Why Does Disney Have No Idea What To Do With The Muppets?

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises. In this edition: why does Disney not know what to do with the Muppets?)

Earlier this week, a much-ballyhooed change to one of the most enduring characters in modern popular culture was unveiled, but you'd be forgiven for not noticing.

In their newest entry of the weekly series entitled "Muppet Thought of the Week," the Muppets' YouTube channel displayed a brand new Kermit the Frog. Kermit, of course, still looks the same, but if you watch the video and think he sounds a bit different – you're right! The character, created and performed by Muppet honcho Jim Henson until his untimely passing in 1990, had been voiced and performed by Steve Whitmire for over 25 years. As of now, another longtime Muppet performer, Matt Vogel, portrays Kermit.

Earlier in the summer, this unexpected and abrupt passing of the torch was detailed at length online because of the mysterious nature of why Whitmire had been fired from the Jim Henson Company after performing as Kermit in multiple films, TV shows, and specials. (/Film wrote about some of these details last month, if you want further context.) It's unfortunate, at best, to see the seeming in-fighting between Whitmire and the Jim Henson Company become so public. However, the unveiling of the new Kermit raises another, larger frustration. It would be easy to criticize Vogel's performance as Kermit in that new video — he predictably doesn't sound like the Kermit portrayed by either Henson or Whitmire, so it will at least take some getting used to — but it's kind of hard to muster up a lot of commentary about a video that is literally less than 30 seconds long. This, in effect, speaks to the real problem: the Walt Disney Company has owned the Muppets for nearly 15 years, and this is how they decide to introduce a new Kermit the Frog? This is how they handle the Muppets?

muppets most wanted

Two Movies

Disney pursued the Jim Henson Company as far back as the late 1980s, when Michael Eisner wanted to bring in the Muppets, as well as the characters from Sesame Street. Though that deal went nowhere, Henson started to work on attractions for the Disney theme parks; only the delightful Muppet-Vision 3-D movie at Disney's Hollywood Studios saw the light of day. After Henson's death, Disney released the next two Muppet movies, The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, and their ABC network aired the Muppets Tonight TV show for 2 seasons in the late 1990s. There's something a bit familiar about this strategy — two films, a theme-park attraction of some kind, and a not-very-long-running TV show — in how the company has dealt with the Muppets in the last decade now that they finally own the characters.

Disney did buy the Muppet characters in 2004, but it took seven years for that purchase to produce a new feature film. The Muppets was a big gamble for Disney; it wasn't very high-budget, but featured recognizable A-list actors like Jason Segel and Amy Adams, plenty of celebrity cameos, and was as much a reboot for the younger audience as it was a blast of nostalgia for adults who'd grown up with the original iteration of the Muppets. The film was a solid success, grossing $165 million worldwide and garnering songwriter Bret McKenzie an Oscar for Best Original Song (the first, and still only, Oscar for any Muppet movie).

The 2014 sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, shifted the focus away from the human characters (Segel and Adams don't show up; instead, in the opening scene, two deliberately noticeable doubles appear from the back only). That film instead focused on the Muppets themselves. The good news: Muppets Most Wanted is a generally very funny film and arguably better than the 2011 film. The bad news: in spite of decent reviews, the film grossed $80 million worldwide, thus seeming like a disappointment to the studio.

A TV Show

The good news/bad news feeling recurred in 2015, when ABC announced that, in the fall, it would be airing a new show with the lovable felt characters, also titled The Muppets. From the early buzz, the show was going to be in a similar-ish vein to The Muppet Show, depicting Kermit the Frog trying to keep a variety TV show afloat from backstage, always a moment or two away from total disaster. There would be weekly celebrity cameos, plenty of face time for the Muppets themselves, and who knows what else. The cast of Muppets were all the familiar faces, and the show was co-created by Bill Prady (known these days primarily for his work on CBS' The Big Bang Theory, he is also a longtime Muppets friend, having co-written the Jim Henson tribute that aired on CBS soon after his death).

This should have worked. The bad news was that the show's early episodes had a notable sense of disconnect from why people like the Muppets. Aping the cinema-verite style of shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation might have felt apt to the showrunners, but it caused the show to feel more acrid than boisterous. The Muppets only lasted 16 episodes on ABC, after losing one showrunner and gaining another.

Theme Parks...and YouTube

So now, we have the Muppets in bite-sized forms, as long as you know where to look. If you travel to Walt Disney World, you can find the Muppets at multiple theme parks: in the aforementioned Muppet-Vision 3-D attraction at Disney's Hollywood Studios, in the Muppet Mobile Lab at Epcot, and in The Muppets...Present Great Moments in American History, a live show at the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square. (Muppet-Vision 3-D used to be at Disney California Adventure in Disneyland as well, but was removed in 2014 and its old location is now used as a preview spot for upcoming Disney films.)

If you're not at the theme parks, though, the primary place to find the Muppets appearing in new content is via their YouTube channel, which is pretty...sparse. The "Muppet Thought of the Week" video featuring the Vogel-performed Kermit is a bit shorter than the others, but it's not as if any of them are intended to be massively long.

new voice of kermit the frog

Fading Away

For any fan of the Muppets, this treatment may feel like insult to injury. The idea of the Walt Disney Company owning the Muppets once felt right. Who better to make sure that the legacy of one of the great all-ages group of characters would continue strong and unabated than the House of Mouse?

So why is it that Disney has essentially ignored the Muppets as much as possible, dispensing them at random? Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and the Great Gonzo (among many others) are iconic, family-friendly faces, each able to represent a blend of hope and comic anarchy. But now, we get 30-second bits where they deliver a couple brief one-liners, and that's that. It's easy to get a bit ruffled about who's performing as these characters, with Frank Oz having retired and Henson having passed. The current iterations of Fozzie or Miss Piggy may sound a bit off if you grew up with the originals. But Steve Whitmire performed Kermit the Frog for more than two decades; some kids who only know the newer Muppets may only know him as Kermit. However, what is more troubling is that one of the biggest companies in the world is letting such a great group of personalities die on the vine.

What could Disney do with the Muppets? The two recent movies, despite being flawed, were both steps in the right direction, especially the second film. Nothing against the 2011 Muppets; it has some great songs, and nostalgia for The Muppet Show is all well and good. But Muppets Most Wanted was, unlike its predecessor, about the Muppets, just like the earlier films and the original TV show. The 2011 film was much more about the human characters and their love of The Muppet Show, more than it was about the Muppets themselves.

That TV show is the core of what Disney should be doing with the Muppets. There is no better way to re-introduce people, especially kids, to the Muppets than by highlighting the five-season variety show that turned the characters into household names. Currently, you can purchase the first three seasons of The Muppet Show on Amazon (and you should, because the show is wonderful), but not the final two. Presumably, that's because of clearance rights for some of the songs featured in those seasons. Disney should take the gamble and get those seasons available for audiences; it would be exceedingly wise of them to do so for streaming purposes in time for their new service. It's not just because all five seasons of The Muppet Show ought to be available to watch in some form. This is how you revive the Muppets for kids, showcasing them in their most entertaining form.

Jim Henson and Kermit

Saving the Muppets

I was born in 1984, so I grew up with The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, but also with The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock on VHS, and The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan on the same format. While many of these are available in some form for children of the 2010s, there are so many newer entertainment options available that the Muppets likely just look like some old, forgotten franchise. In the 2011 film, when we first see Kermit the Frog, he's forlorn and depressed, watching his legacy fade away and feeling helpless to turn the tide. This is now something of a reality, in part because the Muppets' corporate stewards are more focused on intellectual properties like Marvel and Star Wars. (It's genuinely shocking that Disney's announced plans for the Star Wars land in Disney's Hollywood Studios doesn't include removing Muppet Vision 3-D.) The Muppets are not as big as superheroes or space operas, but there's no reason to presume that they should just collect dust on a metaphorical shelf.

I have mild hope (at best) for the announced Muppet Babies reboot coming to Disney Junior in 2018. Again, the best way to get the Muppets back into the cultural consciousness (in a positive way, not in a gossipy way as with the Whitmire firing) is to get kids onboard, and Muppet Babies might be the right foot forward. (Very strong emphasis on "might.") When Disney finally unveils hard details about its streaming service, the Muppets should be a big part of it, from the previous films to The Muppet Show itself. There's little doubt that Disney's streaming service will be heavily targeted at families, and few things are more family-friendly than the Muppets. Frankly, it would be nice if Disney revived The Muppet Show itself — not a post-modern, faux-documentary show like the 2015 ABC show, but the actual Muppet Show. Maybe that could be one of the rumored new shows for the streaming service.

It's easy to be troubled about how Steve Whitmire was let go from the Jim Henson Company, having been the performer for the biggest Muppet there is for over 25 years. And it's easy to pause a bit when hearing Matt Vogel take over as Kermit the Frog. (A strange bit of irony there: in Muppets Most Wanted, Vogel played Constantine, the villainous criminal frog who forcibly switches places with Kermit and fools all of the good-hearted amphibian's friends. Now...well, now he's Kermit for real.) But when I saw the initial headlines and watched the video, I couldn't get quite as bothered at the new Kermit's sound as I am at the sorry state of the Muppets. These are some of the most wonderful characters in modern popular culture, and they deserve so, so much better. If we are lucky, the next couple of years might offer a bright spot or two.


Correction: A previous version of this article said that Disney bought the Jim Henson Company. They only bought the Muppets characters.