Jim Henson, Disney Legend.
For a lot of people (myself included) this phrase doesn't exactly
roll off the tongue. But perhaps that's because - for so many of us who grew up
in the late 1960s / early 1970s - Jim Henson was / already is a legend. This
enormously talented individual who - through the hundreds of hours of
television that Jim helped create, plus the handful of feature films that
Henson directed or produced - played a
huge role in our childhood. Serving up characters & stories that entertained
audiences of all ages around the globe.
So to now have The Walt Disney Company suddenly appear to be
usurping Jim Henson's creative legacy and be claiming it as their own seems ...
Well, somewhat unseemly. At least to folks like me.
Lisa Henson, Chief Executive Officer of theJim Henson Company
Which was why it was so nice yesterday to get the chance to
chat on the phone with Jim's daughter, Lisa Henson. Who - as the Chief
Executive Officer of the Jim Henson Company - takes a far more pragmatic approach
to this whole situation.
To hear Lisa talk, the parallels between Jim Henson &
Walt Disney become obvious. And - no - I'm not talking about how Jim & Walt
were both gifted showmen & storytellers. But - rather - how Henson & Disney
were both restless creative spirits, each
of them constantly looking for new worlds to conquer.
In Walt's case, if you take the 30,000-foot view of this guy's
career ... You immediately see that this was a man who would complete one
seemingly impossible thing (EX: producing the first animated short with
synchronized sound) and then move on to the next challenge (EX: the first
full-color animated short, the first full-length animated feature, the first
commercial motion picture to be exhibited with stereophonic sound et al).
Jim and Jane Henson on the set of WRC's "Sam and Friends," a live weeknight TVshow for the Washington D.C. viewing area which proved that there was a sizable audience out there that enjoyed watching silly yet sophisticated puppet shows. Copyright The Jim Henson Company. All rights reserved
And Jim Henson ... He brought that same sort of restless creative
spirit to puppeteering. Constantly looking for new ways to prove that this ancient
art form (which -- for far too long -- had been pigeonholed as something that
amused small children) was capable of so much more. That - through smart &
sophisticated use of the then-still-relatively-new medium of television - puppetry
could then become something that would appeal to a mass audience.
But you want to know what Jim Henson especially admired about
Walt Disney? His company's ability to keep its characters evergreen. Which is
one of the main reasons that Henson reached out to Michael Eisner, the Mouse
House's then-CEO, in the late 1980s. To see if Disney might then be interested
in acquiring the Jim Henson Company.
"Running Henson - though it was a small company - took up a
lot of my Dad's time. And he was itching to get back to being creative
full-time. And with Disney taking control of the Muppets, making sure that
these characters stayed relevant with modern audiences through new movies &
TV shows & theme park attractions ... Well, that was then going to free up my
Dad to do the sorts of things that he really loved to do. Which was creating
new characters. Dreaming up new stories to tell and then using new techniques &
technologies to tell those stories."
Michael Eisner and Jim Henson at the official in-parkannouncement of the Muppets acquisition deal.Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
And that - to be blunt - was why Michael Eisner (who had
long been an ardent supporter of Jim Henson. People often
forget that it was Eisner, back in the early 1970s, who came up with the
funding for the first two "Muppet Show" pilots. That - as the then-Head of ABC's
Children Television - Michael actually took money out of his Saturday morning
development budget and gave to Jim. Just so Henson could then shoot 1974's "The
Muppets Valentine Show" and 1975's "The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence") wanted
to make the Muppets acquisition deal back in 1989. Not so much because Mickey would
then get his hands on Kermit & Co. But - rather - under the terms of this
deal, The Walt Disney Company would then have exclusive access to Jim Henson's
creative output. A man that Michael Eisner genuinely believed to be his
generation's Walt Disney.
Which brings us to an interesting question: If Jim Henson
hadn't passed away in May of 1990 and The Walt Disney Company had completed its
acquisition of The Jim Henson Company, what might the Mouse House look like
today? Well, when you consider that - in the 10 short months that Jim worked
directly with Disney - Henson
During this same period, Jim was also working with the
Imagineers on Muppet Studios, a new "land" that was supposed to be added to
Disney-MGM Studios theme park in the earlier 1990s. Which was to have been home
Meanwhile - to commemorate the opening of Muppet Studios - a new street parade,
the Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade, was to have rolled through
Disney-MGM Studios every day. Henson also had a hand in this project.
"Dad also wanted to
do a new stage show for the Disney theme parks, one that would have used the
same sort of large-scale puppeteering techniques that are used today with 'Finding
Nemo - The Musical' at Disney's Animal Kingdom," Lisa recalled. "Plus the stuff
that Dad wanted to do for Disneyland ... "
And Jim Henson did all of this in just 10 months. When you
think of his prodigious creative output, one wonders what Disney would look
like now if he'd had 10 years.
Charles Grodin working on location at the Disney-MGM Studio theme park with Jim Henson & Jerry Nelson on the "Muppets Go to WaltDisney World" episode of the Disney Sunday Night Movie.Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
So when you look at it that way ... Plus factor in the joy
that people got out of seeing Disney theme park shows that featured
Henson-created characters like "Muppets on Location: Days of Swine and Roses,"
or from watching Disney-produced feature films like 1992's "A Muppet Christmas
Carol," 1996's "Muppet Treasure Island" and "The Muppets" this November or TV
projects like 2005's "The Muppet Wizard of Oz" & 2008's "A Muppet Christmas:
Letters to Santa," not to mention that ABC TV series, "Dinosaurs" ... Maybe the Disney
Legend nominating committee is right. Perhaps Jim Henson is really a legitimate
Like I said towards the top of this article, Lisa Henson takes
a very pragmatic approach to this whole issue. To her way of thinking, the
connective tissue between Walt Disney and Jim Henson has always been there. Growing
up in the 1960s, she recalled that - when Sunday night rolled around - "The
Wonderful World of Color" was always on.
"I remember watching that show with my Dad in the room,"
Lisa said. "He was definitely a fan of the Disney films. Especially 'Sleeping
Beauty.' Which Dad said had a huge influence on his design aesthetic."
Behind-the-scenes at the production of "Sid the Science Kid." Copyright The Jim Henson Company. All rights reserved
You know what's rather ironic about this whole situation? Ever
since the Walt Disney Company officially acquired the Muppets and the Bear in
the Big Blue House characters back in 2004, the Jim Henson organization has now been able to re-embrace that restless creative spirit which the Company's
founder had. Allowing Lisa and her brother Brian to pursue daring & innovative
projects like the adult-only improvisational stage show "Stuffed and Unstrung."
Not to mention producing entertaining educational TV shows like "Sid the
Science Kid" (which makes use of some pretty innovative real-time animation
technology thanks to the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio).
This is why - in a lot of ways - Lisa Henson is a lot more
comfortable with the idea of The Walt Disney Company now owning the Muppets
than (I think) most Muppet fans are. Lisa genuinely understands what her Dad
was trying to do back in 1989. Which was not only safeguard the characters that
Jim had created for generations yet to come but to also step away from the
day-to-day hassles of running a corporation. Just focus all of his time &
energy on being creative again. Which is what Ms. Henson and her brother do
every day now.
Anyway, to honor both their father's legacy, Lisa - along with
several other members of the Henson family - will be on hand today in the D23
Arena to take part in the Disney Legends induction ceremony.
Jim Henson and his characters. Photo by John E. Barrett, courtesy of The Jim HensonCompany. Kermit the Frog Copyright The Muppet Studio, LLC.
"You and I both know that my Dad is already a legend. Disney's
just making it official," Lisa laughed.
For further information on this three-day-long celebration
of The Walt Disney Company (which gets underway today), be sure and drop by the
Official Disney Fan Club webpage & check out the master schedule.
Thanks for the great read, Jim. I think we lost great creative visionaries in both Jim Henson and Walt Disney.
Hey Jim, great article on the late genius. He will be missed.
(Just as a side question for ya,)
do you know when the sequel for Hensen's masterpiece, 'The Dark Crystal," is going to be filme/released?
I heard about it earlier this year, but it seems like production just... stopped.
Jim Henson is a legend, but NOT a Disney legend. Disney attaching themself to his work is an injustice to his independence and vision. It's quite sickening really.
Who's next? The Brothers Grimm? Disney has adapted quite a few of their works. Or what about Abe Lincoln? He's done a helluva lot for The Hall of Presidents. Call me when they get to Richard Nixon. After all he did for Disneyland -- the photo shoots, the...well, the photo shoots -- that man deserves a star!
Jim Henson and Kermit are legends. Walk Disney and Mickey Mouse are legends.
Kermit is a HENSON legend....but he is not a Disney legend.
Trying to state otherwise is an image makeover....and an unfortunate one.
To the first two comments, I totally agree.
To the 3 newer ones, twenty-three skidoo to you, because you three are completely wrong and heartless!!!
Jim Henson being called a Disney legend is a farce. Why should Disney honor him in such a way? Because they bought his company? Who's going to be called a Disney Legend next - Stan Lee?
Plus, people seem to be forgetting the nasty fighting that went on between Disney and Henson Inc. after Jim died, when Jim's kids overestimated the worth of the company and characters and wanted more money for them, and Disney wanted to pay less because the man behind the puppets was dead. Henson's kids ran crying to the media and did their best to paint Disney as the evil overlord. But now that the kids have gotten their Disney dough, suddenly they're willing to play nice. Ah, well, that's show biz.
Shut up, Anonymouse! You're just as wrong as others that are wrong!
Did Disney at least ask TJHC?
Anonymous, nobody cares about your childish rants. Other people's opinions will sometimes differ from yours. You'll understand that someday when YOU GROW UP.