Friday, March 23, 2012

The Two Worst Things to Ever Happen to the Muppets [From the Archives: 3-28-09]

[The below article was posted on the original Muppet Freak on March 28, 2009.]

...and no, "being bought by Disney" is not one of them. Though Disney is not without its faults and parts of it can be downright Eeeevil, i do have a lot of admiration for current Muppets Studio head Lylle Breier and how she's running things. If there's only one bitchslap i would give Disney, it would be their refusal to allow Kermit to appear in the video releases of Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas and The Christmas Toy. That's just the Major Corporate Greed that has become synonymous with the name "Disney" at play. But otherwise i'd consider this one of the most exciting times to be a Muppet fan. You can be sure i'll explore Disney's ownership of the Muppets more in depth in the future.

So what were the two worst things to happen to the Muppets? Both of them were "good ideas at the time" and not that bad on either of their own merits. But both of them set in motion a trend that has haunted the Muppets to this day.

The first big thing to have cursed the Muppets was "Muppet Babies". Like i said, not a bad idea at the time. The genesis of Muppet Babies was as a dream sequence in the film The Muppets Take Manhattan. In fact their musical number, "I'm Gonna Always Love You" was one of the highlights of the movie. It took very little time to realize this was a marketing dream with a Saturday morning cartoon series airing soon afterwards.

As the show itself goes, i don't hate Muppet Babies. Far from it. It was a good show. Funny, original, and all the great stuff one typically associates with Henson. And i always loved every single time Baby Animal was on screen...i know it's weird to talk about an animated character's "acting" but he had this screen presence and energy that always kept my eyes drawn to him. This show was lots of good fun and one of the better cartoon shows to come out of the 80's.

But like Jim Henson once asked Sesame Street creator Joan Ganz Cooney in a huge funk, "Why did you have to become so successful?"

It was what Jim fought against early in his career. The Muppets were always aimed more towards adults. When the Muppets became overnight household names due to their work on Sesame Street, Henson found himself facing his worst nightmare; being labeled by the entertainment industry and general public as "kiddie entertainment" The path from Sesame Street to The Muppet Show was a long uphill battle.

Though it never totally reversed the "Sesame Curse", The Muppet Show and the Classic Muppets' success helped Jim get his characters the adult acclaim he wanted. The Muppets had that respect; the characters were cool cultural icons.

Those darn Babies undid all that and put them back to square one.

There were three reasons that happened: (1) at a time when the kids who grew up on the Muppet Show were getting older, the Muppet projects Henson was working on were skewing younger. Fraggle Rock, though far more sophisticated than most television for any audience, was at its heart (and marketing) a "kids show". The Classic Muppet Show characters were basically making once-a-year appearances in tv specials. Then came the Babies. The original Muppet Show fans were growing up and the Muppets were leaving them behind going in the opposite direction. (2) People had finally come to recognize the difference between the "for kids" Sesame Muppets and the "all ages" Classic Muppets (as the Muppet Show cast would come to be known as). Muppet Babies took the cast that was associated with adults and redefined them as kiddie fare. Just look at the title: "Muppet BABIES" (ie "Muppet" = "Babies" or "For Babies") Kids on the schoolyard may have known how cool the show was and watched it without admitting it to their friends but telling your friends you liked watching "the babies show" was to risk your coolness level. (3) It became too successful. The Muppet Show ran five seasons. Muppet Babies lasted eight. In between 1983's "Muppets Take Manhattan" and 1989's "Jim Henson Hour", the Babies had the task of representing the Muppets to the public at large save for those once-a-year primetime specials. A whole bloody generation grew up thinking of the Muppets as infant cartoon characters and not the edgy cool puppet characters they really were.

The Muppets have never totally recovered. You know all the talk over the last two decades of "reviving the Muppet franchise"? It was those blasted babies that caused them to need to be "revised". I normally love Muppet monsters but the Babies were its own kind of "Muppet Monster" that grew too large and ate its own.

Yes, the show itself was good (and probably better than people who hadn't seen it in awhile remember) and it helped bring in money to the Henson Company and keep it afloat, but it was something that might have ultimately done more harm than good.

So what else could possibly be just as bad as the Babies? What else could cause the Muppets to experience such a decline in quality and overall "Muppetness"?

The posers!

Yep, the poser Muppets. Some of you have no idea what that means and those that do probably wonder why i would make such a claim. Read on.

Poser Muppets are full-bodied (ie they have legs!) stuffed dolls of the Muppets used for photo sessions. As Muppet merchansiding was everywhere in the Muppet Show days with countless photos taken of the puppets and more desire to show them head to toe with feet, the idea to make Poser Muppets made sense. Especially after the success of the Miss Piggy calendars and the 1983 debut of Muppet Magazine which would require the Muppets to be photographed heavily each quarterly issue.
[Poser Kermit (aka "Flathead" had this same expression in every single photo.  Ouch.]

Like the Babies, this was a good idea at the time. Looking back one could still say they were a good idea and essential to the growth of the brand especially in terms of merchandising. But also like the Babies, they were a poor substitute for the genuine article!

You see, one of the things that made the Muppets special was that they were designed for the close-up and intimacy of the tv screen. Part of what's considered Jim Henson's genius in their creation was not just his recognition that the borders of the tv set could serve as their stage rather than shoot a camera at a puppet stage, but they were designed to be flexible and have expressions come to life when put on a skilled puppeteer's hand. What makes Kermit such a classic character is that his own design is built around the shape of Henson's hand.

Such intricate movements and positions a puppeter makes in regards to camera angle and hand placement can make a Muppet come to life and go from happy to sad to crazed to ravenous and all the complicated emotions that an actor can play often with shades of several co-existing. You just can't get that out of a stuffed poser. They've done a lot of great stuff with them, but whenever a photo is taken with them, there's just this soullessness, this flatness. Of course this is made all the worse when you take Kermit and design his poser to be more two-dimensional friendly, de-emphasizing the snout that mimics the shape of a hand and flattening it to look more simple head-on. It doesn't improve on the original. Muppet fans have taken to calling Poser Kermit "Flathead".

 [Which looks better:  just one of this...]

 [...compared to ANY of these?]

Can you blame them? Not only should Kermit's real head shape not be so artificially round, but for a puppet who was created to be so flexible in expression shaped by the hand inside, a poser is doomed to fail. I've never seen a Kermit photo done with a Poser that i've liked. Not one. If you're a dedicated Muppet fan and have a copy of the book "Jim Henson: The Works" on your bookshelf or waiting for you anytime you want it at your library, take a look at the cover photos and pictures of Kermit "breaking through the page" displayed on the table of contents pages. Those were done with an actual Kermit PUPPET, one of the rare times they used the puppet itself for a photo session probably because they knew they couldn't get the various expressions needed in that spread from a poser.

[Which one looks more "Muppety" to you?]

Now the posers are not in themselves bad. They allow the Muppets to do things in a medium (still photography) that might be harder to do otherwise. But the company has come to depend on them almost solely for photo shoots instead of as an enhancement. Still photos with actual puppets are an endangered species. This is a crying shame. The posers should be used sparingly, not as the "go to" guys for photo shoots. They look bad. They're like that third face lift a celebrity gets. They think its working wonders and saving their reputation, but they're just being laughed at and felt sorry for behind their backs.

Now what could be worse than over-reliance on Posers? How about using the same handful of photos over and over AND OVER AND OVER again in merchandise? For the last decade, we've seen the exact same photos of the Muppets on merchandise. There's about ten (if even that) pictures of Kermit and Piggy always used and characters like Fozzie and Gonzo are lucky if they have more than five. Floyd and Rowlf have at most two! Disney is guilty of this, but this was a problem with Muppet products before the Disney sale. Heck, the Muppet flathead poser faces have even been SUPERIMPOSED over faces of actual Muppet photo stills such as in the case of the Rocky Mountain Holiday dvd cover and the infamous group shot of the Muppet cast from 1979 originally done to promote The Muppet Movie which almost always now has (what fans have dubbed "Floating Piggy" due to its poor photoshopping placement) a poser Piggy head on the real Miss Piggy's body.

These photos just shout "INFERIORITY" whenever i see them. The concept has been abused. Disney, I implore you to lock the posers in a closet for a few years and bulk up the supply of photos taken with the real Muppet puppets. Take LOTS of them. For every piece of merchandise that comes out with a "peeking over gaudy sunglasses" Piggy, "Home Alone" posed Fozzie, "kissing fingers" Swedish Chef or group shot of Muppets waving to camera that debuted at MuppetFest, you should be forced to scream "WARNER BROTHERS RULE!" at the top of your lungs through megaphones in the nation's busiest streets.

[AAAGGHHH!  Make it STOP!  MAKE IT STO-OPP!  I promise to eat my veggies!  Just no more Muppet poser posters!]

And for the record, pasting a bunch of those same photos used everywhere else into a new "group shot" like the inside audience chairs photo in The Muppet Show Season Three Box Set does NOT count as a "New" photo. Stunts like that should merit a "I Love Pixar" tattoo on your forehead.

Right now Disney is banking on a Jason Segel penned movie literally titled "The Greatest Muppet Movie of All Time" to reignite the brand (that WHO ruined and caused it to need reignition? Say it with me: "THE BABIES!") How about promoting it with the Greatest Muppet Photos of least the last two decades, if not all time by photographing the puppets for a change?

Wire hangers are yesterday's battle. From henceforth, NO MORE FLOATING OR FLATHEADS!

[Well...Muppet Studios did get only slightly marginally better at building and photographing posers to promote "The Muppets" - but they're still an eyesore.  They really need to stop the dependence on posers or at least severely limit the frequency of which they're used.

...and turns out we now have a THIRD Worst Thing to Ever Happen to the Muppets...but we'll discuss that in a few days.  You've been scared enough for one day.] 

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