To start with, here’s the schedule for your emotional life for the forseeable future: Hope, Fear, Hope, Fear, Hope, Fear. Et cetera, on and on for who knows how many months until the Disney deal goes through and they actually start producing new things that we can look at.
Luckily, we’ve gotten pretty good at this Hope and Fear game. We’ve been playing it pretty much nonstop since 1989, starting when Jim Henson — you remember Jim Henson? — when he tried to sell the Muppets to Disney. Y’know, the first time round. Well, here we are again, fifteen years later, right back where we started.
It’s about six hours in on the new era, and now we’re all hunched over the press release, trying to read the tea leaves for hints of what’s coming next.
Disney bought the Muppet characters, but not the whole Henson Company… Disney’s “planning to relaunch the Muppets with new TV specials and series,” which sounds good… They have an agreement with Henson to develop new programming, which I guess means Henson’s still in charge of the productions…
Does a “non-exclusive production agreement” mean that Disney can have someone else do the productions, or what does that mean anyway? After all this time, I’m only partially fluent in press release… Henson’s still keeping Fraggle Rock for some reason, I don’t know what that means…
Hope and fear, hope and fear.
The fantasy that springs to mind, obviously, is walking down the street and a bus goes by and it’s got a huge colorful ad for THE MUPPETS DOING WHATEVER, the new movie COMING SOON TO EVERY THEATER YOU CAN THINK OF. And then the next bus comes by and it’s got a huge ad for the same thing.
Which is basically the opposite of what happened with Muppets From Space, which was apparently advertised on the bottom of beer cans and which opened and closed simultaneously while nobody was looking. I can still remember chatting at work with someone about the Muppets in September 1999 and having her say, hey, I heard something about a new Muppet movie coming out. So I had to say, yeah, it came out three months ago. And then she said, oh.
Disney, for all its potential flaws, will not let that happen.
I mean, here’s a pop quiz: Name all the cheap sequels Disney’s churned out mostly for home video in the last couple years. There’s the new Lion King, obviously, which is currently occupying that big bus ad slot. Then there’s the Lady and the Tramp one, the Peter Pan one, the Jungle Book 2, the Stitch movie — I’m doing this off the top of my head, I haven’t even seen any of these — I think they did an Atlantis one, there’s gotta be a Beauty and the Beast one, I think I heard something about a Pinocchio one…
The point here is not that any of those movies ended up being good or bad. The point is that I can think of at least five of them without trying very hard, and those are mostly Disney’s direct to video throwaways. If there’s one thing Disney can do, it’s those bus ads.
Oh, I can’t wait for the Muppet bus ads. Just thinking about them makes my heart pound.
It’s not even the sentence itself, it’s those plurals. Specials. With an S. How long has it been since someone dared to talk about Muppet specials and series? When the Henson family bought the company back from EM.TV last May, they didn’t talk in plurals like that. We were hoping for maybe another TV-movie. Forget the fear for a second, just enjoy the promise of those plurals.
And then, obviously, the stuff. The stuff! Disney fans throw away more stuff in a month than Muppet fans get in a year. Think of the stuff.
I just went to the Popular Music section of Amazon and searched for Disney. You know how many CD’s came up? Eight hundred and seven.
Eight hundred and seven!
I ask you!
Henson last dipped a flipper into the CD business back in 1994, and they made a good fistful of CD’s. Then, for whatever reason, and I’m sure there were many, they stopped, permanently. Rhino did the one Muppet CD last year, which was great, but that’s all we’ve had for ten years. A whole decade of the music business went by, and we end up with one reissue CD from Rhino Records.
I don’t know what the new productions are going to be like, but if I know Disney, it’s not going to take them ten more years to put out another Muppet CD. Y’know?
So those are the fantasies. Specials and series, bus ads, a DVD set, Muppet Show reruns on ABC Family, maybe some McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. (My pulse is racing again. Down, boy.)
But the fear, obviously, is this: Michael Eisner is introduced to Dave Goelz and mistakes him for a waiter, asks him to bring some more drinks. Dave tries to explain that he’s the guy who performs Gonzo. Michael won’t be spoken to that way, and fires Dave, replacing him with one of the kids from Life With Bonnie.
Who knows what Disney might do. They give Miss Piggy two young nephews. They turn Gonzo into an alien. They make the Muppets do a direct-to-video special where they do fairy tales. You know, some lame Disney thing. You know the kind of things they do.
So we keep circling round and round, hope and fear, hope and fear. Will Disney screw up the Muppets? Could the Muppets be more screwed up than what’s happened in the last ten years? If the answer to that is yes, do we want to watch? Can we help it?
For myself, I’m going to try to focus on the Swinetrek. That’s the image I’ve got for Disney and the Muppets working together: the big crashed Swinetrek prop that they put outside the MuppetVision 3D theater when they recreated it for Disneyland a few years ago.
That crashed Swinetrek is a new thing. There isn’t one at the original attraction in Disney World. But when they built the Disneyland version of MV3D, they didn’t just copy it directly — they put all new stuff around the outside. Funny new stuff. An animatronic Beaker dressed as a crash test dummy. Gonzo’s Catapult of Doom, complete with a Gonzo-shaped hole in the wall. And this big beautiful Swinetrek model, sitting in a crushed sidewalk, with a poster that says “Coming Soon: Pigs In Space” and then a sticker that says “Cancelled: Due to Technical Difficulties.”
It’s a funny gag, and a beautiful prop, and a nice photo-op for theme park guests. It’s also expensive, and tremendously unnecessary. If they’d just copied everything over directly from Disney World, nobody would have noticed. Instead, they came up with all new stuff, complicated and funny and expensive new stuff. You’ve got to hand it to Disney for that.
That Swinetrek is a touchstone for me right now, a reminder that the Muppet spirit coupled with Disney money can create wonderful things.
Or it’s a metaphor for the horrible crash and burn to come.
Either way, it’ll be pretty spectacular to watch. As if we have a choice.
by Danny Horn