Franchise Killers: Muppets Most Wanted
Tonight, the Muppets make their triumphant return to television. Advance word is that the show is actually very good and will appeal to all ages which is terrific news for beleaguered Muppet fans. For years, Jim Henson’s creations have struggled to find their place in pop culture.
Just four years ago, Disney successfully relaunched the Muppet movie franchise with the comedy, The Muppets. Disney hoped to build on that film’s modest success with a sequel. But unfortunately the 2014 follow-up, Muppets Most Wanted, cost more to make and grossed about half as much worldwide.
So when you’re watching the Muppets on TV tonight, remember, you have the failure of Muppets Most Wanted to thank for it.
Books have been written about Jim Henson and his creations. I don’t want to go all the way back to the beginning of Muppet history here, but I think we need to put some things in context. Henson was undoubtedly a visionary. Despite his soft-spoken demeanor, he was a very ambitious man who was constantly frustrated by the feeling that he had been pigeon-holed into children’s entertainment.
After many years honing his craft during the early days of television, Henson grew frustrated with the opportunities in American television, so he went to England where he was allowed to create the show he wanted to make. The end result was The Muppet Show which ran for five years in the late seventies and early eighties. In 1979, Henson and company took the Muppets to the big screen with The Muppet Movie which was a critical and commercial hit. At the peak of The Muppet Show‘s popularity, Henson decided he wanted to go out on top. He was ready for the next challenge.
For Henson, that meant getting into movies. In 1982, Henson took on the ambitious fantasy film, The Dark Crystal. Meanwhile, his lieutenants were keeping the Muppets going in movies like The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Although Henson was anxious to move on to bigger and better things, he also wanted to make sure that his creations were in good hands. His solution was to sell the Muppets to Disney. He figured that the company would take care of the Muppets as they had their own characters. Henson began collaborating with Disney on a number of Muppet projects including MuppetVision 3-D, a 3-D movie that continues to play at Disney theme parks. Tragically, it would be Henson’s final project.
Although Henson was not a practicing Christian scientist, he was raised in that tradition and he loathed going to the doctor. Amidst protracted negotiations with Disney lawyers, Henson’s health began to fail, but he refused to see a doctor. He ended up dying from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome at the age of 53.
As the deal with Disney was not complete, the Muppets were left in limbo. What followed were years of legal wranglings and family squabbles which ultimately ended with Disney owning the Muppets. But after years of neglect, interest in the Muppets had declined. In 1999, Muppets from Space was a box office bomb for Columbia Pictures. That film became the first franchise killer in the Muppets series. There wasn’t another Muppet movie for 12 years.
Once Disney had complete ownership of the Muppets, they put together a long-term plan that would culminate in a revitalized movie franchise if everything worked out. They started off small with commercials and on-line videos which were intended to remind audiences why they loved the characters in the first place and to introduce the characters to a younger generation who wasn’t familiar with them. When you think about it, it was the 21st century version of what Henson himself did in the 50’s and 60’s.
Disney finally pulled the trigger on a new Muppet movie with the 2011 feature, The Muppets. The Muppets was co-written by Jason Segel who also starred alongside Amy Adams. There was very little participation from the original Muppets performers. Frank Oz openly disparaged the movie for getting the characters and the tone wrong:
I thought the script wasn’t forward enough. I thought it was going backwards. And, I thought it was too sweet. Because the Muppets are not sweet. They shouldn’t be cute. It was a little bit too smarmy and cute for me. The Muppets always hated cuteness.
Most critics weren’t bothered by the movie’s nostalgic take on the Muppets. Reviews were almost universally positive. And The Muppets was hailed as a hit at the box office. It opened in second place behind the third Twilight movie and became the highest grossing movie in the franchise.
Despite that fact, The Muppets wasn’t quite the hit Disney was hoping for. With a domestic gross of $88 million, it surpassed the $65 million grossed by the original Muppet movie. But you’re comparing 1979 dollars to 2011 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, The Muppets barely beats out The Great Muppet Caper.
Despite the fact that Disney was hoping for a bigger hit, they followed up with Muppets Most Wanted in 2014. They hoped that the first movie had whetted audience’s appetite for more and that the sequel could outperform the first film’s modest success. That confidence is reflected in a slightly larger budget for the sequel. But Disney miscalculated. It seems that The Muppets didn’t leave audiences wanting for more.
The Muppets Most Wanted also enjoyed good reviews, although not as universally positive as the notices for the first film. It opened in second place behind the young adult sci-fi movie, Divergent. But whereas the original movie opened at nearly $30 million dollars, the sequel had a $17 million dollar opening.
A big part of the blame can be attributed to the movie’s release date. The 2011 Muppets was a holiday release. But Muppets Most Wanted was dumped in the dead zone of March. Not only that, but Divergent was a PG-13 family adventure with overlapping demographic appeal. And Mr. Peabody & Sherman was still lingering in theaters competing for the kiddies. So in a traditionally slow time of year, there was a lot of competition for families who wanted to go to the movies and Muppets Most Wanted got steam-rolled as a result.
But the problems didn’t stop there. Disney marketing dropped the ball on this one. The sequel had a plot that revolved around a European heist very much like The Great Muppet Caper which had been the follow-up to the original Muppet Movie. To a casual observer, Muppets Most Wanted looked like a remake of the disappointing (and arguably under-rated) 1981 Muppet movie. Based on Disney’s marketing efforts, the plot was unclear. It looked like just another Muppet movie. The kind we had all stopped watching before Disney went to such great lengths to make The Muppets into a holiday event.
Finally, it’s time to acknowledge that the Muppets have always been a better fit for TV than the big screen. The original Muppet Show developed out of old variety show traditions. The first Muppet Movie was an event that gave the creators a chance to paint on a bigger canvas. But once you’ve done that, there isn’t much else to do. Before you know it, you’re having the Muppets re-enact A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island. Even with the full creative force of Henson, Oz and the rest of the Muppet performers, a Muppet movie franchise was never the best fit. TV is where they belong. Hopefully this new series gets the tone right and a new generation can enjoy Muppet mayhem in weekly doses.
Let’s break this thing down.
How many movies in the series? 2 (If you are only counting the rebooted series) 8 (if you count them all)
How many of them were good? 2 (both rebooted films were solid – tastes will definitely vary if you count all 8, but no one liked Muppets From Space)
Health of the franchise before it died? Showing signs of renewed life
Likelihood of a reboot? On TV, it’s happening tonight! On the big screen, not any time soon.
Any redeeming value? Like The Great Muppet Caper, Muppets Most Wanted is under-rated. I actually preferred it to the 2011 reboot.