What Would Walt Disney Do?

(or “WWWDD?”)

I think I was about seven years old when I learned that “Walt Disney” was the name of an actual person.  Prior to that point, I assumed that it was just a meaningless, made up brandname, like “Kodak.”  I bring that up because it seems to me that a lot of people, even–and perhaps especially–those who work for the company itself, sometimes forget that there was a real person behind the name, a man behind the mouse.

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“Unacceptable Business Conduct”

When I heard that Disney’s rationale for dismissing Steve Whitmire from the Muppet Studios was “unacceptable business conduct,” I laughed–loudly and derisively, without mirth.

Paging Mr. Kettle: Phone call from the Walt Disney Company regarding your color!

Disney’s shady business dealings are the stuff of legend.  They could fill several books–and have.  What follows is not intended to be a comprehensive account of Disney’s propensity for screwing people over.  We’ve got a loooong journey ahead of us; this is just the first step.

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The Henry Doorly Zoo, and related matters

Three years ago, the Muppets were featured on “A Capitol Fourth,” the yearly Independence Day special that airs every July 4th on PBS.  In order to promote the special, Kermit the Frog and host Tom Bergeron did a series of satellite interviews with local TV new programs.  One of these was an affliate in Omaha, Nebraska, which is about 175 miles, or a 2-3/4 hour drive, south of where I live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota:

In the interview, Kermit mentioned the zoo in Omaha, and I freaked out: “OHMYGOSH!  Kermit the Frog just mentioned the name of a place that is relatively close to where I live, and that I’ve actually visited!!!”  

These are the scraps that you have to console yourself with when you’re a Muppet fan who lives in South Dakota.  Although, there may be an obscure Muppet connection for those of us to live in Sioux Falls: Raven Industries is based here in town; their main thing is the manufacture of balloons and inflatables, including some of the big balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and that sort of thing.  I’m not able to verify it now, but I think I remember hearing once that Raven Industries had made the Kermit the Frog balloon that appeared in the parade from 2002-2012.  I haven’t been able to confirm it yet, but it’s certainly possible.

Anyway, getting back to Omaha: what really impressed me is not only that Kermit mentioned the Omaha zoo, but he actually called it by its proper name: the Henry Doorly Zoo.  I think that was the first time I’d ever heard someone not associated with the zoo call it by its real name; most people just call it “the Omaha zoo,” as I have done all throughout this post.

I asked Steve Whitmire, in a comment on his blog, if he had ever actually been to the zoo in Omaha.  He didn’t respond at the time, so I still don’t know, but I am not without hope that he will be able to address it someday.  

But anyway, the other reason that I wanted to post this interview is because it’s really a beautiful example of the lovely, fluid, dynamic facial expressions that Steve gives Kermit when he performs him.  It really makes Kermit alive and vibrant.

We don’t have footage of five consecutive minutes of Matt Vogel performing simula-Kerm yet, (at least, not through official channels) so I’m not yet able to make a fair comparison, but thus far simula-Kerm’s face seems very static.

I’m also a big fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and there’s a phrase related to that show that keeps running around in my head.  When Bill Corbett took over performing Crow T. Robot from Trace Beaulieu at the beginning of Season 8, he had not done a lot of puppeteering before, and he apologized for the resulting mediocre performance by telling people, “Crow has had a stroke.”  

And I’ll just say that, if I didn’t know what was going on with the Muppets and Disney and Steve and the whole thing, if I looked at those videos with Matt performing Kermit without knowing what was going on, I would have said, “What’s the matter with Kermit?  It looks like he’s had a stroke.”

 

Salient Themes: Duality

Mercury revolves around our mutual parent sun in such a way that one face is always turned toward the sun and is brilliantly lit and burningly hot; and the other side is always turned toward the cold dark of interstellar space.  But Mercury oscillates slightly on its axis, and thereby sunside and nightside are integrated by a temperate zone which knows both heat and cold, light and dark. So the two disparate sides of Mercury are not separated by a chasm; the temperate zone mediates […]  thereby making wholeness instead of brokenness.”
                  –Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season

I see this as a theme in a lot of Jim Henson’s work; the disparate halves of light and dark, warm and cold, inward vision and outward vision.  And while I don’t claim to know what he thought and felt about things–while I always have to be very careful not to assume that I know–the fact that the theme showed up as often as it did in his work implies that he thought a lot about it, and perhaps he struggled to find that temperate zone between dayside and nightside.

This duality is present all through Jim’s work with the Muppets.  It can reach the greatest possible heights of silliness, with explosions, boomerang fish, and characters eating each other, but it can also plumb the greatest depths of poignant emotion.

On Fraggle Rock, Jim played two different characters: Cantus and Convincing John–or, as I call them, the sage and the showman.  I think that each represented a different facet of his personality.

(As an aside, I’m always amused by the fact that Convincing John’s baloobius, i.e. the tuft of fur at the end of his tail, doesn’t match the color of the hair on his head.  The implication being that he dyes his hair.  I think that’s hilarious.)

When you watch Jim Henson in interviews–particularly when he doesn’t have a puppet in his hands–he always seems very gentle and soft-spoken and often somewhat ill at ease, with a simultaneously endearing and infuriating habit of putting his hands up by his mouth, often muffling his words somewhat.  In interviews, I find Jim to be very much the sage; for example, here’s an interview in which he makes some very farsighted predictions about the future of television technology.  This interview is also interesting because you can see the difference between the way that Jim casually chats and laughs a bit with the people in the room before the interview starts (and after it ends) with his more calm and serious demeanor during the interview itself.

But he could also be a showman.  There was a pitch reel–which, unfortunately, I can no longer find–for an early iteration of The Jim Henson Hour wherein Jim himself gets up and gives a pitch for this kooky TV show he wants to make, with a rotating schedule of content.  From what I remember of it, he seemed much more comfortable in front of the camera (perhaps because he was working from a script and not answering questions extemporaneously); he assumed something of the energy, the gestures, and the vocal tone of the carnival barker, and his hands never went anywhere near his mouth.  It’s a completely different attitude from that which he has in interviews.  So, which is the “real” Jim Henson–the showman or the sage?

Well, that’s the thing–they’re both real.  Or, in a sense, neither is real because a human being is more than the sum of his multiple facets.

There are other examples of this duality in Jim Henson’s work–Bert and Ernie come to mind–but perhaps the most dramatic example is the Skeksis and the Mystics (or urRu) in The Dark Crystal.

(WARNING: Thirty-five-year-old spoilers ahead.)

The first time I ever saw The Dark Crystal was fairly recently, within the last five years or so.  I was completely blown away by it.  At first the story seems like a rather familiar story of good versus evil.  We have our protagonist Jen who–like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter–is a lonely young orphan, fostered by the gentle urRu after his parents were killed, with a special destiny to go on a quest and defeat evil by finding a MacGuffin, in this case the crystal shard with which he is to heal the eponymous Dark Crystal, by which the Skeksis will apparently be vanquished.

Ah, but then Jim Henson throws us a curveball: it turns out that the Skeksis and the urRu are actually the same creatures, unnaturally split apart when the Crystal was broken, and when Jen heals the Crystal at the time of the Great Conjunction of the three suns, he sets off a chain reaction that reintegrates the two divided halves–Skeksis and urRu–back into their singular selves; the glorious UrSkeks.

This is not a straightforward story about good and evil after all.  The Skeksis and the urRu need each other.  One cannot live without the other.  Without the Skeksis, the urRu lack agency.  Without the urRu, the Skeksis lack moral fiber.  It’s not that the Skeksis are evil and the urRu are good.  The real evil is the division between them.  

This is an old idea–dating at least as far back as Plato–with far-reaching social, political, historical, etc. implications around the world–but it’s applicable to the situation  that we, as Muppet fans, are in now with regard to the Schism between Disney and Steve Whitmire.

It is not, as one faction might argue, that Kermit is good but Steve is evil.  Nor is it, as another faction might argue, that Steve is good but Disney is evil.  It is not that one faction of Muppet fans are good and any and all other factions are evil.  But in each case, whenever we stop cooperating and start competing, whenever we start believing that some people’s contributions are not necessary or not important, whenever we start thinking, “I am right; therefore, anyone who disagrees with me is automatically wrong”…those are the things that divide us, and it is the division itself that is inherently evil.  As Dumbledore says at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

So how do we bridge the chasm between sunside and nightside?  How do we find the temperate zone that moderates the two?  How do we move from brokenness to wholeness without subordinating one side or the other?

The reason I started this blog is because I think it is imperative to keep the conversation going in a civilized way; to firmly but gently probe and palpate the bruises, the open wounds, and the recently formed scar tissue–not with the object of causing more pain but with the goal of diagnosing and treating the wounds that this Schism has caused.  

At the same time, I think it is equally imperative to respect and validate opinions with which we disagree.  All too often–not only as Muppet fans, but as human beings–we fall into the trap of thinking, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  We assume that the dissenter must necessarily be wrong.  We equate “having a different opinion” with “having a bias.”  We regard anyone who disagrees with us as an evil enemy.  I’m as guilty of that as anyone, by the way.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way.  It is possible to see things from another point of view without losing your own, and it is possible to recognize a valid viewpoint while still disagreeing with it.  The more we are able to have a respectful dialogue, and try to see things from another point of view, the closer we can move toward a consensus.  

If there’s one thing that I have in common with Jim Henson, it’s that I’m averse to conflict of any kind.  And speaking strictly for myself, the reason why I’m conflict-averse is that I’m terrified of losing my temper.  I’ve always seen myself as something akin to Jekyll and Hyde, or the Incredible Hulk; when I get angry, it’s as though I turn into a completely different person, and I’m terrified of what I might say and whom I might hurt while in that angered state.  And I do work on trying to integrate the light and dark sides, and to channel whatever anger I feel constructively–to turn a negative into a positive–but it’s a constant struggle.

That’s why I prefer to write a blog, so I have the chance to rethink and revise my words before they are published, and also, so that I don’t come across as spamming other blogs and forums through lengthy, in-depth analysis.  

It doesn’t come easily or naturally to me to jump into the fray and take the risk of being provoked into that angry state that I so fear, but if it helps to get–or to keep–the dialogue going, it’s well worth the risk.

Substitute teacher day

As I said yesterday, there are things going on in my life right now to which I need to attend, so I don’t necessarily have time to write long, thought-out posts at the moment, as much as I would like to.  So today, it’s sort of like when you’re in school and your regular teacher is gone and, to fill the time, you get to watch a movie.  

But don’t worry, I’m leaving you in the capable hands of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Michael Frith.  If only all substitute teachers were this cool.

(No offense to any real-life substitute teachers out there.  You have a thankless job, and I commend you.)

What follows is an interview that dates from either 1989 or early 1990, in the days of the original Disney deal, that was given for the benefit of the design team at Disney to teach them how to render the Muppets in other media.  They focus on some of the major Muppets, one by one, and talk about each one’s characterization and background.

I hope you find it as fascinating as I do:

Some points of particular interest:

20:29–Frank Oz discussing the issue of “switching” performers and says that it is not done in the Muppets, that the same performer always performs the same character, affirming what Steve Whitmire said on his blog early on about the Muppets not being interchangeable.

24:30–Frank asks Jim about Rowlf’s piano playing–does someone provide both hands when Rowlf plays piano?  Jim says that Steve provides both hands “when we really want to get accurate” and calls Steve “a great piano player.”  I thought this was especially nice since Steve has said elsewhere that providing Rowlf’s piano-playing hands has been some of his favorite work with the Muppets.

The Violence Committed Against Kermit the Frog


“I don’t think you’re a bad man, Doc.  But I think if you look in your heart, you’ll find you really want to let me and my friends go, to follow our dream.  But if that’s not the kind of man you are, and what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense to you, well then…go ahead and kill me.”–Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie (1979)

There was a documentary on Jim Henson that was made in 1999, and in the middle of writing my previous post, I suddenly remembered that I had a segment of it tucked away in a playlist on YouTube wherein Steve talks a little about what happened when he first took up the mantle of performing Kermit.  So I looked it up just now because I thought it might be helpful to me.  And because I hadn’t seen it in several years, I kept watching it after the bit with Steve was over, and heard Frank Oz say that Steve “had to get in the soul of Jim to be Kermit.”

At that moment, I had an epiphany.  All this time, I’ve been angry and sad and upset about how Disney has been treating Steve.  Suddenly, the true horror of this situation finally hit me; it’s not just that Disney has mistreated Steve, it’s that they’ve mistreated Kermit.

The puppeteer is the soul of the character; I knew that before, but I hadn’t fully realized all the implications of it.  You can’t just take away someone’s soul.  You can’t fire someone’s soul; you can’t replace someone’s soul; you can’t audition for a new soul.  What Disney has done to Kermit–to Kermit–is an act of violation, comparable to the Dementor’s Kiss; or, to use an example from within the Jim Henson universe, analogous with the splitting of the urSkeks in The Dark Crystal.  

When viewed in that light, how could anyone greet the recasting news with indifference or  unconcern, with cautious optimism–or even, as some are doing, with enthusiastic anticipation?  How could anyone be resigned to this unspeakable act of violence against our beloved frog?  Steve has gotten a lot of flak for speaking out about it on his blog.  I’ve felt that that was unfair all along, but having had this epiphany, I don’t see how any reasonable person could expect him to stay silent; how can anyone who claims to love the Muppets stand silently by and watch as our lifelong friend, Kermit the Frog, is being eviscerated?

Of course, Disney owns the rights to the characters, so they are at liberty to cast whomever they want in whatever role.  And I imagine that their rationale was that, since Muppet characters have been recast before, it wouldn’t make much difference.  There’s no denying that characters have been successfully recast before; it is inevitable in a “franchise” (how I hate that word!) that’s over 60 years old, and if the characters are to survive in perpetuity, all of them will eventually have to be recast.  

Nevertheless, there’s a difference: in the past, the recasts happened in an organic way.  It happened out of necessity, and the main performers were allowed to have a say in who would be their replacement.  

This is completely different.  It’s arbitrary, cynical, and self-serving.  But most of all, it’s unnecessarily cruel.

 

Change versus growth; or being “real”

Yesterday I posted an edited version of an essay I wrote in 2012 about what Jim Henson means to me.  It was interesting, and a little poignant, to revisit a piece of writing like that, five years after the fact.  I revised it before publishing it again: some things were no longer relevant, some of the points seemed extraneous, and some of the writing seemed inelegant.

But I cut out the part about the immediate aftermath of Jim Henson’s death, when Kermit’s–and all the Muppets’–fate hung in the balance, and how it all turned out all right because Steve Whitmire was there to step up and perform Kermit.  While I wanted to keep that praise of Steve in there, ultimately I left the whole paragraph out because, in the aftermath of the Schism, it was just too painful to revisit.  It was still a raw wound.

Or so I decided last night.  I woke up at 5:00 this morning with the sudden realization that one of my stated purposes in starting this blog was to show my support for Steve, but by cutting out that paragraph wherein I praised him, I wasn’t doing a very good job of it.  If Disney were paying attention, they could probably twist that so that it would cast a doubtful light on my sincerity.

Sometimes, in order to diagnose and treat an injury, you have to poke at the tender spots.  In order to show my support for Steve, I need to be willing to examine those raw emotions.  So here goes.

Here’s the paragraph in question from my original essay, unedited.  This is exactly what I wrote in 2012:

“At the time, I wasn’t sure which was the worst-case scenario: a world without Kermit, or a Kermit who wasn’t “really” Kermit. I remember that, more than anything, two questions dominated my thoughts as I tried to comprehend this tragedy: would someone else take over performing Kermit? And if so, would it be the same Kermit I knew and loved? I sometimes wish that there was a way that I could go back in time and reassure my nearly-ten-year-old self that the answer to both questions was “yes,” thanks to the superlative Steve Whitmire, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect.”

“Superlative” is the highest compliment that I can give.  The word “superlative” can be used not only be used to modify nouns, it also modifies other adjectives, denoting “the highest degree of comparison.”  When I say that someone or something is “superlative,” it means that I’ve weighed many other adjectives and found them all insufficient to express my enthusiasm or highest regard.

I’ve always had the utmost respect for Steve Whitmire.  Even when things were a little rough with him performing Kermit at the beginning, I appreciated that he was doing his best to keep Kermit alive.  Later on, I found out from interviews how difficult it was for him to take up the responsibility and what it took for him to get to that point, and it increased my appreciation and gratitude exponentially.

At the time that Jim Henson died, when I was somewhere between the ages of nine and ten, I was preoccupied with figuring out what was “real,” and I had very rigid views about what was “real” and what was not when it came to books and movies and stuff.  Take, for example, The Little Mermaid:  prior to the animated movie, I was familiar with the original story by Hans Christian Andersen.  And I hated it because it was so sad.  The animated version provided the happy ending that I so desired.  So, which was the “real” version?  Was the original story “real” because it came first, or was the animated movie “real” because it had a more satisfying ending?  I spent a lot of time contemplating questions like that.  It seemed vitally important to me to firmly establish which version was “real” and which was not.

(Ironically enough, now that I’m an adult, Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Little Mermaid has a lot more resonance for me.  But that’s a whole other story.)

Eventually, of course, I grew up; I matured, I went to college, I started studying literature, and I developed a much more fluid notion of what was “real,” and I began to be able to accept the notion that multiple versions of a given thing could be “real.”  As another example, take Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  The first version of A Christmas Carol that I ever saw was–I’m sorry to have to say–the Disney version, entitled “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.”  For better or worse, it informed my concept of what A Christmas Carol was supposed to be.  While it’s reasonably faithful to the original story, it doesn’t lift the original text straight out of the story.  It takes a much lighter approach than most versions, and there are elements of parody and humor.  When I was older and saw other, different productions of the same story, I was shocked and disturbed by how dark and scary and humorless they were.

When The Muppet Christmas Carol came  out, I expected it–alas–to be closer to “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” in tone.  Actually, what I was really expecting was the “Monsterpiece Theater” version of A Christmas Carol, heavy on parody and silliness.  But while it did have a somewhat lighter touch than some versions, ultimately Muppet Christmas Carol is more or less a straight adaptation of the original story.  This is not a criticism, I hasten to add; merely an observation.  It’s not that I don’t like Muppet Christmas Carol or think that it is bad; it’s just to say that it is different from what I expected.

But my point is that, unavoidably, I’ve seen so many versions of A Christmas Carol that I gave up trying to decide which is the “real” version.  I can appreciate now that, so long as the story is recognizable, and the characters are consistent, there can be multiple “real” versions, and I can appreciate each of them for the good that they have to offer.

But I’m realizing more and more–not only in regard to the Muppets, but any time you’re trying to tell a story–that consistency of character is key.  An audience will forgive a lot of faults if the characters are acting in a way that is believable and consistent, but if not, it doesn’t matter if all the other story elements are in place and firing on all cylinders; if the characters aren’t consistent, the audience generally isn’t going to buy it.  That’s why the “Han shot first” issue is so hotly debated in the Star Wars fandom.  That’s the moment that tells us who Han Solo is: that he’s pragmatic, morally ambiguous, and not afraid to use violent means in the cause of self-preservation.  And yes, he grows beyond that over the course of the series, but that’s the foundation on which he is built.  Take away the foundation, and the whole structure collapes.

My point is that, when Steve took over from Jim, Kermit wasn’t immediately polished and perfect, but he was still real.  He was still consistent with what we knew him to be, so we were able to forgive a lot and be patient and trust that Kermit was going to come back into his own and continue to grow and evolve and build up from the foundation that was laid by Jim.  

Kermit himself actually addressed the issue very beautifully in an interview in 2011.  When asked how he “gauged success,” Kermit answered, “I just try to be myself and stay myself and […] grow and evolve with the times, but stay based on who I am […] Not change, just grow.”

(I invite you to watch the whole interview, below.  It is both candid and charming; a beautiful example of what I said elsewhere about Jim Henson giving the whole world license to make believe through his creations.)