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Franchise Killers: Muppets Most Wanted

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.

Jim Henson

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.

The Muppets - 2011

The Muppets – 2011

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.

muppets most wanted

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.

muppets most wanted

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.

More Franchise Killers

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Posted on September 22, 2015, in Franchise Killers, Movies and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. What Went Wrong?: Vol. 45 – Muppets Most Un-Wanted Edition:
    https://znculturecast.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/what-went-wrong-vol-45-muppets-most-un-wanted-edition/

    This past weekend, the eighth theatrically released Muppets movie, Muppets Most Wanted, was released (look for my review soon). I went to an 8pm showing on Saturday and was amazed to see the theatre was over half-empty. I was talking to someone the following day to discover that the showing she went to only had one other couple in it.

    Surprised, I went online and discovered Muppets Most Wanted came in a distant second place by earning a lackluster $16.5 million dollars (the pervious installment nearly doubled that during its opening weekend). This was a huge disappointment especially after the massive success (both critically and financially) of 2011’s The Muppets which effectively restarted the mostly dead Muppet film franchise. I am sure Disney was expecting Muppets Most Wanted to be a similar success, so what exactly went wrong?

    Well, for starters, it was dominated and crushed by the latest young adult novel-turned-movie Divergent. Am I the only one who never heard of this series until the movie was coming out? Looking very much in the same vein of The Hunger Games, it feeds into that massive fan base. Clearly these young female-led action flicks meet all those specific demographics much more than the Muppets do. Though not making nearly as much, released the same weekend as The Hunger Games was two years previously, Divergent had the perfect storm going for it.

    But, okay, there was the Divergent competition. Surely the Muppets can be designed for families and adults who loved the Muppets when they were younger? After all the last film was released during the winter movie season and it did gang-busters!

    Well, yes and no.

    While the first film played heavily on the nostalgia that audiences had for the Muppets, that’s really only a trick you can use once. Reminiscent adults got their fix. Now, they may not care. Kids who went to the previous film likely came with their families and even though they might have enjoyed the movie, Kermit and friends just don’t have that “must-see” appeal. Plus, I bet those families still went to see Divergent as that was something fresh.

    Not helping matters, I am sure, is that Muppets Most Wanted didn’t keep the previous film’s human co-stars of Jason Segel and Amy Adams. While replacing human characters isn’t such a new thing with Muppet movies, the previous movie was largely anchored by them. I can see that by not including them, the film put off potential audiences.

    However, all the above is minimal. Here is the real reason why I think this film faltered. Remember how completely awesome the The Muppets marketing campaign was back in 2011? With all the fake trailers and movie posters? Each new one got more and more ridiculous and the film got a lot of buzz and good will. Muppets Most Wanted’s marketing was horrible by comparison. Disney’s team did nothing eye-catching or original. True, they eventually released some parody posters, but those didn’t come out until two weeks before the film’s release. The marketing was extremely pedestrian and it did not do a good job of selling the flick by highlighting a plot that seemed sort of “eh” and maybe more kiddie that it actually is. While the marketing did the job, there nothing stood out about it. And the numbers show that it didn’t engage audiences.

    I can see Muppets Most Wanted being successful in the video release market, so I am sure the film will churn a profit. I am really surprised that Disney dropped the ball on this. This is a series that is still fairly strong creatively, but without people going to the movies to see it, it is going to flounder. If another movie is made any time in the near future, I really hope the mistakes made with this will be corrected, so the Muppets can have that 2011-styled success again.

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  2. Great write-up; I see the muppets as an eternal thing, something any generation can like. Jim Henson created a beautiful thing here (as a kid, I had Kermit and ALF; those guys were my favorite stuffed animals).

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    • I’d like to think the Muppets are eternal. But they are very dependent on tone and very few people have been able to get the tone right. There have been times when the future of the characters was in doubt.

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      • I completely agree with you. I mean, I think most of the films are pretty fun, but yeah, it’s like any creative endeavor: you have to understand the characters.

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  3. I haven’t seen Muppets Most Wanted yet but it sounds worth checking out. I agree that The Great Muppet Caper is a bit underrated; I actually like it better than The Muppet Movie because I think it benefits from having fewer stops in the story to make way for celebrity guest star cameos.

    Also, I am pretty sure that Dave Goelz (Great Gonzo, etc.) is considered an “original” Muppet performer, and he was definitely involved in both reboots.

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    • You are correct about Goelz. In fact he is also working on the TV show which started tonight. Did you check it out? I thought it showed promise, but I wish is was a little more like The Muppets and less like The Office.

      It was my intention to leave the phrasing a bit vague to allow for the fact that a couple of the original performers did stick around while the majority did not. I’ll have to go back and fix my phrasing.

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    • My favorite was the film in which Charles Grodin hooked up with Miss Piggy. I ask, how can you cheat on Kermit; I love the plastic eyeballs and…nevermind, I’m becoming 7 years old again. Next thing, I’ll be down with “Fraggle Rock”. That, and the band Heart.

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      • That would be the under-rated Great Muppet Caper featuring the under-rated Charles Grodin. I think a Worst to First: Rank the Muppet Movies is going to be needed.

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        • Oh, yes, Charles Grodin as Nicky Holiday, Irresponsible Parasite (it actually says that on the door of his office). I also love his complex statement of his motive for a life of crime:

          “Why am I doing this? Because I’m a villain. It’s pure and simple.”

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  4. Great write-up as usual Lebeau. However, I hate to correct you on something here because your research is always exemplary but just one correction: Jim Henson never had any involvement in the Star Wars films, or development of any of their characters. It was makeup artist Stuart Freeborn who created the look of Yoda, based off of equal measures Einsten’s features and his own face. if you ever look up Stuart Freeborn you will be amazed at how much he looks like Yoda/Yoda looks like him.

    Jim Henson’s creative partner Frank Oz however did famously voice Yoda in 5 of the 6 Star Wars films.

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  5. “Even with the full creative force of Henson, Oz and the rest of the Muppet performers, a Muppets movie franchise was never the best fit.”

    Excellent point. I loved the Muppet Show as a kid and of course I rushed out to see the first Muppet movie – it’s the muppets on the big screen! – but after that I skipped the rest and stayed home to get my muppet fix as a kid. Even with the reboot I waited until it hit home video to check it out. Nevermind Frank Oz’s criticism of the Muppets reboot, it was a charming, nostalgic film. I can’t blame Disney for attempting to make Muppets a big movie franchise but it’s obvious tv is their natural home.

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    • TV is in the DNA of the Muppets. Henson spent decades developing the characters as a TV act. A movie needs a story with a beginning, middle and end. The Muppets don’t really have a story. They can be fitted into a story like they did with Muppet Christmas Carol. But that gets old pretty fast. The Muppets work best in lightning fast bits like commercials and on-line videos. The variety show style of the original Muppet Show basically strung together a bunch of great bits. That’s what the characters were always designed for.

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  6. The Muppets are a vaudeville show performed by charming puppets with slightly dark senses of humor. When whatever film or show they are in sticks to that formula they tend to deliver good entertainment. When they spend too much time giving them complex emotional lives I get a little impatient.

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    • Like on the show last night where we had to deal with Piggy and Kermit’s baggage?

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      • Yes. Exactly.
        I understand that a TV show needs a plot and that requires the characters to feel things about stuff, but for the Muppets that should all be in service of good jokes and bizarre musical acts (something that was missing in last nights pilot).

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        • You could replace the Muppets with human actors and that episode would have played like the pilot of one of the six sitcoms that got canceled last fall. The Muppets are supposed to be zany and outrageous. They push the traditional boundaries of the medium. The pilot episode of The Muppets that aired last night felt very safe. I don’t necessarily need musical Muppets – although that has traditionally been part of the formula. But it shouldn’t feel like a regular sitcom being acted out by puppets.

          Also, don’t expect me to be emotionally wrapped up in Kermit and Piggy’s romance. The entire point of that relationship is that it’s funny to see a frog get karate chopped by a jealous pig in a dress and go flying across the room. That’s the level of emotional depth The Muppets should be going for.

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        • I agree about how most of it would be the same with human actors. I feel like they decided muppets being more “edgy and adult” was the selling point. It is interesting to see, but I hope they realize that muppets are more like animation than real people. Meaning animation can get away with all kinds of things you can’t with a normal show. Not just physically impossible things, but storylines and dialog that for whatever reason are considered unacceptable with real people.

          I’m going to give it time too as it could be great if they find their footing.

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        • Exactly.

          One thing to realize is that the Muppets were always edgy and geared towards adults as much or more so than kids. By putting them in mundane settings, the show makes the characters less outrageous and more mundane. They will need to get away from that.

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  7. I am not old enough to have seen the original show, but I have caught a lot of it in reruns and of course it served as a background element of my growing up. I’ve never been interested in seeing the original movies or the reboots for the reasons pointed out: the Muppets just don’t really work in movie format.

    With that background, I watched the new show last night. I found not a few of the jokes amusing. I laughed a few times. Comparing it to The Office is good. I am not an Office fan, so I hadn’t thought of that. Rather, my impression as the show went on is that I’ve seen this before, and executed far better, in The Larry Sanders Show. We’ll see how next week turns out.

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    • I’m horribly biased. Let me get that out of the way. But if you like Muppets at all, watch the original Muppet Movie. For me, it is the encapsulation of everything Henson was trying to do with the Muppets. If you want to see me get “the feels” put on Rainbow Connection. Gets me every time.

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      • While I find The Muppet Movie to be more than a bit uneven, I agree with lebeau on this wholeheartedly–this is a beautiful moment. And Kermit riding a bicycle is also pretty cool.

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      • maybe I’m in the minority here, but I found the opening tune from the reboot, “Life’s a Happy Song” to be a heart punching concoction of joy. Much better than the also good “Man or Muppet” song that won the Oscar.

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        • I know I am in the minority, but it is a minority that includes Frank Oz. I was not impressed with the reboot.

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        • The 2011 movie had its flaws, but it also had moments that made me extraordinarily happy.

          Let’s keep in mind that Frank Oz participated in the awfulness that was Muppets from Space. Also, the original Muppet Movie managed to include an entirely unfunny scene featuring Steve Martin. That combination really should have knocked it out of the park, but…nope.

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        • “Don’t you want to smell the bottlecap?”

          Unfunny? I will take that scene over the reboot. Muppets From Space, I will pass on.

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    • ABC’s The Muppets might scar you, but an adult reinvention was necessary:
      http://www.sitcomsonline.com/boards/showpost.php?p=5051075&postcount=2

      “Every ‘grown up’ plot point, whether a work woe or a relationship drama,” says Kevin Fallon, “makes perfect sense in the greater Muppet universe. It’s just that some of us don’t want to live in a universe where Fozzie Bear knows what kind of fetish he would be on a gay sex hookup app. All of that said, in a perverse way, this maturation of the franchise may be exactly what was needed if The Muppets has any hope of being the same lightning rod or have the same longevity as the original Muppet Show, which ran from 1976 to 1981.”

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  8. Why ABC should dump The Muppets

    http://news.nationalpost.com/arts/television/why-its-time-for-abc-to-cut-the-lights-on-the-muppets

    So far, says David Berry, The Muppets “seems like a show built around trying to find a way to use a property in the Disney stable rather than one that has any reason to exist on its own.”

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