January 9, 2013

Sequel to Muppet Reboot Now Filming

It's hard to believe more than a year has passed since since the successful Muppet movie reboot known as "The Muppets" was released in November 2011.  I was able to see the Jim Henson exhibit at New York's Museum of the Moving Image in 2011 (see http://nyti.ms/qUZq9p for details on that) which was very interesting.  In any event, "The Muppets" 2011 movie grossed $158 million worldwide for Disney becoming the highest-grossing film in the Muppets series and was also the first of the series to gross over $100 million (unadjusted for inflation), effectively re-launching a movie franchise that the company had left to die with almost no investment since Disney acquired the Jim Henson Company back in 2004. The Hollywood Reporter (visit http://goo.gl/cTW4j) has already disclosed that Ricky Gervais (who appeared in "The Muppets") will be featured in a new Muppet sequel movie and Mr. Gervais himself acknowledged it via a Tweet, along with (potentially) Tina Fey.  Shooting for the new sequel is scheduled to take place starting January 2013 in London (the story will be about the Muppets going to Europe, hence the filming location).

Ideally, Disney should have been a great strategic fit for the Muppets, especially since the Muppets are characters traditionally aimed at children, but Disney had been on an acquisition binge over the past decade, snapping up several big media companies, ranging from Pixar (acquired 2006), Marvel Comics (acquired in 2009) to it's most recent acquisition of Lucasfilms (acquisition announced in 2012, see my post at http://goo.gl/YLhVm for details on that).  Frankly, without Jim Henson or Frank Oz (who's still around but now retired) to advocate for the Muppets, the franchise seemed destined to become a relic of a bygone era.  After all, today's kids are really enamored with the computer animation from Pixar and rivals like Dreamworks, whereas old-fashioned puppets or animation seems so last century, right?  Of course, the Muppets were fully-developed character personalities, giving them an edge over newly-created characters.

Jim Henson and his Muppet characters

Without getting too far off track, readers should know that Muppets is the formal name and legal trademark now owned by the Walt Disney Co. in reference to the original puppet characters created by Jim Henson.  Although Mr. Henson would sometimes tell people the term had been created by combining the words "marionette" and "puppet", he was also on record as saying that it was really just a made-up word.  Regardless, the franchise was already well-established, but poorly-managed (or maybe not managed at all?) since Disney took ownership in 2004.

Disney Acquisition Binge Left Muppets Franchise Unattended for 7 Years

In 1990, Jim Henson himself was in negotiations to sell his company to The Walt Disney Company, but Mr. Henson died rather unexpectedly during the week he was supposed to sign the contract, and his family then decided to have the company keep the rights to the characters.  Disney bought the distribution rights to Jim Henson Co. library (up to that time) in December 1991, but the company did not own the characters, merely the distribution rights to them.

In 2000, Jim Henson's children sold the entire Jim Henson Company to a German media company named EM.TV, but in early 2001, EM.TV experienced major financial problems, so the Jim Henson Company was again put up for sale.  Then, on February 17, 2004 Disney actually bought full ownership rights to the Muppet characters (excluding the Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock characters) for $75 million.  However, as I noted before, Disney did almost nothing with the franchise for the next seven years as it worked to transform itself into a media giant capable of competing with rivals Time Warner and Viacom.

Jason Segel: A Fan Steps In To Resurrect Muppets of His Youth

The entire Muppet reboot really happened because of Jason Segel, who admits he was was a big fan of the original Jim Henson series which most Gen Xers grew up watching on TV.  Jason Segel didn't just star in November 2011's movie "The Muppets", he was also a co-writer, having written the script with his "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" partner Nick Stoller.

Shortly after "The Muppets" 2011 reboot premiered, NPR's "Fresh Air" program spoke with Jason Segel about the reboot.  That interview may be listened to below, or by visiting  http://n.pr/rEjbWs:

2009 Muppet Rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody" As A Preview

We saw an early hint of how a renewed Muppets franchise was likely to look when the Muppet Studio, back in late November 2009 (which had been pretty dormant), quietly brought the Muppets back to the small screen (the REALLY small screen, meaning YouTube) with a video of the Muppet gang doing a video rendition of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", which was clearly aimed at the Gen Xers who grew up watching the Muppets on television back in the 1970s.  The video was released virally, and received over 10 million hits within its first 2 weeks online.  The official version of that can be viewed below, or by visiting http://youtu.be/tgbNymZ7vqY:

Frank Oz Less-Than-Impressed With Muppet Reboot?

To be sure, some purists weren't exactly thrilled with the reboot.  For example, Frank Oz (who was the original puppeteer for Miss Piggy among others), told the British website Metro (see http://bit.ly/UHUBZm):

"I wasn't happy with the script", Oz explained. "I don't think they respected the characters. But I don't want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie."

Diva Miss Piggy on the cover of "People"
Sep. 3, 1979 (click on photo to see issue)
Mr. Oz seemed to overlook the fact that Mr. Segel was really throwing the Muppet franchise a lifeline.  For example, The Hollywood Reporter noted (see http://goo.gl/XVwLv) the Muppets hadn't been in theaters since "Muppets From Space" tanked for Sony in 1999.  It also reported:

"According to a Muppets veteran, toward the end of his life, Muppets creator Jim Henson was finding it a challenge to keep his creatures in the public eye. He was operating independently in an era of media concentration, which helps explain his decision to sell to Disney."

"It was difficult  even before Jim Henson died [in 1990], and it became very, very difficult after Jim died," said [one] insider ruefully. "We had the characters still doing things, but without a constant, in-your-face exposure that something like The Simpsons has ... They lost a generation."

Author Judy Blume's Thoughts On Revisions To Original Works

A while back I wrote about an NPR interview with 1970s kids' author Judy Blume (see that post at http://goo.gl/t4pcp), and she spoke on how over 25 years ago, her British editor talked to her about how her original edition of the book "Are You There God, It's Me Margaret" referred to sanitary napkins and pads that had belts and pins (not the sticky pads used now), so the author said she had no problem updating those things, and she's also updated books in the "Fudge" series to remove references to the smell of mimeograph machines which aren't used in schools anymore today, and she also changed some of the electronics cited in order to keep the books relevant to today's readers.

Her most telling comment was:

"You know, I don't think it has anything to do with the story and the characters. It just — it doesn't. Those are just little details that don't mean anything."

Now, I should note that Frank Oz was trying not to be overly critical (it was more of a side comment that seems to have been blown out of proportion), and my sense is he really didn't want to stand in the way of the new Muppet movie's success.  After all, he won't be around to do Miss Piggy forever, so getting new people to do it is key to the Muppets' survival into the future.

Jason Segel Reboots Muppets Franchise For Disney

Anyway, back to Jason Segel.  He was really the force behind getting the Muppet resurrection, and it was a bit more difficult than he'd anticipated.

According to Segel, putting the script together was kind of a logistical nightmare. "It was oddly a lot more complicated than I thought," Segel said in an interview during the CBS after-party during the Teen Choice Awards. "All of a sudden, you realize when you write a scene like, 'The Muppets run away from the building,' the set has to be elevated and there's puppeteers operating all four limbs. It's as creative as you want it to be in your brain."

However, Mr. Segel found that actually writing for puppets wasn't the most gut-wrenching part of the job, admitting "I cried the first time Kermit said a line I'd written.  It's not even 'awww' worthy. It just happened. I'd been writing the script for about four years, literally since 'Sarah Marshall.' We did a table reading, and they'd brought the puppets for the first time. We're all just sitting at the table, and all of a sudden they brought out Kermit and he said the first line that I had written. And I just lost my shit a little bit. I started crying at the table read and I had to awkwardly ask them to stop filming. It was emotional. He's been my favorite since I was a little kid." Despite the tears, Segel added, "It was a good day."

Check out the official trailer for "The Muppets" below, or by visiting http://youtu.be/C4YhbpuGdwQ:

To be sure, "The Muppets" reboot succeeded, although Mr. Segel won't be back for the new sequel.

It's also unclear if the new Muppet character Walter in "The Muppets" will be featured in the new movie, either (by the way, his human alter-ego in "The Muppets" was played by none other than "Big Bang Theory's" Jim Parsons).  Although the Walter character was well-received by Los Angeles Times film critic Betsy Sharkey (see her review at http://lat.ms/RGsVqY), the character served more of a role in building "The Muppets" story, rather than much else.  Whether that character is needed in the new sequel remains to be seen.  With other such already well-developed characters like Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Swedish Chef, Rowlf the Dog, Statler and Waldorf, or Miss Piggy, it's unclear whether Walter will even make an appearance without Mr. Segel in the sequel.

In the meantime, Jason Segel has plenty of work in Hollywood to keep himself busy as an actor  who plays Marshall Eriksen in the current CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother".

For the record, Disney has released three seasons of "The Muppet Show" on DVD, and all of the Muppet movies have also been released on DVD.

As for the Muppets, they're all headed back to the studio in London this month, and we'll see if lightning really does strike twice for the newly-revived Disney Muppets franchise.

Author P.S., April 3, 2013:  The New York Times reports (see http://nyti.ms/ZaDvv6) Jane Henson, widow of (and original collaborator with) Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, died on Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at her home in Greenwich, Conn. She was 78.  The cause was of death cancer, said a spokesman for the Jim Henson Co., the production company still owned by the couple's five children.  Ms. Henson was legally separated from Jim Henson in 1986, but they remained friends until his death in 1990.

Author P.S.,  June 10, 2015:  Entertainment Weekly, Variety and various others are reporting (see http://bit.ly/19Tqwny for one article) that ABC will reboot The Muppet Show as a primetime series for the network.  As the media has reported, the rebooted version of Muppet Show will be "more adult" shot in a mockumentary style à la The Office.  This makes sense given that the two Muppets films were heavily watched by adults who watched the movies with their own children (and were the original audience for the Muppets) and may find this type of entertainment appropriate for family viewing at home, plus the more adult humor may keep them coming back.  "The Big Bang Theory" co-creator Bill Prady, who spent his early days writing for the Muppets and received an Emmy nomination for co-writing a tribute to Muppets creator Jim Henson, will be exec producing the project.  The reboot will premier on Tuesday, September 22, 2015 on ABC television (ABC is owned by Disney, which also owns the Muppets).  A preview can be seen on YouTube at https://youtu.be/x2B5d-8H588.  The original, syndicated Muppet Show aired from 1976 to 1981.  ABC revived the franchise in 1996 with "Muppets Tonight", but the series was cancelled after 10 episodes.

Author P.S., August 5, 2015: In early August 2015, social media and traditional media were abuzz with the story (communicated by the celebrities themselves) that Miss Piggy And Kermit the Frog were calling it quits in terms of their relationship.  NPR covered the story briefly at http://n.pr/1TqptAW - the couple was careful to note that they'd be working together professionally in the Muppet Show reboot set to air on ABC (Disney owns both the Muppets and ABC) on September 22, 2015.  Some saw the news as little more than a publicity stunt for the rebooted show.

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