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Monday MouseWatch : Will the third time be the charm with Disney's Muppet revival project ?

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Monday MouseWatch : Will the third time be the charm with Disney's Muppet revival project ?

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It was three years ago this week that -- after more than a decade of doggedly pursuing Miss Piggy & pals -- the Walt Disney Company finally completed its acquisition of the Muppets.

And on the heels of the completion of this deal came news of Mickey's very ambitious plan to revive this much beloved franchise. With Chris Curtin -- formerly the Mouse House's head of synergy -- being named as Vice President and General Manager of the Muppet Holding Company. And given that Chris had previously been then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner's special assistant ... Well, it was thought that Curtin might then be able to use his political clout to bring about a fast-moving, broad-based revival of the Muppet franchise within the various divisions of the Disney corporation.

Well, it didn't quite happen that way. Unfortunately, Chris was placed in charge of Muppet Holding just as Michael was being major-league distracted by Roy Disney & Stanley Gold's efforts to unseat him. And following Eisner's September 2004 announcement that he would be stepping down as Disney's CEO in one year's time ... Well, Michael's power within the Mouse House rapidly began to wane after that. Which -- in turn -- made it that much more difficult for Curtin to "persuade" various Disney department heads to get on board with his Muppet revival project. Given that his once all-powerful patron would soon be out of power.

Still, Chris & his team at Muppet Holding did what they could to quickly put Piggy & pals back in the spotlight. That fall, production of a new TV movie -- "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" -- was greenlit. A Muppets.com website was launched in November of 2004 while Curtin arranged for the characters to appear on the Christmas 2004 edition of "Saturday Night Live."

Copyright 2004 NBC / Universal

Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes, Chris met with various high powered players in an effort to kick-start Disney's Muppets revival. And Curtin seemed startled by the calibre of the talent who were anxious to work with these characters. Take -- for example -- one of the original creators of "The Simpsons" (And -- no -- I can't tell you his name) who actively campaigned to become the creator of the next Muppet TV series.

Still, Curtin felt that the real key to successfully relaunching this franchise was to make Kermit & Co. appear to be as hip & edgy as possible. Which is why he persuaded the oh-so-trendy Fred Segal stores to begin selling pricey Muppet themed t-shirts. Chris also had Animal & Pepe the Prawn appear at the 2005 X Games while a team of top-flight writers readied these characters' first foray into the world of reality television by drafting an "America's Next Muppet" pilot script.

But what Curtin really hoped would bring about the Muppets revival was a world-wide celebration of Kermit's 50th birthday. This 15-month-long event was to have sent the world's most famous frog around the globe to meet with his fans at far-flung locations like the Great Wall of China and the Eiffel Tower. There was (of course) supposed to have been tons of 50th anniversary merchandise as well as a TV special that would have then featured footage of Kermit's trip 'round the globe.

 Copyright 2005 Muppet Holding Company, LLC

But just days before "Kermit's World Tour" was to have begun (Appropriately enough, with a visit to Kermit, TX.), Chris Curtin was suddenly removed as the head of the Muppet Holding Company. And in his place, Disney's newly installed CEO Bob Iger put Russell Hampton. Who was then the Senior Vice President and General Manager of the company's Baby Einstein franchise.

Why exactly did Bob swap out Chris for Russell? Given that Curtin still works for the Walt Disney Company (He's now the Vice President in charge of Global New Media for Disney Parks & Resorts. Which -- given the size of Chris' new staff as well as the budget that he now rides herd on -- this new position was arguably a promotion from his old gig at Muppet Holding), it wasn't that Iger was unhappy with Curtin's work. But -- rather -- that Disney's new CEO felt that a somewhat different approach should be taken with the Muppets.

And rather than spending Disney's money on this elaborate world-wide celebration of Kermit's 50th birthday ... Well, Russell Hampton made it his mission that the Muppets should start making moolah for the Mouse. And the sooner, the better.

So even though Kermit had already made the first three stops of his world tour (I.E. Visiting Kermit, TX, touring the Johnson Space Center in Houston as well as dropping by Radio City Music Hall in NYC to share some birthday cake with the Rockettes), Russell abruptly pulled the plug on the rest of that project. He also significantly scaled back Chris Curtin's effort to make the Muppets appear hipper & edgier than they actually were.

Truth to be told, Hampton approached Kermit & company the exact same that he had handled the Baby Einstein franchise. Not as a beloved set of characters. But -- rather -- as a product that was to be exploited. Which is why -- on Russell's watch -- Muppet Holding was quick to cut a deal with the Ford Motor Company so that Kermit could then appear in commercials for their new Escape Hybrid (You can see Kermit's new on-line ad for the 2008 Escape Hybrid by clicking on this link).

Copyright 2005 Ford Motor Company / Muppet Holding Company, LLC

Of course, what made Hampton's efforts to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible off of the Muppets particularly difficult was ... Well ... Many of the licensing deals that the Jim Henson Company had originally cut with vendors prior to selling off Piggy & pals to Mickey had yet to expire. Which meant that (in some cases for specific lines of goods) it would be years before Disney Consumer Products could really start cashing in on the Muppet franchise.

Which is why (Given that -- in early 2006 -- ABC seemed very reluctant to actually greenlight production of "America's Next Muppet." Opting instead to give that proposed show's production team some notes and insisting that the program's pilot be rewritten) Hampton began exploring other options. And among these was licensing these characters to TF1. In effect allowing that French television network to create a brand-new Muppet show (Featuring scripts that had first been approved by Russell's staff, of course).

The end result -- "Muppet TV" -- wasn't a disaster. But it wasn't a smash hit either. Disney insiders who have seen all 10 episodes that were produced last year say that the main reasons that this French-language show didn't quite catch on with viewers was A) it was in an odd timeslot (Sunday evenings starting at 5:30 p.m.) and B) each episode of "Muppet TV" was an hour long. Which (as NBC's "The Jim Henson Hour" proved back in the Spring of 1989) is a particularly difficult length-of-show for the Muppets to maintain.

In the end, due to the fact that there'd recently been a change in management at the uppermost levels of this French television networks, TF1 opted not to order a second set of "Muppet TV" shows. Which -- to be honest -- suited the folks at Muppet Holding (Which recently changed its name to Muppet Studios LLC) just fine.

Copyright TF1 / Muppet Studios, LLC

Why For? Well, Russell Hampton left Muppet Studios back in May of 2006 to become the new president of Disney Publishing Worldwide. Which left Piggy & pals rudderless for a short while. At least until Lylle Breier arrived on the scene.

"And who is Lylle Breier?," you ask. Well, are you familiar with that "Pocahontas in the Park" event that Walt Disney Pictures held in Central Park back in June of 1995? Or -- better yet -- that time when Disneyland's Main Street Electrical Parade rolled through the concrete canyons of Manhattan in 1997 to help promote the world premiere of "Hercules" ? Or any of the other elaborate events that the Mouse has used over the past 15 years to help launch some of its major motion pictures. If so ... Well, then you have Ms. Breier -- who is Senior Vice President of Special Events at Walt Disney Studios -- to thank for those spectaculars.

And with Lyelle now serving as the Muppets champion at Disney ... To be honest, this is great news for Kermit & company. Given that Breier reportedly doesn't think that the Muppets need to be hipper & edgier in order to appeal to today's audiences. Nor does she view them as some product that needs to be exploited. But -- rather -- Lylle thinks that the Muppets are just this truly entertaining, endearing & enduring set of characters that the Walt Disney Company has yet to use to their fullest potential.

And to make sure that the Mouse starts making better use of these characters ... Breier's first order of business (once she took charge of Muppets Studios LLC back in the Fall of 2006) was to move the company out of those industrial park offices that they'd been sharing with Baby Einstein over in Glendale. She then had the Muppets set up shop right on the Disney lot. So that they could see & be seen.

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Muppet Holding Company, LLC

From there, Lylle began meeting with writers to hear their pitches about what could possibly be done with the Muppets today. And one of the the more intriguing ideas came from sitcom vet Bill Prady's pitch. Who suggested that Fozzie & friends could appear in this "The Office" -like show about living & working in modern day Hollywood.

A 10-minute-long presentation reel version of Prady's pitch was filmed back in January. To date, no official decision has been made about possible future development of this project. More recently, there has been talk about possibly doing this brand-new series of Muppet-related shorts & interstitials. Which would then be presented on the Disney Channel to help get today's tweens interested in this classic group of characters.

Which (to some) may seem like an odd choice. Like Lylle is revisiting Chris Curtin's old let's-make-the-Muppets-seem-hip-and-edgy idea.

But know this: Breier is already fiercely protective of the Muppets. Having helped to shift control of these characters from Disney Consumer Products over to the Studio side of the Mouse Factory, she's now determined to use Miss Piggy & pals in the way that Jim Henson originally intended them to be used. Not as nostalgic figures who can then be used to sell "Pizza Hut" products to baby boomers. But -- rather -- as characters who, first & foremost, are meant to entertain.

Mind you, reviving the Muppet franchise -- returning these characters to the level of popularity that they once enjoyed back in the 1970s -- may be a lot tougher than Lylle originally thought. Take -- for example -- what happened back in late February / early March, when WDI's new "Muppet Mobile Lab" was being play-tested at DCA.

The crowds that stood around that theme park's Hollywood Pictures Backlot area viewing this demo were admittedly wowed by this Living Character Initiative unit. The only problem was -- when these people were asked afterwards to name the two mechanical Muppets that they'd just seen -- almost none of them could then remember Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and/or Beaker's names. Or -- for that matter -- could actually identify these characters as Muppets.

 Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc / Muppet Studios, LLC

But still Breier (While still overseeing her duties at Disney's Special Events office) is determined to give this Muppet-franchise-revival project her very best shot. And given that Lylle has a great working relationship with Dick Cook, the Chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group (Who's also said to be a huge Muppet fan) ... Well, we may see Kermit & company back up on the big screen before too long.

That said, you have to walk before you can run. So -- for now -- the folks at Muppet Studios, LLC are concentrating on making sure that each of these new short films that are currently in the works for the Disney Channel are as as entertaining as they can possibly be. So that -- when tweens go to DCA and see that "Muppet Mobile Lab" unit roll by -- they can then say: "Hey, there goes Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker !"

Here's hoping that this third management team proves to be the charm for Disney's Muppet revival project.

Your thoughts?

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  • Well, here's hopin'. It'd be nice if Disney could put the Muppets to good use in something that will attract an audience, as opposed to just using Kermit and Co. as spokes-Muppets. Maybe Disney should turn to some of the original Muppet creators and puppeteers like Frank Oz and see what they could come up with, or maybe dust off a few of the concepts folks came up with from when Michael was courting Jim Henson and see what still sounds like it might work.

    Somewhat off-topic aside: A couple of years ago at the NFFC Convention, Disney brought in Chris Curtin and several Muppets to tell the crowd what Disney would be doing with them (the Kermit anniversary tour and the couture items that Jim mentioned in his article). Every time Chris mentioned he was head of the Muppet Holding Company, the Muppet nearest to him would lean on him and say "Hold me!". I haven't been able to see the name "Muppet Holding Company" since without thinking of that gag, so the change of the group controlling the use of the Muppets having changed is a slight disappointment to me...

  • Honestly, to me, the person who could give some clout to this whole "Save the Muppets" initiative is Lasseter.  I don't know if he's a fan, but given Pixar's mix of nostalgia, parody, young humor, old humor, and heart, I suspect so.  Plus, given the look of Monster's Inc., the link seems to be a natural.  I hope he's aware of this plan.  Maybe a couple kick-a$$ Muppet shorts before some upcoming Pixar films might do more than any pizza or Ford commercials.

  • I hope the new management team can do some great things with the muppets.  Does DL/DCA not have a MuppetVision 3D attraction?  If not, that could be why many people were unfamiliar with Bunson & Beaker.  I personally grew up with the Muppets, so I'd like to see some great things done with them.  I saw some of "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" when it originally aired- I fell asleep.  Part of that may have been due to sleepiness, but it wasn't as good as it could have been.  Pepe the King Prawn, I feel, was a bad choice for Toto- he just doesn't seem as Muppet-like as the others (he seems to have more adult humor than many of the other Muppets).  Anyhoo, I think that the Living Character Initiative is a swell idea, and I hope that the shorts will be great when they come out.

  • Put it on broadcast TV and kids will watch it.  There is not a whole lot on ABC for kids.  It could go either Saturday or Sunday at 7:00pm.  Make it like the same variety show that it was and stay away from any actor/musician wanting to use the show to promote their next project.

    AND NO NIPPLE REFERENCES!!!!!!  I still won't let my kids watch the Muppets "Wizard of Oz."

  • Would be nice to see them at something bigger than Michigan State University's homecoming parade (http://www.muppetcentral.com/news/2006/100106.shtml).  BTW, the Chemistry students made up float with Dr. Honeydew and Beaker, and no one had a problem recognizing them...

  • Here's a novel idea. How about getting the rest of The Muppet Show season box sets on the market. We have been waiting almost 2 years for season 2.

  • I hope that Breier can bring the Muppets back to their former popularity. In my opinion Disney hasn't tried hard enough in the past to revive their popularity, they just thought of it as yet another acquired asset to exploit. Let's hope Breier is who you say she is, and that she really loves them and is passionate about a revival.

    craigdvc said:

    "AND NO NIPPLE REFERENCES!!!!!!  I still won't let my kids watch the Muppets Wizard of Oz."

    Uhmn, why not? It's not like it was a NC17-rated broadcast.. I loved it, my nieces/nephews loved it, etc. Don't know anybody who didn't love it, even though the acting was mwah.

  • They should just put "Muppet Babies" back on the air. That show rocked.

  • "Take -- for example -- one of the original creators of "The Simpsons" (And -- no -- I can't tell you his name) who actively campaigned to become the creator of the next Muppet TV series."

    Well, I can.  It was Sam Simon.

  • The best Muppet show I'd seen in ages was the "It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie"  That show almost had all the charm and humor of the Muppets I'd loved as a kid. The funniest scene being Fozzie's run through the burning laser beam security system only to realize he forgot the money to save the theater.  He had to run back through the lasers to get the money and then scamper through the lasers a third time... Joan Cusack's  expressions watching it all on the security cameras was priceless.  I feel the secret to the Muppets is to put them right back in their old theater with the red curtains and backstage area and let them do their thing.  A half hour show every Sunday night could bring back their popularity.

  • I say put all of the muppets in a box and light a match . . . R.I.P.

  • I hope (and it does sound like) Breier has the talent and know-how to steer the Muppets in the right direction.  The Muppet Show characters absolutely can be just as popular in today's world as they were 30 years ago.  But the operative word there, of course, is "can".  Although Mr. Lasseter would also be a tremendous guiding personality for the Muppets, he has his plate full with other endeavors.  It does get a little tiresome over the years, reading the various postings on different sites and thinking to myself, "*This* might be it!  This might be the thing that launches a new resurgence in popularity!" only to be disappointed by ideas being drastically changed or even dropped altogether.  But I always have high hopes, and I always believe anything can happen.  After all, isn't that what we all learned from Kermit and the gang all those years ago?

  • I hope they can pull it through, but let's face it.  Without Jim Henson, the Muppets will never be what they were.  They can't.  He was the heart and soul of his operation (to a greater extent than even Disney was) and no one can ever replace him or replicate what he accomplished. The best we can hope for is product that does not disgrace the memory of Henson and at least tries to carry on his vision.

    That being said, if Disney really wants kids to know who the Muppets are, just put them on television.  The original show (and even, to a much lesser extent, Muppets Tonight) have a charm that kids of all ages spark to immediately.  If you show it, they will come.

  • I'm glad you enjoyed it  but The Muppet Wizard of Oz was not enjoyed by everyone.  Check Amazon-http://www.amazon.com/Muppets-Wizard-Oz-Ashanti-II/dp/B00005JO4H/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/103-2466318-9435029?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1177954705&sr=8-1

    Rubbing Gonzo's nipples is not something one would expect to hear/see in any Muppet-related vehicle. Same with the Girls Gone Wild reference.

    Even though it was PG or "not rated" one has a certain expectation of what a Muppet movie would/should be like.  The Muppets are a G rated product.

    I'm suprised in the bonus features Quentin Tarintino (who I like) didn't tell the joke, "What's green and smells like Miss Piggy."

  • On Amazon most of them say they didn't enjoy it, because they always compare it to the past. That is not the way you should look at new content. Of course it's not going to be like the Muppets when Jim Henson was still with us!! Face it, move on. Disney will never be what it was when Walt and Roy were in charge. That's obvious, duh. Move on, and learn to look forward instead of looking always back to what things were.

    (And I'm certainly not conservative, so maybe I just don't even see why it was TV-PG?)

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