The Muppets at Walt Disney World (1990)

Becoming an adult is a tradeoff like no other. Sure, you can drive a car, but that means gas, insurance, and repairs. Sure, you can eat ice cream for breakfast and McDonald’s every night, but your body will soon make you regret those choices. And you can, in fact, find a job you enjoy, but chances either they either don’t pay well or require an insane amount of work to get there. A crushing realization for people like James Maury Henson. And by “becoming an adult”, I mean it as a metaphor for owning your own enterprise.

Strange company.

Much like George Lucas in 2012, Henson spent years developing his brilliant craft as an artist and producer, but began to feel the pressure of what it meant to own his creations, and turned to the Walt Disney Company so he could hand the business responsibilities off to someone else, while he could go back to performing and directing. Throughout 1989, Henson negotiated with Eisner with the hope of letting them deal with the business end of things. Eisner was giddy about getting Henson on board and wanted to make a splash about it to the public. In celebration of this seemingly-garaunteed deal, Henson produced this made-for-TV special where after the frogs and pigs and bears and chickens and things explored the Floridian resort, they would stop by and say hi to their newest bestie, Mickey himself.

The plot: Kermit the Frog brings several of his Muppet friends deep into the alligator-infested swamps of Florida, in time for the Annual Frog Festival and Bug Fry with Kermit’s extended family. The gang are decidedly less enthused about being stuck in a bog with a myriad of frog-specific events lined up…until it’s casually mentioned that the Walt Disney World Resort is right next door.

When the gang arrive at the park, they are rebuffed by an overzealous security guard, Quentin Fitzwaller (Charles Grodin), who reminds them they need to buy tickets first. When Animal rips away the turnstile, all felt breaks loose and everyone rushes in, going in separate ways. Gonzo and Camilla stumble into the backstage areas with childlike wonderment. Fozzie and his mother try to raise money by telling jokes so they can get lunch in Frontierland. Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker stumble around Epcot Center’s Future World. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem perform a “world tour” at Epcot’s World Showcase. Despite demanding to go to the Chinese theater, Beauregard drags a dazed Miss Piggy from thrill ride to thrill ride. Kermit and Robin try to track everyone down, already somber that no one wants to go back to the family reunion. And Fitzwaller has bought off Rizzo the rat with snacks in an effort to apprehend the Muppets.

How’s the writing?: The special was written by longtime collaborator of Henson’s, who’d written for The Muppet Show to Sesame Street to Muppets from Space, Jerry Juhl. While the special feels exactly like a well-done Muppet special would look like, you can’t help but feel Jerry had one hand tied behind his back.

The Muppets have never needed much beyond each other and a mildly interesting setting to make their magic, much like how a kid needs a single stick to make a million adventures. And while having giving them the set of the Most Magical Place on Earth sounds like giving little Timmy a million dollar check to a Toys ‘R’ Us, the premise is surprisingly underutilized. Rowlf getting caught and brought to the pet care center could happen anywhere. Beaker getting his head stuck in a bucket is…just that. There’s nothing specific about why Fozzie’s trying to earn money other than it’s for him and his mom to eat at the Crystal Palace. While Beauregard name drops the rides the Piggy keeps referring to the Chinese theater, it doesn’t amount to much. If you like the Muppets, you’ll get exactly what to expect, just with the background featuring Spaceship Earth or Star Tours instead of a red velvet curtain.

Does it give the feels?: In The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan, amid the insanity and gags the gang perform, there’s a general thtough-line where Kermit is the emotional center of it all. He tends to have a moment of morose reflection where he gets introspective, and it works for a small and gentle soul like Kermit. Thing is, here, there’s something off.

The show’s premise is that he surprised all of his friends by bringing them to Paradise Swamp and thought they would appreciate bluegrass, scum-skimming, and eating flies. In fact, he is genuinely shocked that all of his non-amphibian friends aren’t interested, much less their desire to instead go to Disney World.

In a bizarre moment, Kermit is even more despondent when Robin accidentally gets swept away in a monorail, and is almost entirely heartbroken, when who should show up but a 4-YEAR-OLD RAVEN-SYMONÉ to sing “The Rainbow Connection”. Why is he heartbroken, though? Mostly because his friends would rather go to Disney World instead of spending time with his family. I understand being disappointed when your friends don’t want to do what you want to do…but it doesn’t change the fact Kermit couldn’t accept that his friends might not be terribly interested in what he wanted to do.

The “Rainbow Connection” aspect – while adorable – is kind of shoehorned in since Kermit refers to the Frog Festival with all of his friends there as his dream. All it takes is Raven to sing it to him for Kermit to realize he needs to continue wrangling up his friends for the festival. Kind of weird, isn’t it?

Who makes it worth it?: It’s hard to nail down any specific performance I was particularly wild about. Grodin is definitely hamming it up to a serviceable degree, and little Raven is just supes cute, but that’s about it. Therefore, I am forced to find a performance out of the Muppets that stood out to me. While none really wowed me, I think I need to tip my cap to Henson, performer for not just Kermit, but Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, Waldorf, the Swedish Chef, and Link Hogthrob.

The man, the myth, the legend.

See, remember what I said about what Henson was trying to do in 1989: the man was 52 and has dealt with a number of setbacks, such as the failures of Labrynth, The Jim Henson Hour, and The Dark Crystal, the man was looking for a means to escape the agony of being in charge of his own company and desperate to get back to doing creative endeavours. Trying to negotiate a deal with Eisner was both a dream come true and only exacerbated his woes, as Eisner kept requesting for the rights to Sesame Street, too, to which Jim was vehemently opposed. Still, Jim’s creative energies allowed him to plan out a whole Muppet land at the newly-christened Disney-MGM Studios, which included Muppet*Vision 3D, a parody of the Great Movie Ride, and a Swedish Chef restaurant. If Henson staved off his passing and gone through with the acquisition, there’s no telling how successful it might have been. But the fact is, Jim had every reason to be jaded, disillusioned, and frustrated. I love Disney, too, but if Bob Chapek kept making power moves to take more of my product than I was willing to relinquish for months on end…I’d be pretty cynical and unenthused. And Jim was much more soft-hearted than I’ll ever be.

And yet…Jim couldn’t betray Kermit and his pals. Watch this special or Muppet*Vision 3D and you can tell Jim is still giving it his all. Kermit was more than just a role: he was a personality. One whose role was to bring joy and laughter to a world full of anxiety and doubt. So even if there wasn’t anything spectacular or distinctly outstanding from the special, remember what the man was going through at the time and how he still delivered another top-notch performance.

It’s also worth noting the deal the two men were working on never came to fruition. The special aired May 6th of 1990, and Henson passed away ten days later. Due to his death, the Henson family withdrew from negotiations aside from the singular Muppet*Vision 3D attraction and the two highly successful features, The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. The Muppets wouldn’t join Disney until 2004.

Best quality provided: If you love the Muppets, it’s what you pay for. Wordplay, sharp wit, a bit of slapstick, and a lot of genial enthusiasm make up these skits with varying accuracy. It’s all the OG performers: Frank Oz, Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson, David Goelz, and Steve Whitmire. Fans of these guys will still thrill over a lesser known Muppet special from the original masters.

What could have been improved: So…do these guys know how geography works?

When the gang arrives at Walt Disney World, they arrive at…Disney-MGM Studios. Not a bad place to start, except Bean Bunny urges Scooter to…It’s a Small World…and next time we see them, they’re at the leapfrog fountains…in Epcot. Beauregard drags Miss Piggy from Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to Star Tours…back to the Mad Tea Party. Robin steps onto the monorail at the Grand Floridian…and Kermit is next with Raven in the Magic Kingdom behind Cinderella Castle. If you’ve never been to Walt Disney World before, allow me to spell it out for you: these parks are miles apart and involve going in and out of park gates, so Animal ripping out one does not allow this kind of park hopping, much less with these guys not even bothering with queues for the rides, apparently.

I noticed these with the “We’re Going Disney World!” sitcoms in the nineties, too. For the sake of iconography and condensing for television, it makes sense to showcase the best parts of the resort, not necessarily take into account if you left Thunder Mountain for Star Tours and went back to the Teacups, you’ve lost at least two hours. Let’s say you leave Frontierland to the front of the park (At least a 15 minute walk) wait for the monorail (let’s assume walk-on), ride the monorail to the TTC (Express monorail, 5 minutes), walk to the studios bus stop (3 minutes), wait for the bus (at least 5 minutes), the bus ride (20 minutes), walk all the way to Star Tours (10 minutes, assuming little wait at the park gate), the queue for the ride and the ride itself (at least an hour in 1990 total), head back to the bus (7 minutes), bus ride back (20 minutes), walk and monorail to MK (8 minutes), walk to the Teacups (12 minutes), wait in line given what we see in the shot (20 minutes). Even by these conservative estimates, that’s 3 hours and 5 minutes! So the gag of Piggy dizzily getting tugged along doesn’t even work! Never mind she insists on going to the Chinese Theater (She never calls it The Great Movie Ride), and they could clearly see it on their way to Star Tours!

Am I actually upset about these discrepancies? Well, “upset” is much too strong a word. Baffled, maybe. Annoyed, I guess. In Disneyland, it makes better sense because everything is all in one spot, even the park across the promenade. But really, there’s several reasons why this whole thing is the way it is: it’s a promo special, so they gotta show only the cool stuff. It’s the Muppets and nonsense is their bread and butter. The special’s only 47 minutes long. They only had so much time to film on location, as evidenced by the several green screened shots. None of these really placate me, because a great story wouldn’t be that hard to work out.

Maybe Fozzie is made an honorary Jungle Cruise skipper and actually learns better jokes, much to the shock of Statler and Waldorf. Maybe Bunsen and Beaker explore Innoventions and Horizons, and while Bunsen marvels at the science, Beaker keeps putting his hands outside the vehicle, and other violations with disastrous results. Maybe Bean struggles to conquer his fears at the Haunted Mansion with Sweetums (Who wasn’t in the special, sadly), who actually is also scared, and both bond on It’s a Small World. Maybe Miss Piggy tries to soak up attention at the Chinese Theater and is annoyed everyone is just gawking at the handprints. Maybe Rowlf gets drawn to Tony’s Town Square restaurant, meets a lovely poodle, has a spaghetti dinner, and he plays the piano for her at Casey’s Corner. Maybe Sam Eagle (Also absent) hates the trip until he witnesses the Hall of Presidents and American Adventure, and is moved to tears. And lastly, Kermit witnesses just how much his friends are essentially becoming better people with these encounters. I’m no writer and this is all stuff I thought up on the spot.

Verdict: I griped a lot here. I’m aware and I sound super bitter. But I’m not. I guess I’m more disappointed that with some more time to plan out, this could have been a masterpiece. There is great potential, and it’s sad Juhl didn’t take full advantage of it (Maybe he wanted to, but was denied, who really knows?) Still, it’s far from bad…it’s just a Muppet special, plain and simple. It was one of Henson’s last projects, for a deal that was souring right in front of his eyes yet it failed to dampen his enthusiasm. Even though we never got a whole Muppet land as he envisioned, we do see just how excited he was to join the Disney family. Overall, I’m glad it exists, because we could never not use more of Jim in our lives. I give this one six rainbow connections out of ten for the lovers, the dreamers, and you.

Now, here’s hoping they make a sequel, with Pepe at the Seas with Nemo and Friends, Walter sitting through Muppet*Vision 3D 50 times, and above all, they finally build that Great Muppet Movie Ride we were promised.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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