Disney History: Jim Henson’s “Muppets”
On July 31, we are seeing the debut of Muppets Now, an unscripted show releasing on Disney+. This new show marks the third reboot or resurgence that this property has seen over the course that they have been controlled by Disney (but who’s counting?) Jim Henson never met Walt Disney and, though he admired the man, did not intend to follow in his grand footsteps by creating a huge empire. His focus was on quality over quality, something he feared could not be maintained to his standards. Despite this, and perhaps ironically, the Walt Disney Company now owns the rights to Henson’s beloved creation. This is that story.
In 1990, Jim Henson died unexpectedly. At 53 years old, he had already created a legacy for himself, both on the big and small screens. With beloved characters like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, children young and old knew and loved his work. He was an innovator in every sense of the word and, like Walt Disney, used modern technology to tell his stories. His death was a sad day for many, but for the Muppets themselves, it was a scary one. So much of Henson’s DNA was in these characters and without him, what would the future hold? Steve Whitmire, a young puppeteer who had performed with The Muppets for years, was decided to take on the mantle of the characters that Henson performed, of which there were many. The most important, of course, was Kermit the Frog, whom Henson had been the of since its creation in 1955. Whitmire’s first performance as Kermit occurred a few months after Henson’s death in a TV special called The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson.
Jim Henson and the Disney company had been discussing negotiations over the course of the last year of his life. In fact, one of the very last Muppet productions that Jim Henson would live to see was the TV special The Muppets at Walt Disney World. This special was meant to promote and build excitement for these two major products coming together. However, it is important to note that no official contract had been signed yet. Jim Henson and then-CEO Michael Eisner were personal friends and trusted one another. Henson had no idea that in just ten short days after this special, he would be dead.
Due to Henson’s death and no contract, the deal with Disney was put on hold. However, this didn’t stop the two companies from working together. In 1991, the first Muppet attraction Muppet*Vision 3D opened in Walt Disney World. That same year, Disney bought the distribution rights to home video releases of the past films as well as distribution rights to new Muppet content. In 1992, Jim Henson Productions and the Walt Disney Company released the first feature film since Henson’s death, The Muppet Christmas Carol. This adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel was directed by Jim’s son Brian and audiences were able to see Whitmire as Kermit for the first time on the big screen, who had now had found his footing as the famous frog. Its success led to another adaptation of a classic novel in the form of Muppet Treasure Island, released in 1996 and also directed by Brian Henson. That same year, a new Muppet television show premiered on ABC. Muppets Tonight was a new take on The Muppet Show, this time in a TV studio. Like the original show, it featured skits, songs, and guest stars. It was moderately successful but has never been released on home video and is not available to stream on Disney+, despite Disney’s ownership.
In 2004, Disney finally bought the Muppets property from the Henson family. With it, they received several feature films from the early days, all five seasons of the original show, and another chance to reboot the franchise for the 21st century. However, it took them more than five years to do anything major. Apart from a couple of television specials and the release of the first three seasons on DVD (not all five, mind you), The Muppets were largely absent from the spotlight. Finally, in 2011, a feature film titled The Muppets was released. This was the first time in more than ten years that these characters were seen on the big screen and the first time since Disney had bought the franchise. The film starred Amy Adams and Justin Segel and was an enormous success, winning an Academy Award for the song “Man or Muppet”. This film also saw the introduction of a brand new Muppet character, Walter. The film was followed by a sequel three years later, which was considerably less successful. In 2015, a mockumentary style Muppet show premiered on ABC and was the final nail in the coffin for this reboot. The negative reviews and lack of viewers resulted in the show being canceled after one season.
The next two years saw a dramatic turn in the direction of The Muppets under Disney. Steve Whitmire, a Muppet performer for almost 40 years, was fired. Though he was the original replacement for Henson’s Kermit and a slew of other characters, the Henson family stated that he made “outrageous demands”. Brian Henson even went as far as to say that he felt “pretty guilty that I burdened Disney by not having recast Kermit at that point  because I knew that it was going to be a real problem”. Matt Vogel, experienced puppeteer both for Sesame Street and The Muppets replaced Whitmire in 2017, making him the third official performer of the character. 2017 and 2018 also saw another attempt at rebooting the franchise by offering two major live shows, one at the Hollywood Bowl in California and another at the O2 in London. Reception to Vogel’s Kermit was mixed and continues to be so in 2020.
In 2019, Disney+ was released. This streaming service features decades of content from all areas of the company including several Muppet movies and 2015 TV reboot. A glaring omission remained, however. The original outlet for The Muppets, The Muppet Show, was not available on the platform. This show has never been made available in HD and certainly has never been available on any other streaming service. For many Muppet fans, this was a major disappointment and missed opportunity.
Despite this, Disney is attempting to revitalize their brand yet again with Muppets Now, premiering on Disney+ on July 31, 2020. This short form, unscripted series is supposed to bring The Muppets back to their roots with original sketches, wacky cooking shows, and more. It will be interesting to see if this show brings about a renewed in the brand as intended, or if Disney will have to reboot it yet again in five years.
“The Muppets (Franchise).” Disney Wiki, disney.fandom.com/wiki/The_Muppets_(franchise).
Jones, Brian Jay. Jim Henson: the Biography. Ballantine Books, 2016.
Parker, Ryan. “Jim Henson’s Son Explains Why Kermit Actor Was Replaced.” The Hollywood Reporter, 20 July 2017, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/jim-hensons-son-explains-why-kermit-actor-was-replaced-character-could-use-change-1022041.
Stevenson, Richard W. “In Thaw, Henson and Disney Strike Deal on Home Videos.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Dec. 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/19/business/company-news-in-thaw-henson-and-disney-strike-deal-on-home-videos.html.