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The Mouse pays tribute to Kermit's creator by making him a Disney Legend today

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The Mouse pays tribute to Kermit's creator by making him a Disney Legend today

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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 the
Jim 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 TV
show 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-park
announcement 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

  • completed principal photography on "Kermit the Frog presents MuppetVision 3D"
  • shot the "Muppets at Walt Disney World" episode of the Disney Sunday Night Movie
  • approved the script & recorded dialogue for the "Here Come the Muppets" stage show
  • supervised production of  the pilot for "The Little Mermaid's Island," a proposed Disney Channel series
  • consulted on the design of Muppet walk-around character costumes for the Parks

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 to

  • The Muppet Movie Ride, an AA-filled comic riff on The Great Movie Ride
  • The Great Gonzo's Pandemonium Pizza Parlor, a Muppet-themed restaurant

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 Walt
Disney 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 Disney Legend.

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 Henson
Company. 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.

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  • 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.

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