A Love That Can’t Be Denied: Disney’s Muppets
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed.”1 This internal turmoil is something I experience when I see Animal shouting in a Toyota, Miss Piggy dancing with Taye Diggs, or Gonzo and his chicken friends pretending to be Queen. I have to come clean: I love Disney’s Muppets. Not the Walt Disney Pictures film The Muppets, but the Disney-owned-and-operated franchise featuring the characters formerly known as Jim Henson’s Muppets. Like Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy before me, I didn’t come to love Disney’s Muppets easily. In fact, I was repulsed by this combination of two major childhood brands when I learned about it in 2008. It seemed like an abuse to my memories, and a downright insult to Jim Henson’s legacy. And yet after years of protest, I have fallen in love with the transmedia antics of these characters.
I have been a diehard Jim Henson’s Muppets fan since I can remember. Like so many fans, I learned more about the Muppet texts by re-watching them as I aged. I started to catch the subtle jabs at the Hollywood industry and the implied sexuality of the innocent-seeming characters. In other words, my love deepened as I gained a better understanding of the satirical meanings in the Muppet texts. But I also continued to adore the characters on their own—for their eccentricities as well as their sweetness.
Most first loves end in heartbreak, and such was the case for myself and much of the Muppet audience after Jim Henson died in 1990. After this fateful day, the franchise struggled to maintain its reputation the 1990s—after all, Jim was the primary industry actor and promoter of the brand, in addition to being the founder and leader of the creative team at Jim Henson Productions. The company resorted to adaptations with human leads in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996). I didn’t necessarily think these films were horrible, but my beloved characters seemed diminished and altered playing second fiddle to Michael Caine and Tim Curry. They were no longer the primary draw and Jim Henson Company knew that. The flop that was Muppets from Space (1999) would ultimately prove that a Muppet-centered movie didn’t mean much to audiences anymore. In my mind, the Muppets had had their day. I would continue to console myself with a series of cultural commodities that kept the Muppet characters fresh in my mind. Calendars, magnets, and t-shirts: anything with representations of the Muppets on it worked to soothe my lovesickness.
So when I heard about Disney’s purchase of the franchise in 2004, I was anxious. I didn’t think I could love the post-Jim Henson Muppets. And I definitely could not imagine a world where the crisp, business-savvy, hegemony-bound Disney could recreate the messy, satirical, hippy-dippy Muppets. On the latter point I was partially right. Disney could not revive the Muppets—the success of the initial Muppet franchise died with Jim Henson (if not a few years before). It would have to recreate them in a new, millennial form. But on the former assertion, I was dead wrong. Disney would in fact reawaken my Muppet fandom.
At first I was impervious to the company’s attempts to woo me. The 2009 Christmas special Letters to Santa was saccharine, lackluster, and generally not funny. Anti-Disney diatribes by popular journalists fueled my anger and I let these early prejudices blind me to the possibility of a Disney Muppets reformation.
My cold heart would start to melt in 2009 with the YouTube video “The Muppets: Bohemian Rhapsody.” This award-winning video was part of Disney’s initial Muppet marketing push and it spoke volumes about the company’s plans for the characters. First, it let the Muppets speak, or sing, for themselves. Jim Henson’s very early work—and the work The Muppet Show—very often relied on songs and parodies so that audiences could familiarize themselves with the unknown puppets in a recognized context. Disney seemed to be taking the same tactic here: reintroducing an “unknown” cast during a well-known song so that the characters could allow their personalities and nuanced expressions to come forward. Of course the video also contained references to past texts and character relationships that rewarded active fans. Second, Disney revealed its own corporate self-consciousness. The video was produced by “Muppets Studio,” an illusive production house under Walt Disney Studios, for a simple reason. Disney knew that the Muppets didn’t fold seamlessly into its family brand. If I was critical of its ownership, Disney was even more self-critical.
The ultimate “Netherfield moment” for me was not Disney’s The Muppets. I was ultimately won over by Miss Piggy’s red carpet appearance at BAFTA after the release of the aforementioned feature. Like “The Muppets: Bohemian Rhapsody,” it let the character Miss Piggy speak for herself, without a rapidly paced plot to push her along. But more importantly, it reminded me how important the Muppet characters were, and are, to people. In the clip below, you see Miss Piggy interact with British and American celebrities, all of whom seem to thoroughly enjoy the exchange. Watching it reminds me of the young children on Sesame Street, hanging on Big Bird’s words and enthusiastically hugging Kermit around his felt neck. People try and kiss her, Jessica Chastain seems overly invested in gaining Miss Piggy’s respect, and some—in particular Tom Hiddleston, Gillian Anderson, and Daniel Radcliffe—simply can’t hide their own fandom. As early as the 1980s, the Muppets had jumped off screen and had become stars in their own right. So, whether or not this BAFTA dialogues were candid, they worked to reinforce the relevance of the Muppets as celebrities and beloved characters.
I always thought I would remain a Muppet curmudgeon, raving about authenticity and the good ol’ days of Jim Henson Muppet Mania. But it turns out I’m just a fool in love, unable to deny my heart what it wants: more Muppets.
1. Quoted from Mr. Darcy’s first proposal in Pride and Prejudice