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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Muppet Wars: The Last Frog by Nicholas Napoli

A long time ago, around 2004 to be precise, in a purchase far, far away in the making, The Walt Disney Company took control of The Muppets, a franchise that has thrived for over sixty years. The first production to come from Disney’s The Muppets, was a not very well laid out yellow brick road, which led fans to The Muppets Wizard of Oz (2005). A few years later, The Walt Disney Company gave Muppet Fans a Christmas present, in the form of The Muppets: Letters To Santa (2008). Throughout the years The Walt Disney Company provided fans with three seasons of The Muppet Show on DVD, rerelease of past Muppet movies, online content and tiny bits of merchandise scattered here and there. Jason Segel approached The Walt Disney Company and asked them what every Muppet Fan was thinking at the time… why had they not yet made a new Muppet movie? Fans were soon treated to The Muppets first big screen feature in over twelve years, which hoped to reboot the franchise for a new generation of fans. 

In 2012 The Walt Disney Company also purchased Star Wars, now up until last week, I had never seen a single Star Wars movie. Therefor I had no idea if this purchase was considered a good thing at first by Star Wars Fans, or if this purchase made them nervous instead. What I do remember is how I felt when The Walt Disney Company took ownership of The Muppets. I was sad that The Muppets no longer belonged to The Jim Henson Company, which is where I’ve always believed they should be but at the same time, I was excited too. The Muppets had not been very active for the last couple of years before being purchased back in 2004. I was sure under The Walt Disney Company’s ownership, fans would be treated to many more productions, toys, hopefully live events and a bigger presence at the Disney parks. Honestly for the first few years, after being purchased by The Walt Disney Company, The Muppets continued to remain in the shadows, only ever appearing every now and again. It was a slow seven years but finally The Muppets (2011) premiered worldwide and thanks to old and new fans supporting the movie, The Muppets found themselves back in the spotlight. The Muppets (2011) is a great comeback movie, even after seven years, it still holds up, it’s just as good now, as it was back then. It was a success both for the audience (including life long fans) and therefor The Walt Disney Company as well.

2014 was a year both Muppet Fans and Star Warriors looked forward too, our favourite franchises were returning to theatres again. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Muppets Most Wanted, one did much better than the other at the box office, can you guess which one? Star Wars although much larger in fandom, also had the advantage which Muppets Most Wanted no longer had, compared to The Muppets (2011). Muppets Fans had been waiting since Muppets From Space (1999) for the Muppets to return to the big screen, and that movie was The Muppets (2011). Muppets Most Wanted was a nice effort, yet the fact that The Muppets didn’t recognize that Constantine was not Kermit bothered me. The Muppets aren’t known for canon but certain things such as them telling the difference between Kermit and another frog who is not him, this made me feel stupid, trying to get behind that idea. 

In order to write for The Muppets, a writer must remember that old school fans are what keeps a franchise alive. If The Muppets act out of character, if they aren’t who we expect them to be anymore, then the franchise slowly begins to fail. Although Muppets Most Wanted failed The Walt Disney Company’s expectations, fans were still treated to a new Muppets television series, titled The Muppets (2015). The new Muppet television series was sadly not very good, The Muppets couldn’t keep enough viewers watching, even after a mid-season change in management, the show could not survive. The Muppets were not picked up for a second season, and as much as fans have been hoping it will eventually be picked up for season two, it does not seem likely. One of the reasons people disliked this show was that The Muppets, most specifically Kermit and Miss Piggy, were not being portrayed properly. Kermit and Miss Piggy were not being given the respect they deserved, they were not staying in character, they were having to adapt, hopefully reaching a wider audience because of it. The reality was they began losing long time fans in the process instead, granted they tried being respectful to the characters during their transformations but failed in doing so. 

Steve Whitmire pointed this out, having performed Kermit for the last twenty-seven years, he has an idea of how Kermit would react and behave in certain situations. Luckily Kermit never tried to murder his nephew in cold blood, but he did lie to him. Steve Whitmire was speaking out for the direction he believed his character should be taken, he was not heard, and this was one of the reasons The Muppets (2015) failed. Unfortunately, Steve Whitmire was fired from performing Kermit, he was replaced. Fans were vocal at first but soon many accepted that Kermit The Frog would be taking a new direction in life. The problem with Kermit’s character is slowly being fixed, Kermit has slowly been acting like himself again, the character has found better writing and is now performed by the brilliantly talented Matt Vogel. Yoda, Chewbacca, R2-D2, C3P0, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Gonzo all share one thing in common. They are all iconic, everlasting characters, that can out live all of their performers. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo can only be performed by a specific individual each, without them, there is no character.

At the end of last year, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi premiered worldwide and has divided the Star Wars community in half, the film is either praised as one of the best, or labelled the worse in the saga. One of the main problems fans have with this new movie was the portrayal of Luke Skywalker. A character expected to be filled with hope and a positive attitude, had been turned into a grumpy hermit, who believed the Jedi must end. This reminds me of Kermit’s most recent portrayal in the last few years, a frog who had given up on his friends, no longer believed in his show and most of the times was only recognized as Kermit by his appearance. This is when I started to become interested in Star Wars, I realized fans of the franchise were dealing with the same problem yet in regards to Luke Skywalker. In The Muppets (2011) we were introduced to a new character named Walter, who held all the qualities which once belonged to Kermit. Walter was a big fan of The Muppets and had more hope in them than Kermit now did. In Muppets Most Wanted, none of the Muppets (apart from Animal) recognized that Constantine was not Kermit, luckily new guy Walter was able to tell the difference. In the latest Star Wars films, the character of Rey, takes on the role, that in reality (at this point in time) is best suited for Luke Skywalker. 

Until recently I had never actually watched Star Wars but I knew exactly who Luke Skywalker was, and as popular as he is in pop culture, also made me aware of the man behind this character, Mark Hamill. For the past few weeks leading up to the release of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Mark Hamill was voicing his displeasure with the direction his character of Luke Skywalker had been taken in the film. Mark Hamill stood up for what he believed, for integrity, for the arts, for fans, sadly his voice went unheard and his character was not portrayed how he believed. Since I had never seen Star Wars I was not exactly sure how Luke Skywalker should behave. However, I’m sure the man who gave this character life, must know better than anyone else, no matter if director, writer or even producer.

After the release of the movie, Star Wars fans were furious at the portrayal of Luke Skywalker’s character, a backlash began against the movie. Mark Hamill did know best, as his concerns were one of the main reasons behind the backlash, once fans had seen the movie. Although people have united over a movie, it still goes to prove we have strength in numbers, their voices are being heard. This was a similar situation regarding Steve and his main character, sadly his fan base is not as big, loud and protective as that of Star Wars, I don’t think any other fandom is. After following this story and realizing how hard Mark Hamill tried to protect a legacy so important to many, I have the at most respect for him. I’ve so far watched the original trilogy in the span of three days, purely from my admiration of Mark Hamill. I now want to become a Jedi, realized the big “Luke I am your father” reveal takes place in Episode V as opposed to Episode VI and understand why these characters are so iconic. I’ve also realized that those Star Wars Fans disappointed with Luke Skywalker’s portrayal in the latest Star Wars movie, have every right to be so. Last weekend I watched Star Wars Episode VII and VIII and not only do they spoil these characters in the new movies, they go as far as spoiling the events of the original trilogy for me.

As much as Mark Hamill protested with the direction his character was taking, he was not fired, simply put, they need his face. However, Steve Whitmire’s face is not needed, the puppet that rests on his hand if of importance and so Steve was fired, another hand began performing Kermit. Muppet Fans have not been very vocal about the situation; however, Star Wars Fans can be heard across the galaxy. I hope that by informing Star Wars Fans of Kermit’s mistreatment, being so similar to that of Luke Skywalker, that in their Star Wars discussions they might refer to the similarities between how the characters of Kermit and Luke Skywalker have been handled, therefor providing Kermit with the support I believe he deserves. In fairness Kermit is slowly being fixed in my opinion, he seems more like Kermit, thanks to the writing he is being presented with. Sadly, Steve Whitmire still finds himself separated from the character he had kept alive for twenty-seven years. Sometimes even the smallest frog, can shake the greatest belief.

- Nicolas Napoli

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