Over the past decade or so, Disney has had uncanny success in terms of acquiring companies that expand and strengthen their brand: they absorbed creative partners Pixar, leading to greater synergy and more output from the Emeryville, California-based animation studio, and bought both Marvel and Lucasfilm, two studios whose library of characters and seemingly unlimited output means untold revenues and cross-promotional possibilities for years to come. But one acquisition that hasn’t paid off well was the studio’s purchase of Jim Henson‘s Muppets in 2004. As Disney launches a new digital series with the characters, it seems that they have moved out of the spotlight and into a holding pattern as the company tries to decide what, exactly, to do with them.
The announcement of the digital series is designed to be an exciting extension of the brand, on the eve of the release of this spring’s oddly underrated "Muppets Most Wanted" on home video (the "unnecessarily extended" version of the movie is even zanier than the theatrical cut and highly recommended). But what this announcement also effectively makes clear is the end of the Muppets as a viable property for the film and television divisions of the company; from now on the Muppets are part of the interactive team. Which means that they will be doing things like these digital series or perhaps even do small promotional pushes for other films and television series under the Disney umbrella. But a third Muppet movie? Or a new Muppet TV show? That just isn’t happening.
Since acquiring the Muppets in 2004, Disney has been unsure of what to do with the characters. It was one of the last-gasp maneuvers of Michael Eisner, who was obsessed with bringing the characters into the Disney fold since the late ’80s. The fact that it took the company until 2011, and with the less-than-gentle prodding of an A-list comedic presence like Jason Segel, to produce a new Muppet movie, tells you that they were never truly sure where the Muppets would fit into the overall brand. In the time since they bought the characters and the first movie was released, plans for an expanded presence of the characters in the domestic Disney theme parks rose and then faded away, while key contributors to the Muppet franchise, like Frank Oz, became discouraged with the direction the characters were taking and left the fold entirely. (Oz was particularly unhappy that Disney chose to go with the Segel version of the Muppet movie, after he had pushed to direct "The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made," based on a screenplay by Jerry Juhl that Juhl, Henson, and Oz had first developed in the mid-’80s.)
Earlier this year, Disney Theatrical quietly workshopped a Muppet stage show for Broadway, but found that the small characters, in such a cavernous space, would oftentimes get lost, and they couldn’t figure out a viable solution to the problem. (They were unwilling to make the puppeteers visible, which is the common work-around, as utilized in "Avenue Q" and "The Lion King.") After the Broadway test went bust, Disney decided to relocate the characters away from the studios and into the interactive side of things, where they could be better suited and gain more exposure, without the pricey overhead and marketing costs of something like a new movie or television series.
What makes this so heartbreaking isn’t just the idea that the pop culture landscape will be largely Muppet-free (or at the very least Muppet-light) for the foreseeable future, but because Jim Henson himself was so stoked about having the Muppets join Disney. In 1989 the "Muppet*Vision 3D" attraction premiered at Disney-MGM Studios in Florida, and plans began, in earnest, for Disney to take over the characters. As recounted in last year’s dazzling Henson biography (by Brian Jay Jones), Henson had grown weary of operating the company on a day-to-day basis and was worn down by the critical and commercial indifference that his experimental network series "The Jim Henson Hour" had received. He was sure that Disney was the right place for his beloved characters, and intended to sign them over, and come on board in a creative capacity, when Henson unexpectedly died. In 1989, just before his death, a trade ad ran that featured Kermit smiling happily, his shadow now in the form of Mickey Mouse’s. The text read: "Notice anything different?"
Henson properties would remain tenuously connected to Disney for many years, including throughout the productions of "Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Muppet Treasure Island" and a handful of television properties that would run on Disney-owned network ABC, but the characters wouldn’t be retained officially by the company until 2004, at which point much of the impact of the characters had dissipated thanks to mismanagement and an unwise sale of the characters to a German conglomerate. In many ways the purchase felt like Eisner finally seeing something through that he had tried to do once before but couldn’t quite manage. Disney now had the Muppets. But they didn’t know what to do with them.
That’s kind of where the studio is now, with both 2011’s "The Muppets" and this year’s "Muppets Most Wanted" under-performing at the box office, and little interest in expanding the brand in the theme parks or on television. So now they’re headed to digital, where they’ll appear in short films and other small stuff. This doesn’t mean that there will never, ever be another Muppets movie or TV show. It just means that such a thing won’t happen for a very long time. The Muppets need to rebuild their cred and Disney needs to get a handle on how to emphasize this cred. Otherwise they’re just going to end up a bunch of puppets in a drawer somewhere.
Update 8/6: Check out a "Mupisode" below from IGN. Is this the future of the Muppets?