Disney Buys the Muppets: 20 Years Later

Published: February 19, 2024
Categories: Commentary, Feature

Twenty years ago, the creative worlds of Jim Henson got a historic shakeup when The Walt Disney Company purchased the Muppets and their back catalog. A lot has happened since the acquisition, some good, and some not-so-good. It’s gotten us thinking: is Disney the best place for the Muppets? Our own Matthew Soberman and Jarrod Fairclough reflect on the last two decades.

JARROD FAIRCLOUGH: Twenty years of Disney Muppet-ship!  That’s a whole two decades, if my math is correct.  Math is different here in Australia, depending on the exchange rate.

MATTHEW SOBERMAN: I deal exclusively in Disney Dollars, so I think we’ll be fine. Yeah, twenty years is wild. I was just re-reading the reaction Danny Horn wrote all the way back in 2004, and it boggles the mind that the Muppets have been with Disney for a longer stretch than the time between Jim Henson trying to sell the Muppets to Disney and the eventual acquisition. 

JARROD: I hadn’t even thought about that!  I don’t remember exactly when I heard that Disney had finally made the purchase, but I remember going to the official Muppets website and they had a countdown going with a photo of Kermit with Mickey ears, and it was up there for what seemed like a year, but was probably only a few months.

MATTHEW: I remember learning about it a little late, because I had gotten Disney stock as a Bar-Mitzvah present the year before, and when my 2004 Annual Report came to me, Kermit and Miss Piggy were hobnobbing with Pinocchio and Baloo.

JARROD: I wanna hobnob with Baloo!  So, 20 years in, give me in 5 words or less your feelings about Disney’s handling of The Muppets.

MATTHEW: I’d go with: complicated, but skewing positive.

JARROD: Great one. I’d go along the same lines with: Mixed, but ultimately good.  If I’m allowing myself an extra word, and it’s my game so you can’t stop me, I’d have to say: Mixed, but the right choice.  Wait, no, that’s still 5 words.  I told you math was different here.

MATTHEW: See what happens when you use the metric system? But you (and, I guess by extension, I) are right. This hasn’t been a perfect relationship, but ultimately, I do believe that Disney and its clout in the media landscape have given the best chance for the Muppets to survive as a viable franchise.

JARROD: I very much agree.  It’s been a damn roller coaster, and god knows the lows have been low (cough Muppet Wizard of Oz cough) but when I look at a lot of the highs, I don’t think any other studio or company would have been able to achieve those things.  I’m often hearing things when Disney makes a weird choice (like canceling Muppets Mayhem) that “The Henson Company should buy the characters back”, but let’s be honest – would we get anywhere near the same stuff we’ve had with Disney if Henson had stayed in charge?  I don’t think so.

MATTHEW: It breaks my heart to say so, but in my gut, I think Henson re-buying the Muppets would be a feel-good story, but it wouldn’t do much beyond that. The two biggest (and best) projects they’ve made since selling the Muppets are The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock, both of which required the participation of major distributors to make happen to the level of quality we associate with Henson. With Disney, they’ve got the big studio already. All they have to do is get it approved.

JARROD: Right, logistically the current situation makes a lot more sense and provides the oppurtunity for a lot more content, at a much easier level. I think the quality has been there in recent years, and I’d argue there haven’t been a lot of missteps in the past decade, perhaps Muppets Now aside. If you look at everything from, say, Muppets Most Wanted onwards, there have been almost only decent quality productions, even if the masses didn’t always love what The Muppets were laying down.

MATTHEW: I think you’re coming close to something that’s a big reason as to why I still think Disney and the Muppets work together: Disney keeps giving the Muppets opportunities. If they wanted to bury the property, they could BURY it. (The Tomorrowland movie sends its regards.) But even when Muppets Most Wanted didn’t do as well at the box office, we got the 2015 series. And when that got canceled, we got Muppets Now. And when Muppets Now failed, Muppets Haunted Mansion wasn’t far off. In the current media landscape, it means a lot when a studio still has confidence in you to keep taking chances.

JARROD: Also, this is a company who invested quite a lot of money in two massive live shows!  Sure, the 2015 series tanked, but Disney still had the faith in the franchise to let them use The Hollywood Bowl, and later fly the entire team out to London, just to give a live show that wasn’t even made for Disney+ content, it was purely just for the fans.  I think where they’ve shined though is when they’ve leaned in to that fandom side of things.  We’re a vocal bunch, but we’re also only a small bunch, so we can have a relationship to this thing that, say, Star Wars fans just can’t.

MATTHEW: You’re absolutely right. I think perhaps because we’re a very tight-knit fandom that we think we’re larger than we truly are. I mean, for pete’s sake, the Muppet performers know about ToughPigs! There’s a good chance some executive for The Muppets Studio could be reading this right now! But for whatever reason, I think the public at large likes the idea of Muppets, but they don’t have an overwhelming desire to see new stuff with them. I don’t understand it, but Disney has done its best to try and keep the Muppets relevant to the modern audience, but still keep the hardcore fans like us happy.

JARROD: Right, and they’ve done a decent job, again by giving us new content, but maybe they need to almost ONLY appeal to us.  Which is a terrible business decision, sure, but that’s where they’ve really made the most impact.  When it comes to modern audiences, it’s all the fault of the early-to-mid 90’s.  People don’t want to see a new story of Kermit and the gang putting on a show.  People wanna see ‘lol Kermit is playing Harry Potter and we can only keep one human’, all because of two out of eight theatrical films.  And I respect Disney for not falling into that trap.

MATTHEW: I give Disney massive amounts of respect for not giving into public demands just for the sake of being popular. They get people who care about the Muppets to create stuff for them, and that thoughtfulness has kept my interest alive. But I do want to suspend the Disney love-fest for a moment, because we both said it’s been complicated and mixed. Mixlicated, if you will. Where do you think Disney still has room to improve? I can tell you where I think the biggest gap is, but I want to hear what you have to say.

JARROD: Firstly, a Mixlicated is my favorite cocktail.  Secondly, where Disney has failed with The Muppets is the total lack of consistency.  We get one Muppet thing, and then we don’t get much else for a while.  And I know for a fact this is something the new Muppets Studio management is actively trying to fix, but for a long time it didn’t feel like there was much of a plan.  Sure, they might go ‘Let’s make a TV special’, but there weren’t any talks about what comes AFTER that TV special.  And so fans would get all excited, especially if the production was good, and then that momentum wouldn’t last.  Which is why I think it’s been so hard for Disney to keep that mass appeal.  Say what you will about the quality of some of the Marvel or Star Wars stuff, but there are ALWAYS productions on the go.

MATTHEW: Having a Muppet equivalent of Kevin Feige or Dave Filoni or Pete Docter would go a long way to keeping the brand vibrant.

JARROD: Oh, for sure, and I’ll gladly accept that job.  But I believe that’s also what current Muppets Studio VP Leigh Slaughter is attempting.  And I have full faith in her, and only half because she’s a fellow Aussie. 

MATTHEW: Here’s hoping she can succeed at that! Meanwhile, my biggest complaint has not to do with the Muppets’ future, but rather with their past. Mind you, this is a bigger issue with Disney on the whole, but when they purchased the Muppets, they also bought a massive back catalog of material. I think I, as a lot of folks did at the time, thought Disney+ was going to be the way to get classic Muppet material in front of fans. But streaming is streaming, and it became painfully evident that Disney wouldn’t shell out for the massive amount of licensing that would need to be done to get those specials and series back in front of eyeballs. And showing just how much is out there is a big part of convincing people that the Muppets are still worth watching. The Muppet Show on Disney+ is a major coup, but there’s still so much left to see. Maybe I just want to watch A Muppet Family Christmas as intact a form as can be, without having to navigate dozens of recordings on YouTube, but I’m a simple fan.

JARROD: Ah, yes, that fun licensing discussion.  I don’t remember who told me this, but a large reason the original Muppet Babies stuff can never be released is because most of the deals Henson with companies did for the live action clips were all handshake agreements.  I believe they found one to use a Spider-Man clip in a filing cabinet written on a napkin.  So when it comes to stuff like A Muppet Family Christmas, I can kind of get it.  That said, it doesn’t explain why we can’t get The Muppets At Walt Disney World or The Muppets Go To The Movies streaming.  Hopefully someone who can get it done is reading this right now, and they’re going to pause after this sentence and call the legal department to sort out what needs to be done.  Then we can take all the credit!

MATTHEW: We did it, Jarrod! We saved “Love in a Laundromat!” Anyway, to Disney’s credit, while they haven’t licensed a lot of this stuff for official release, they also haven’t taken it down from the places where it can be found. Like I said, they could bury this stuff in the Disney Vault whenever they want, but it’s nice that they understand there’s a demand for it. 

JARROD: Yeah, I think secretly a lot of the people in charge like those bootlegs being out there, because they know their hands are tied when it comes to releasing it, but they still want it to be seen.  It’s if they start removing stuff from Disney+ that I’ll kick off.

MATTHEW: It seems more possible than ever. Luckily, what has been purged hasn’t really been connected to any of their more popular properties, so hopefully they’re safe for now. To wildly change things, I think it’s worth noting that The Muppets Studio is in a unique place within Disney’s corporate infrastructure, as they fall under the domain of Walt Disney Imagineering, which are the folks who create all the Disney parks and resorts.. And especially in recent years, the parks folks have shown that they REALLY love the Muppets. How else would Sam the Eagle get a barbecue restaurant in EPCOT?

JARROD: I heard it was between Sam and Mr Curly Twirly, but I think they made the right call.  Disney Imagineering is such a weird place for The Muppets to be, but it also kind of makes sense.  Like, it’s the underdogs just trying to put on a show, and that’s what Imagineering is – the people on the side, not those heroes in the main building, just doing their best to give everyone a good time.  That’s why I think the parks folks love them so much, they seem to be the franchise they’re allowed to play with the most.  Because they’re theirs.  They’re part of the family.

MATTHEW: In a way, they’re a huge part of the effort to keep them relevant. Sure, it may take a while for a new Muppet movie or series to be made, but suddenly you’re hungry at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and boom, Rizzo’s there for you. And given that, in the face of an ever-shifting media landscape, Disney’s realized that the parks are the most fiscally dependable arm of the company. And if those Imagineers keep playing with the Muppets, who knows what’ll come next?

JARROD: Maybe we’ll finally get that Muppet/Disneyland takeover they were discussing before Jim passed away!  I can’t wait to ride a green Matterhorn!  Or Big Thunder Mountain but it’s now shaped like Gonzo’s nose!  Or some third funny example I haven’t thought of yet!

MATTHEW: I’ve got it… Disney’s Animal Kingdom (But the Muppets’ Animal, Not Just Animals in General).

JARROD: That’s not at Disneyland though, Matthew!  Honestly, I thought better of you.

MATTHEW: Okay, Pi-Rats of the Caribbean?

JARROD: You’re a goddamn genius.  You get a raise.

MATTHEW: Can I get that in Disney Dollars? They may not be used anymore, but they’ll make a mint on the collectible market!

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