When Kermit sang ‘It’s not easy being green’, the lyrics were really a celebration of racial differences. Philip Dorward celebrates Jim Henson’s greatest creations as they prepare to set sail to Muppet Treasure Island.
Glad to be green: Kermit braves sea-sickness with Miss Piggy in Muppet treasure Island
icture the scene and the song: ‘lt’s time to play the music. it’s time to light the lights . . .’ An episode of The Muppet Show is in full manic swing — chickens are flying through the air. pigs are in space and several of the show‘s central characters are being blown up. The week’s special guest star turns to Kermit the Frog and says, ‘Kermit. I thought you were the one who wasn’t crazy around here.’ Kermit turns around in astonishment and says. ‘What‘.’ Me not crazy? I hired the others.’ Wocka! Wocka!
It’s difficult to believe that the hardest working amphibian in showbusiness is 40 years old - and about to star in a cinematic extravaganza. Muppet Treasure Island. Kermit‘s enduring legacy is testament to Jim Henson. the man who invented him and his fellow Muppets. Splicing together marionettes’ limbs and hand puppets. Henson made his M-uppets quite literally come to life. Unlike cartoons which are scripted and timed to perfection, the Muppets work ‘live’ so that there is a sense of vitality and freedom in everything they do. They also seem more ‘real’ to us than cartoons — you may like Bart Simpson. but you believe in Kermit.
The ethos of the Muppets and its sister shows are unlike any other entertainment programmes in the world. Danny Horn, who edits the essential Muppets fan information source Muppetzine, believes that Henson and his company build up an anti-conservative head of steam that continues to blow away Mickey Mouse.
‘The Muppets don’t do political humottr, and they don’t make political stands. but the themes in all of their shows point to a left- wing world view.’ Horn reckons. ‘They are very irreverent and anarchic. and they always include characters who are very different from each other getting along together and learning to work together. Sesame Street always includes lessons. both subtle and explicit. about respecting people, whatever their gender. race, religion, family structure — even species.
‘The Muppet Show is about a whole group of different creatures working together. with the end result being better for their diversity. Fraggle Rock was specifically designed to teach children all over the world that they could work and live in peace with people who have very different perspectives and needs. There’s also a strong environmentalist theme in
many of the Muppet projects. Basically, the company was started by a bunch of people who were very influenced by the world view of the l‘)6()s, and it remains that way.’
What Jim Henson Productions lacks in politics. it now more than makes up for in Hollywood clout. There was a time immediately after Henson’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1990, however. when it all looked in jeopardy. Disney had been planning to buy JHP for a reported $150 million, but when Kermit’s creator went to the big frog pond in the sky. they tried to lower the price. The two locked in a bitter legal battle — the infamous ‘Frog vs Mouse’ case — for which JHP eventually settled out of court. although saddling an eight figure debt.
Bravely. the chief executive officer of JHP, Jim’s son Brian. took the company forward on a marketing curve. Muppet characters were licensed and merchandising deals struck across the world. In I992. JHP buried its differences with Disney. who released Muppet Christmas Carol, which coined a very un-Serooge-like
‘Gonzo has been a hero of mine from way back. I also love Fozzie Bear - the ultimate frightened comedian. So half
of my heroes are actually gloves.’
$27 million. By the beginning of 1995, JHP was worth double what Disney had offered five years before. Further financial fruits have been borne in a five-year deal with Sony to produce twelve family films, three or four of which will star the Muppets.
The first new product to hit British shores is Muppet Treasure Island, which is so mad it makes Christmas Carol seem like a yuletide sherry with your great auntie. Again founded on a classic literary tale, it is the story of friendships that endure against all odds and of the deep love for a reticent frog that has driven a jungle queen pig into the arms of pirates. Billy Connolly is one of the humans amidst the all-star Muppet cast. ‘Gonzo has been a hero of mine from way back,‘ he enthuses. ‘1 also love Fozzie Bear - the ultimate frightened comedian — and Rowlf is a favourite too. So half of my heroes are actually gloves.’
We’re sadly going to have to wait a little longer for a new television version of The Muppet Show called The Muppets Tonight.’, which the BBC is not screening until autumn. it’s worth waiting for, though, especially as it will be fronted by a dreadlocked elephant who introduces himself as ‘your homie made of foamie’. Humour? Wocka! Wocka!
Muppet Treasure Island opens in Scotland on Friday 28 June and is reviewed in the Film section.
The List 28 Jun-ll Jul l99615