How Jim Henson Company Reimagines Classics Like ‘Fraggle Rock’ and ‘Harriet the Spy’ for Modern Kids

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“How do you keep growing the legacy brand? You just keep going back to what it’s all about,” Henson’s president of TV Halle Stanford says

jim henson halle stanford
Halle Stanford (inset); "Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock," "Harriet the Spy" (Apple TV+, Jim Henson Company)

The company behind the Muppets have been busy re-creating familiar projects from our childhoods — from “Fraggle Rock” to “Harriet the Spy” — for a new generation of kids that takes into account how much things have changed over the years.

“How do you keep growing the legacy brand?” Jim Henson Company president of television Halle Stanford told TheWrap in a recent interview. “You just keep going back to what it’s all about. Jim Henson said: ‘If you’re going to put a child in front of a television, you have to have something to say.’ But kids transform, kids change and families need change.”

For Stanford and her team, that’s meant relaunching the 40-year-old cult hit “Fraggle Rock” in a new Apple TV+ series that targets stressed-out kids of today and helps them negotiate the social and environmental issues complicating their world in 2022. “From 40 years to now we all need to feel connected, right? We’re all part of this planet,” Stanford said. “That is what ‘Fraggle Rock’ was about — empathy and understanding, connectivity.”

So “Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock” — which debuted on Jan. 21 with characters from the original 1983-87 series like Gobo, Red, Goober and Uncle Traveling Matt — tackles issues that range from online misinformation to pollution in the oceans to the refugee crisis. “The pandemic has revealed, and even before the pandemic, massive anxiety in children and their parents,” Stanford said. “And so there’s several episodes that deal with anxiety, that deal with self care. That’s my favorite one.”

In addition to “Fraggle Rock,” the Jim Henson Company has produced other series — including a Netflix show called “Word Party Presents Math” and an animated version of kids’ book classic “Harriet the Spy” that debuted last November on Apple TV+ and features the voice of Beanie Feldstein as the middle-school sleuth.

Stanford, who joined Henson in 1993, has a long history in kids television, winning an Emmy as executive producer of the Netflix 10-episode fantasy series “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.” And she launched the PBSKids series “Sid the Science Kid” (2008-2013) based on her own science-loving son, then a preschooler and now 24 years old.

She spoke to TheWrap about the different challenges of rebooting “Fraggle Rock” and “Harriet the Spy.”

“The Fraggles”/Jim Henson Company

How is the Jim Henson Company taking its programming in a new direction?
How do you keep growing the legacy brand? So what “Fraggle Rock” was 40 years ago, the essence of it is there. But then we looked at modern messaging of what kids and families need to help them make the world a better place.

What are some of the specific issues the show addresses in 2022?
Well, climate change is a big one, right? And the oceans. So you’re going to see topics like that within “Fraggle Rock,” like cleaning up the microplastics in the oceans. Those are like big global ideas. But we also approach individual challenges that have come up. So yes, the pandemic has revealed, and even before the pandemic, massive anxiety in children and their parents. And so there’s several episodes that deal with anxiety, that deal with self care. That’s my favorite one.

What about social media?
We were very mindful of the digital age. So there’s a couple of topics that talk about the echo chamber, that talk about digging the truth behind the products being sold online. Just taking a look at what the what the real product is versus the messaging… we also have the Craggles, who wind up becoming refugees, and the Fraggles have to take them in and have to learn how to be good allies.

Tell us about the “Fraggle Gaggle” that advised the writers.
“Fraggle Rock” invited poets who work with children every day, we invited teachers, we invited the (UCLA) Center for Scholars & Storytellers, who had actual data and research about what families and kids are worried about. How do they take action? What do they do?

The animated “Harriet the Spy” (based on the 1964 novel by Louise Fitzhugh) avoids some of these problems by taking viewers back to the 1960s — with 2D animation appropriate to the period. Why?
I found out after we optioned the book that Harriet was one of the first little girls written in literature who didn’t dress like a typical little girl. She wore low tops, baggy jeans — she’s like a time traveler. That’s how we knew that she would connect with kids today, too. And it’s kind of why we wanted to set it in the ’60s. Not every network was into that idea, but yay for Apple! You could suddenly delve into topics (and) demonstrate that they still exist today. But also kind of give it this polish, this sort of fantasy polish of this new, different kind of New York City, when kids were “free range.”

I really believe that Harriet was a Jim Henson book (waiting) )to be translated to television. When you think of the name Jim Henson, we think of our programming, it feels classic. It feels like something that has like the gold standard of kids entertainment behind it. But really, for me, I loved it because Harriet’s an artist, and Jim Henson was an artist. Yeah. And she is looking at the world through an artist lens as a writer. You’ll see in the show when she’s writing. You’re going to see what she’s imagining.