Sure, some of our childhood favorites have fallen into obscurity over the years, but some licenses have been reborn, bigger – and better – than ever. Let’s take a look at who’s on top of the Property Ladder.
Jim Henson’s signature puppet creations known as the Muppets have been one of the most popular and enduring figures in popular culture for over forty years. In that time, they have starred in two successful live-action television shows, one animated series, six feature films, and numerous TV specials and have been featured on everything from T-shirts to lunchboxes and record albums. Their legacy has even outlived their brilliant creator, who tragically passed away in 1990. In the past twelve years, however, they haven’t been as prominent on television and have been absent from the movie screens, aside from a few direct-to-video features. All of this will change this Thanksgiving when James Bobin’s highly anticipated film The Muppets hits theaters, which will no doubt reinvigorate these characters and introduce them to a whole new generation. In anticipation of the film’s release in just a few short weeks, let’s take a look back at the history of this wonderful and unique property to find out what made them so endearing to kids and adults the world over.
Jim Henson made his name as a puppeteer in the early sixties in Washington, D.C. Just fresh out of college, Henson and his future wife Jane worked on a popular prime-time puppet show entitled Sam and Friends that featured the debut of his most iconic character, Kermit the Frog. On that show, Henson developed the innovative puppet techniques that would make the Muppets such a unique and beloved property. After Sam and Friends ended, Henson’s Muppets began appearing in TV commercials and on talk shows, and during this time, he began recruiting several other talented puppeteers, many of whom, such as Frank Oz and Richard Hunt, would work with Henson for decades to come. In 1969, the Muppets played an important role in launching the phenomenal children’s program Sesame Street, featuring original puppet characters such as Grover, Ernie and Bert, and Big Bird that would quickly become pop culture fixtures. In the seventies, Henson began to branch out from children’s entertainment, landing his troupe a weekly segment on the first season of Saturday Night Live and, in 1976, launching his crowning achievement, The Muppet Show, which starred Kermit the Frog and introduced the world to a myriad of new and popular characters such as Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and Miss Piggy.
Running from 1976 to 1981, The Muppet Show was one of the most successful syndicated television shows of all time and proved appealing to both children and adults. The show emulated the old-fashioned variety shows of television’s early age, featuring music, comedy, and guest appearances from a number of human celebrities. Each week, Henson and his fellow Muppeteers inhabited their characters with so much life and personality that viewers constantly forgot that they were watching puppets interact with each other and with their human guest stars. The Muppets talked and acted like living, breathing characters, which was all due to the passion and talent of the Muppeteers. The success of the show and these characters led to three hit movies – The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), and The Muppets Take Manhatten (1984). During this time, Henson took on a few more ambitious projects such as The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and the long-running series Fraggle Rock, all of which did not feature his most famous characters, but he never fully abandoned Kermit and his pals. At the time of Henson’s untimely death at the age of 53, he had just signed a deal with the Walt Disney company giving them distribution rights to his most famous characters while keeping the Sesame Street Muppets the sole property of the Children’s Television Workshop, later to be renamed Sesame Workshop.
Shortly after Henson’s death, the Muppets continued to appear on television and in movies, with Steve Whitmire taking over puppeteering and voicing duties for Kermit and other characters originally helmed by Henson. The nineties brought a new weekly TV series entitled Muppets Tonight and three feature films – The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and Muppets From Space (1999). The latter two films failed to capture the enthusiasm of Muppet fans the wasy the previous films had. Many felt that the post-Henson Muppet projects were missing the playful anarchy and sense of whimsy that Jim brought to his characters. In the past decade, the Muppets have kept a very low profile, only appearing in an occasional TV special, commercial, or direct-to-video feature. That all is set to change this November, when the new, eponymously-titled film directed by James Bobin and written by Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller is released. This is the first Muppets film conceived and directed by people outside of Henson’s production company, but based on interviews with the writers and director, all of whom are self-proclaimed Muppet fanatics, the movie is expected to be a return to form for these beloved characters and is one of the most-anticipated movies of the year. While The Muppets will feature several human actors such as Segal, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Ricky Gervais, Danny Trejo, Jack Black, and Zach Galifinakis, among others, the Muppets themselves will be the main focus of the film, which centers around them trying to save the theater where they originally performed their iconic TV show. The Muppets will no doubt appeal to fans both young and old fans and will breathe new life into this property and bring these characters back into the center of public consciousness, where they truly belong.