POOR Miss Piggy. Like most aging stars in Hollywood, that prima donna pig, along with most of her Muppet pals, has struggled to find substantial roles. Almost nobody under the age of 30 remembers “Pigs in Space.” All everyone wants to talk about is this Hannah Montana person. What’s a down-on-her-luck puppet to do?
The Walt Disney Company feels her pain. Since it bought Miss Piggy, Kermit and crew in 2004, executives have struggled to figure out how to put them to work. Efforts in 2005 to rejuvenate the furry creatures created by Jim Henson sputtered as the Muppets got lobbed between corporate divisions, and a new television series — a parody of “America’s Next Top Model” called “America’s Next Muppet” — died in the planning stages.
Now Disney is giving it another go by revving up the full power of its culture-creating engines. Instead of the take-it-slow approach, this time the Muppets are getting the “Hannah Montana” treatment, being blasted into every pop-culture nook and cranny that the company owns or can dream up. The balcony blowhards Statler and Waldorf would be impressed with the ambitiousness of the plan — even if it does come with equally outsize challenges.
“We think there is a Muppet gene in everybody,” said Lylle Breier, a Disney executive who is the new general manager of Muppets Studio.
Disney Channel is presenting new specials — the first ran last month, the second will be shown in October — in which Muppets interact with "High School Musical" stars and the Jonas Brothers, among other teenage wunderkinder. A stream of comic videos is in production for Disney.comwhere a new Muppet channel recently made its debut, and viral videos have been unleashed on YouTube. NBC will broadcast a Christmas special in December, and special skits will arrive on certain ABC DVD releases. (One skit with the working title “Desperate Housepigs” is on a coming “Desperate Housewives” DVD.)
A new feature film, still untitled, is planned for 2010, with more in development. Meanwhile the Muppets will work overtime elsewhere, appearing on a new float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, on “Nightline” interviewing political candidates and on various talk shows. More Muppet-theme attractions are being discussed for Disney theme parks.
And then there is the merchandise. Coming soon: Muppet clothing at Urban Outfitters and Limited Too stores; Muppet-theme items like stuffed animals and tote bags, at Macy’s; and a Muppet boutique at the New York flagship of F. A. O. Schwarz.
Disney does not want to create a flash in the pan; it sees the Muppets as a franchise that can sit side by side with, say, Winnie the Pooh. But creating any flash at all is the challenge. With the exception of a guest appearance here and there, the characters have largely been in cold storage for the last three years. And because the Muppets have been without a regular television gig for more than a decade, many children and younger teenagers don’t know them.