Disney Changes Course and Let Muppets Run Wild

Last Updated May 25, 2011 12:31 PM EDT

When Disney (DIS) bought the Muppets seven years ago the brand practically vanished. Kermit the Frog and friends' farcical, slightly sarcastic humor wasn't how the studio does family fare. So the company had to choose between corporate culture and ROI -- and culture apparently won out.

Recently, however, Disney has loosened its straitjacket of nice to let Kermit & Co. bring in the green. In the last year or so savvy, idiosyncratic Muppet videos ("Bohemian Rhapsody", anyone?) have started turning up on YouTube. That was relatively low stakes stuff. Now the trailer for Green With Envy, the studio's first Muppet movie, shows Disney that has gone fiscally hog wild for Miss Piggy and her entourage.


When the Mouse bought the Frog from Jim Henson's heirs in 2004, it seemed like a natural fit: Beloved company with cute rodent fixation buys beloved company with cute amphibian fixation. But the similarities actually didn't go much past both having googly eyes. Disney is 100 percent in the family friendly business and mostly shies away from content even slightly disquieting. Just witness the evolution of Mickey from his original trouble-making character to the flavorless corporate shill he is today.

Idiosyncratic and edgy; that's so not Disney
Thanks to Henson, the Muppets were always more idiosyncratic and -- compared to Disney -- edgy. One of the running gags in 1979's The Muppet Movie involved characters saying, "I'm lost," which brought the inevitable response, "Have you tried Hare Krishna?" It's not Richard Pryor by a long stretch, but try imagining that in a Disney movie.

Or, for that matter, try imagining Pryor himself in a Disney movie the way he cameo'd in the Muppet's first flick. Like the classic Warner Bros. cartoons, Henson and company were never afraid to include people and references that ran the risk of ruffling a few feathers.

Indeed, the character Sam The Eagle mocks the kind of nationalism Disney purveys in attractions like Hall of the Presidents and the American Adventure Pavilion. (Typical Sam dialogue: "It's called 'A Salute to All Nations, But Mostly America'.")
Because of this cultural discord, Disney never knew what to do with the brand and the results showed. The Muppets were only used in a few television specials and somewhat in the parks. It's telling that Henson's Muppets released six movies. Disney put out none until now. As result, Kermit et al., increasingly became known for their back catalog and not the new product.

The Muppets take the Internet
That started to change in 2009 when the Muppets moved on to the internet (Twitter, Facebook and YouTube). That was a low-risk, low-cost way to try out a return to the brand's original tone. One result: The Muppets' cover of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody which got 20 million views.


Twenty million views clearly showed the brass that it was in their best interest to let the brand get back on track.

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    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.

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