While Kermit the Frog still may not find it easy being green, his movie company is anxious about more pressing matters: being relevant.
That’s why Jim Henson‘s star amphibian is being reintroduced this fall in a new film that aims to please not just children but parents who still cherish the frog’s folksy, banjo-strumming ways and frequent body slams by his longtime paramour, Miss Piggy.
The Muppets, those felt-padded anarchists known for vaudevillian high jinks, ruled 1970s television and launched a short-lived Hollywood franchise. They faded soon after, unable to find their place among animated fare that was faster (“Toy Story“), darker (“Transformers“), and more irreverent (SpongeBob Squarepants). In other words, children’s entertainment entered a Bart Simpson world, which meant winking social commentary and snarky jabs were now just as requisite as live-action pratfalls and pie fights.
So when Disney bought the Muppets from Henson’s heirs in 2004 for $68 million, the long slog to bring Kermit and the gang back meant testing the waters to determine if the Muppets still have cultural relevance.
The result: viral videos of the Muppets parodying R-rated movies, such as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Hangover Part II,” and Queen‘s “Bohemian Rhapsody” music video; some of the Muppets stepping into the ring on WWE‘s “Monday Night Raw“; and a compilation CD featuring classic Muppet songs covered by bands like My Morning Jacket and Andrew Bird.
“Sesame Street,” Henson’s flagship creation, which is launching its 42nd season this fall, is also expanding its appeal beyond its target preschool demographic: Last year Cookie Monster guest-hosted “Saturday Night Live” with Jeff Bridges; this spring Elmo sang a controversial duet with Katy Perry; and the show launched a YouTube channel geared for adult nostalgia featuring classic clips and celebrity cameos.
The freshening of both former Henson enterprises comes at a time when the traditional divide separating youth entertainment from adult entertainment is shrinking thanks to the troubled economy, which is allowing young adults to hold on to their adolescence longer than their parents did, and the proliferation of home technology, such as sophisticated video-gaming consoles and mobile devices, that not only delivers more around-the-clock entertainment but requires users, even young children, to be both savvy programmers and consumers.
Todd Lieberman, who coproduced the new film, says the intention all along was to reach a general audience – “We’re not making entertainment specifically for children,” he says – because the characters are so rich and have the ability to work on different levels.
“The Muppets are a couple of generations old in a good way,” he says. “When I was a child, I appreciated them as a child, and now that I’m significantly older, I appreciate them in a completely different way, and there are hopefully lots and lots of people like me.”
The Disney ‘hipster’ effect
Since acquiring the Muppets, Disney tried a “Wizard of Oz” reimagining that failed because it was solely tailored for children. Momentum behind the new film, “The Muppets,” in theatres Nov. 23, was stronger because of its team: writers Nick Stoller and Jason Segel, the duo behind the R-rated comedies “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek,” and director James Bobin, best known for his writing and directing roles in “Da Ali G Show” on HBO.
While still G-rated fare, the film’s self-referential humour – designed for hipster tastes – is a direct result of its new handlers. “There was something contemporary and dare I say ‘hip’ about their involvement,” says coproducer David Hoberman.
Mr. Hoberman says reaching as broad an audience as possible means the possibility of replicating the success of “The Smurfs,” another retooled franchise from many decades back that became a worldwide hit this summer, earning Sony $135 million globally and continued revenues in toys and video games. A sequel has already been announced for next year.
Sean Phillips, the executive producer for Yahoo! Movies and Yahoo! Kids, says that because Disney subsidiaries include theme parks, television networks, and toy lines, the company is now primarily interested in “multidimensional franchises” that operate on all levels and “not just as movies.”
“It’s a high standard to pull off,” Mr. Phillips says. “They’re picking properties very carefully that they think will speak to parents, teenagers, and little kids.”
The Muppets are not just getting an update on the big screen. “Sesame Street,” the show produced by Sesame Workshop, an education-based nonprofit, is focusing on longer story lines that are woven throughout the show and trying out 3-D animated segments. The advent of 24/7 networks like Nick Jr. has forced the show to consider each season “experimental” in order to compete, says executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente.
“Our viewers have moved beyond 2-D animation. Even preschoolers and their parents want to see more sophisticated animation and more special effects,” Ms. Parente says. “The entire viewing audience has become more sophisticated.”
Parente likens ventures with mobile phones (yes, “Sesame” produces special segments to view on those, too) and online exclusives to the show’s early days: “What excites me about new media platforms is it feels like a new frontier…. Anywhere parents and kids are, are learning opportunities. So we try to have content [there].”
Plugging “Sesame” content into so much media means the show can now cater to kids and adults separately. For instance, when Ms. Perry’s dress drew criticism from parents after the segment was given a preview online, the segment was cut from broadcast and shelved to YouTube, a safer platform independent of the show where it received more than 28 million views.
“It’s hugely flattering [that] our characters and ‘Sesame Street’ as a brand [are] so relatable to so many people and that is because [they’re] so much a part of pop culture,” says Parente. However, she admits having “to ride a line” in deciding which content is best suited for which screen.
“Just because it’s geared towards adults doesn’t always mean it’s designed to work for adults and kids,” she says.
Too cool for kids?
The decisions to hike up the Muppets cool factor is troublesome for Marina Krcmar, a specialist in the developmental effects of television on children at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. She says children’s tastes have not changed from the early days of both “Sesame Street” and the Muppets, but their handlers have acquiesced to trends mainly because they fear looking outmoded.
“I don’t think any research shows trendier Muppets are bad for kids, but I do question, socially and culturally, what we lose when we don’t want children to be unhip,” Ms. Krcmar says. “There should be a period in your life when you’re allowed to not be trendy and edgy and that should be early childhood.”
Indeed, Hoberman says the principals behind the new Muppets venture “were very cognisant” of making a film that was too cool instead of just cool enough.
“One of my guiding principles of making television or film is ‘never be too hip for the room,’ ” he says. “Jim Henson would make comedy that he thought was funny and didn’t pander. Hopefully we’re not [pandering either].”
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