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Disney Dusts Off its Muppet Brand

Prematurely put out to pasture, Jim Henson’s puppets have re-emerged as internet stars

After being put to pasture a few years ago following a string of disappointing films and a ho-hum return to TV, the Muppets are a pop culture phenomenon once again.

Now, comfortably middle-aged, the zany puppets who came to prominence in the 1970s with "The Muppet Show" have recaptured their youthful bravado.

And they’re doing it by popping up all over the Disney corporate matrix, including appearances on ABC and ESPN programs, top billing on the Walt Disney Company’s homepage and, soon, in a network special and feature film written by "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" star Jason Segel. 

(Click here for a full list of recent and upcoming Muppets projects.)

But nothing has brought audiences back into the fold quite like YouTube.

Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the rest of Jim Henson’s creatures have become internet sensations with their recent viral video cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody," as well as their more recently released version of the Christmas carol "Ringing of the Bells." The puppets’ take on the Queen classic has drawn over 11.5 million viewers.

Versions of "Ode to Joy" and short videos featuring the likes of the Swedish Chef demonstrating pumpkin carving also have attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers to the Muppets’ YouTube channel.

The Muppets have been further shaking off their self-imposed seclusion (it’s been more than a decade since their last feature film) with a series of strategic cameos on established television shows. Characters are popping up on programs such as "Dancing With the Stars," where Animal banged on the drums as Aaron Carter hoofed it to the theme from "The Muppet Show." Miss Piggy interviewed guests during the series’ finale.

A theatrical film written by "Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s" Segel also is in the works.

Video (Bohemian Rhapsody):

It’s all part of a canny strategy by Disney, which bought the property from Jim Henson Productions in 2004, to introduce new audiences to the stalled brand and to remind traditional fans what they were missing.

In an odd confluence of events just as the Muppets were racking up page views, "The Muppet Man," a script by Christopher Weekes, attracted a great deal of attention after it was named the best unproduced script in Hollywood as part of  film executive Franklin Leonard’s annual survey The Black List.

The screenwriter himself thinks the Muppets are well positioned for a resurgence.

"It’s fantastic that people are rediscovering the Muppets," Weekes told TheWrap. "Making videos for the internet is something Jim would have done. It’s brave and clever. They’re viral video pioneers."

The newfound success follows a particularly fallow period for the franchise.

While the iconic "Muppet Movie" was considered a hit with $65.2 million in 1979, after Henson’s death in 1990, the troupe’s big-screen adventures grew increasingly stale, drawing critical opprobrium and diminishing box office returns. "Muppet Treasure Island" (1996) netted a modest $34 million and "Muppets From Space" (1999) took in an even more disappointing $16 million.

Of the latter, Roger Ebert spoke for many when he effectively wrote the franchise off with these words: "Maybe it’s just this movie. Maybe ‘Muppets From Space’ is just not very good, and they’ll make a comeback. I hope so. Because I just don’t seem to care much anymore. Sorry, Miss Piggy. Really sorry."

An attempt to recapture the energy of the original television show with "Muppets Tonight" on ABC in the mid-1990s proved short-lived. A proposed "America’s Next Top Model" parody called "America’s Next Muppet" never even made it onto screens; the studio killed it off while it was still in the planning stages.

The fizz, it seemed, had gone flat from characters who once delighted young and old alike with their anarchic hijinks.

Compounding issues was a convoluted period at the beginning of the decade during which the rights to the Muppet characters were passed around.

The Jim Henson Company was purchased by German media company EM.TV & Merchandising in 2000, but EM.TV, beset by financial difficulties in 2003, sold it back to the Henson family. Disney, which had been circling the Muppets since 1990, finally bought the rights to the characters from the Henson Company nine months after the puppeteer’s family regained control.

In a sign of how much the Henson Company’s value had decreased during its time as a ward of EM.TV, the German company bought the property for $680 million and sold it for a mere $78 million just a few years later. Disney paid a reported $75 million for the Muppets brand.

About the only things the company has done with the pricey puppets until this current blitzkrieg were a new movie, "The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz," which aired on ABC in May 2005, and placing ornery critics Statler and Waldorf  on a skit-oriented weekly video segment called "From the Balcony" for Movies.com, which Disney owns. The segments ran from 2005 to 2006, at which point the company pulled the bit so it could rethink the entire Muppets brand.

The Muppets relaunch is not just a masterful illustration of new-media moxie; it’s also a very clever demonstration of corporate synergy. Disney’s Hollywood Records holds the rights to "Bohemian Rhapsody" and, of course, ABC, which produces "Dancing With the Stars," is aired by the Mouse House.

In the past, characters have turned up across other company-owned platforms including the Disney Channel, Disney Online and ESPN, a practice the studio plans to expand upon over the coming year.

In one instance of non-synergy, NBC last year aired a Muppet Christmas special: "A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa." It repeated the special this year.

Disney, which declined to comment for this article, isn’t content with just having Henson’s furry progeny remain viral sensations. Pretty soon the Muppets will be back on more than just computer screens.

In a sign of their new corporate seal of approval, while Donald Duck and Goofy are nowhere to be found, the Muppets are prominently displayed in two different places on Disney’s website.

Miss Piggy and Kermit are currently starring alongside Taye Diggs and James Denton in commercials for Disney theme parks, which promote giving a day of volunteer service in exchange for a free pass at Disney World or Disneyland.

All this, of course, is just an appetizer for the main event: The Muppets’ next feature film is on track to hit theaters in 2011.

Befitting the edgier timbre of the recent YouTube videos, Segel, the screenwriter Disney has tapped for this latest go-round, is best known for his more adult roles in Judd Apatow’s comedies (including his puppet-weilding playwright character in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," which Segel wrote and Apatow produced).

It seems likely the studio is hoping to recapture some of the all-ages appeal that characterized the original variety show — which featured rock stars like Alice Cooper and skits such as Animal gazing lustfully at Rita Moreno as she coos "Fever" — that aren’t likely to appear on "Sesame Street" in the foreseeable future.

Video ("Ringing of the Bells"):

At the same time, the studio will continue to replenish the YouTube well with humorous videos and public service announcements for charities like Variety Club featuring the manic puppets. Segel and the creative team behind the upcoming movie won’t be involved in their production.

The Muppets also are on tap to return to their network television roots. A Halloween special with the puppets will air next October on ABC.

If the response to the YouTube videos is any indication, Disney’s ploy is working. The comments section of the video site overflows with praise for the latest batch of short movies.

"I LOVED watching the Muppet Show with my family every week when I was´╗┐ growing up," oddlittleducks wrote. "I LOVE being able to share the Muppet Show with my children now. I love these clips!"