Back in 2004, Disney acquired the rights to The Muppets from the Jim Henson Company. However, it wouldn’t be until 2011 that the characters made a return to the big screen and the 2015 return to television didn’t last very long. Disney does seem to be having some difficulty finding the right way to use these characters and one person who clearly thinks the studio just doesn’t get it is Frank Oz, the man behind such iconic Muppets as Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear. He recently broke his general silence on the Disney era of The Muppets to tell people how he really feels on Twitter.
Frank Oz says on Twitter that the Disney iterations of The Muppets lack depth and honesty that are intrinsic to the characters. In a followup tweet, Frank Oz praises the work of Jerry Juhl, who wrote on every episode of The Muppet Show and was also responsible for the screenplay of nearly every Muppet feature film between The Muppet Movie and Muppets From Space. Oz says that Juhl understood the relationships between the characters as well as the wants each character had.
These things were never directly spoken about on screen, but Oz feels they’re necessary to properly writing for The Muppets and clearly doesn’t think the people currently handling the characters clearly understands them.
Disney purchased The Muppets from the Jim Henson Company back in 2004 but, beyond a previously existing theme park attraction at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, the company didn’t do much with the newly acquired characters. That changed in 2011 when Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller wrote The Muppets, a brand new film that brought the characters out of semi-retirement by telling a story that was about the characters coming out of semi-retirement.
That movie was a pretty solid hit at the time, and it looked like The Muppets might have been getting ready for a new leash on life. However, the followup movie Muppets Most Wanted did not perform nearly as well.
This was then followed by a new TV series, also simply called The Muppets, which saw the characters running a late-night talk show hosted by Miss Piggy. The show was slightly retooled in the middle in an attempt to save it but the series was canceled after a single season.
Today, it’s hard to find the Muppets under the Disney umbrella. The original MuppetVision 3-D attraction has closed at Disney’s California Adventure and is rumored to be not long for Disney’s Hollywood Studios. They do put on a regular show at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, The Muppets Present…Great Moments in American History, but if you’re not in Orlando the only place to really find the characters these days is on YouTube. There was a rumor some time ago that the characters were in line for a new TV series on the upcoming Disney+ streaming service, but little has been heard recently about that.
For what it’s worth, Frank Oz would be more than willing to lend his experience with The Muppets to Disney to try and right the ship. However, he doesn’t expect they ever will, because the current performers of the characters would have the ability to veto any idea he had.
If it’s true that Frank Oz would never be consulted on The Muppets, that’s a true shame. There’s really no reason, beyond ego, why you wouldn’t bring him in now and again, if only to get his opinion and perspective on things. It doesn’t mean that you have to do everything the way that Frank Oz and Jim Henson would have done things, but understanding those core ideas can help Disney take the characters in new directions while still holding true to the basic things that made the characters popular.
In the end, Disney certainly wants The Muppets to be successful. Even if we want to be completely mercenary about the whole thing, if they just sit on a shelf and collect dust then they’re not making anybody any money. What Disney has been doing hasn’t been working, so a new direction is pretty clearly necessary.
Of course, the other issue is that, at this point, The Muppets just aren’t going to be a serious Disney priority. When you’ve got Marvel and Lucasfilm in your pocket, The Muppets will certainly get lost.
I have mostly enjoyed the new Muppets stuff if I’m being honest. I think the first new movie with Jason Segal and Amy Adams is excellent. I even enjoyed the TV series, though I’ll be the first to admit it was missing something. It was good, it wasn’t great. Still, the fact that the series was unable to find an audience, when there are clearly some big Muppets fans out there, shows that those fans are looking for something other than what Disney is providing.
This is really the first time that we’ve heard Frank Oz speak so candidly about the current state of these beloved characters. It seems Oz himself wasn’t really planning to make “a thing” out of all this, but the conversation got started on Twitter and this is where it ended up. And as Oz points out, it’s not like he hasn’t given Disney time to make it right.
Muppet fans shouldn’t entirely lose hope, however. Frank Oz does add to his Twitter comments that Debbie McClellan, who is the Vice President of The Muppets Studio, is somebody who does understand the heart of The Muppets, so there are people working at Disney who “get it” in Oz’s opinion. It seems that maybe they just don’t have the voice that they need to have.
What’s next for the Muppets is anybody’s guess at this point. The characters will certainly endure, they’re not going anywhere, and the original TV series and movies that caused people to fall in love with them will never go away. But whether or not whatever new Muppets shows or movies we get will be as well-loved as that classic material, well that’s the real question.
I certainly hope that Disney finds the way. Seeing the Muppets on TV or in the movies again would be wonderful.