wanted only earned $80 million, making it a "disappointment to the studio." So Disney responded by ... not making another Muppet movie. They pulled a complete 180 and decided to focus on a new Muppet TV show, curiously "aimed at an adult audience." Even before it aired, ABC's The Muppets raised eyebrows, contriving a scandal in which Kermit breaks up with Miss Piggy and dates a younger pig named Denise (as far as we know, she has no connection to any luxury car manufacturers). Furthering the show's descent into the unnerving specifics of Muppet sexuality, there is also a storyline in which Fozzie Bear dates a human, to the horror of her parents.
This was seemingly the show's attempt to be progressive, with the parents' closed-minded reaction calling to mind bigoted reactions to same-sex or interracial couples. But by sexualizing one of the Muppets and putting him in a bestial relationship, it became a creepy mess that undercut the intended message. Similarly, after ending things with Kermit, Miss Piggy is straight up fucking Josh Groban.
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The show wasn't exactly well-received. Critics were harsher than Statler and Waldorf, calling it "half-baked" and "a sordid prostitution of the once-sweet Muppets." It was cancelled after one season. Then the guy who played Kermit was fired for "unacceptable business conduct" and, oddly enough, replaced by the guy who performed Constantine, Kermit's evil doppelganger.
The Muppet franchise was in a state of disarray. Then came hope in the form of Disney's new streaming service. Originally there were plans for a new live-action Muppet series on Disney+. Co-written by Josh Gad, Muppets Live Another Day was a direct sequel to Muppets Take Manhattan, set in the 1980s and focusing on the Muppet gang's search for a missing Rowlf. Described as "Muppets by way of Stranger Things," the project was eventually scrapped over "creative differences." Instead, Disney+ is developing an "unscripted shortform" Muppet series, for some reason.
So yes, the Muppets aren't performing together right now, but it's not because of geographical limitations. It's due to corporate mismanagement and baffling creative decisions. Jim Henson's creations appeal to kids and adults alike because their anarchic absurdity transcends life experience. It's pure, meticulously crafted goofballery. To abandon that in favor of awkward sex jokes is just lazy. And to abandon them altogether? That just sucks.
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