These Muppet pals have decided the puppet show must go on

December 11, 1992|By Jay Boyar | Jay Boyar,Orlando Sentinel

Not long before his death, Jim Henson was asked why he often appeared in public alongside his Muppets. In his typically self-effacing way, he explained that while it wasn't what he did best, he felt the audience wanted to know that there was someone in charge of the organization.

"It sort of keeps it from being a cold thing, just an assortment, a nameless thing," he said at the time.

The comment is heart-breakingly ironic, considering that Henson died just a few weeks later -- on May 16, 1990 -- at age 53. Without him to guide them, would his puppet pals become that cold and nameless assortment?

Two-and-a-half years later, the creative team that he left behind is still trying to pick up the pieces of the organization he built. Everyone agrees that today's release of "The Muppet Christmas Carol" -- the team's first post-Jim Henson feature -- will represent a pivotal moment in Muppet history.

"Getting over that hump is important," observed longtime Muppeteer Frank Oz in an interview at Walt Disney World. Mr. Oz added that just reaching the point where the members of the Muppet team could even think about making a movie again was a personal and professional struggle.

"The loss was so severe, I find it difficult to talk about even now," he said, recalling the untimely death of Henson. "We were lost for a while there. We were rudderless for a while. It was a very difficult time."

For screenwriter Jerry Juhl, the hardest part of the professional regrouping was "getting back to the center," rediscovering the organization's creativity.

"You could deal with it corporately -- figure out offices and things like that," explained Mr. Juhl, who, since joining the organization 30 years ago, has written many Muppet projects including the new film, which he also co-produced. "But when it came down to, 'What are we going to do when we put characters on the screen again?' that was the hard part."

The Muppeteers began to find themselves again after Jim Henson's son, Brian, became the new president and chief executive officer of Jim Henson Productions.

"When that happened, there was a leader," noted Mr. Oz, who is a guiding force in the organization, as well as the new movie's executive producer and the puppeteer who operates (and provides the voice of) Miss Piggy. "We started slowly regrouping and doing our functions, our jobs, and making some key #F decisions."

One such decision was to disengage from an impending merger with the Walt Disney Co., which Jim Henson had set in motion. Although the merger is off, the Henson and Disney companies are working together on certain projects, including the new film.

"There were moments of panic, but, you know . . .," shrugged Brian Henson, 28, the third of Jim's five children. "That incredible group of people were still there, and as strong as ever. If anything, we have come together in a much stronger way after my father died. There wasn't a fear and an urgency to leave. In fact, nobody wanted to leave."

Although Jim Henson had been working on a Muppet TV special shortly before his death, there has not been a Muppet feature film since 1984's "The Muppets Take Manhattan." The decision to do a feature at this time was deliberate.

"We considered television opportunities, but a feature really felt like the right thing to do," said Brian Henson. "Let's do something really special. Let's not try and slooowly re-educate the world into the Muppet characters, because they haven't seen them for a while. Let's just do something really quite big."

This project may also be an appropriate one for the Muppeteers at this particular moment in their history because their feelings of loss are reflected in the story's regretful tones. Mr. Juhl remarked that he found it "really challenging" to place the essentially "innocent" Muppets into situations of "real evil and real pain."

And not only that, but "A Muppet Christmas Carol" finesses what might be called The Kermit Problem.

Kermit had always been operated by Jim Henson, who also always provided the famous frog's voice. And Kermit had been smack at the center of the other Muppet movies.

If the famous frog had been the main star of the first post-Jim film, a new puppeteer, no matter how skilled, might have been a difficult sale to some fans. But at the center of the new film is a human actor: Michael Caine plays Ebenezer Scrooge, the bah-humbugging skinflint who is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve and has a miraculous change of heart.

Kermit has the significant -- but not central -- role of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's long-suffering employee. The role, said Brian Henson, "is perfect for him." (Appearing as Mrs. Cratchit is, of course, Miss Piggy.)

Chosen for the awesome task of succeeding the Great Manipulator himself as Kermit's handler is 34-year-old Steve Whitmire, who also provides the frog's new voice. He has been with the Muppets for about 15 years, handling various characters.

"The thing that got me closest to doing Kermit was remembering what Jim did when he was doing Kermit," Mr. Whitmire revealed. "When he would do Kermit, there were certain faces that he made. There was a certain way he stood, a certain kind of body language that he had. When I remembered those things, if I emulated those things, it's funny how much easier it was for the character to come out."

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