Muppets fan Luke Owen weighs in on the debate over the ‘new voices’…
Yesterday, I reviewed the newest movie from Muppet Studios, The Muppets. But one point kept coming up when I was talking about the film that I wanted to address here.
There has been one big problem hanging over the Muppets, not just for this latest film, but for the last 20 years. In 1990, the world sadly lost Muppets creator Jim Henson to a form of bacterial pneumonia. It was Henson’s vision that brought the Muppets to our screens and his tireless dedication is what made the Muppets so truly special.
Since Henson’s death, the role of Kermit the Frog has been handled by Steve Whitmire, who had been working with the Muppets team performing as Rizzo The Rat – a character he would make popular in The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) before he got a starring role in The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992). Prior to this, Whitmire had actually been working with the Muppets team as far back as The Muppets Movie (1979), supplying additional voices and doing the lion’s share of puppeteering during the final scene of the movie.
In the TV special I Love the Muppets (2002), Whitmire said with regards to taking over the role of Kermit, “That was really, really scary as you could imagine. I had known Jim for thirteen or fourteen years at that point and I had worked with him on everything he had done with this group of Muppets. Not Sesame Street but everything else. We worked very close together. It was super intimidating [but] it was a great honour to be asked and I was just scared to death. So, Brian (Henson) and the family made the decision and sent me one of the puppets. I took it out of the box. I’d had the puppet on before. I’d never performed it but had had it on my hand just going around the shop. I put him on and held him up in front of a mirror. I knew how to make the puppet talk because I’d been doing this for a long time and I fiddled with some of those expressions that Jim would do with Kermit. Then I opened my mouth to say something and nothing came out. There was no way that I could find the voice. The puppet just sort of looked at me like, ‘come on. You can do it’. I took it off and put it in a closet and left it there for a month. I couldn’t touch it.”
Whitmire first took on the role as Kermit the Frog in the very popular The Muppets Christmas Carol, which was the first Muppet production after Jim’s passing and Whitmire was highly praised for his performance. And, if you’d been living under a rock and didn’t know that Jim had died two years previously, you would never have second guessed it was someone else. But Whitmire was not impersonating Jim Henson; he brought his own style and energy to Kermit whilst keeping the character familiar. Exactly what needed to be done. However, in more recent years, Whitmire’s performance has come under fire from film critics and fans alike. With the new movie doing quite the heavy press tour, Kermit has been on several TV shows and live performances where people have questioned whether Whitmire really has what it takes to fill Henson’s shoes.
So why has Whitmire’s Kermit been highlighted recently? What’s changed? My only guess would be that this is the first Muppets movie not to feature one of the Muppet’s key elements – Frank Oz.
Many of the puppeteers on the original run of The Muppet Show – including Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Bunsen Honeydew), Richard Hunt (Statler, Scooter) and Jerry Nelson (Floyd Pepper, Robin the Frog) – would say that Jim Henson and Frank Oz were the true driving force behind the Muppets. They would even say that they were the real life Kermit and Fozzie Bear – the best of friends. Frank Oz would become one of the most popular and respected Muppet members with his performances of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Electric Mayhem drummer Animal. Crew members of the original series and several movies would tell stories that Oz would never take direction if they addressed him as Frank – only if he was addressed as the character he was currently performing. He truly embodied the spirit of the Muppets.
In 2000, Oz hung up his puppeteer work to focus on his directing career (he actually unofficially retired after Muppets from Space in 1998, but didn’t announce it until 2 years later). He handed the reins of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Animal over to Eric Jacobson who, up until this point, had not worked with the Muppets. Jacobson has since performed Oz’s trademark characters (and several of his Sesame Street characters) in the TV movies It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002) and The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005), as well a host of Youtube videos (including the cover of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’) without much fanfare.
The problem is, Jacobson just cannot pull off what Oz spent three decades perfecting. And this is where I think Whitmire’s problems lie and why the critics are letting their voices be heard.
For my money, without Oz’s Miss Piggy and Fozzie, the lack of Henson is now more obvious than ever. I’ve felt that Whitmire has done (and is still doing) a fantastic job of Kermit, to the point where I forget that it’s no longer Henson. However, the same cannot be said for Jacobson. While his Miss Piggy is pretty decent (although it can be hit and miss), his Fozzie Bear comes off as a really bad impersonation and can be very off putting at times and kills the illusion. Without Oz to help Whitmire, he appears to be struggling and is taking the brunt of the media fire unfairly. Over time the partnership might work, but if Whitmire and Jacobson can’t form that friendship that Henson and Oz had, the two central relationships of the Muppets (Kermit and Fozzie, Kermit and Miss Piggy) will suffer.
From the original Muppets crew, we are now down to one remaining original voice – Dave Goelz, famous for his portrayal of Gonzo. Richard Hunt sadly died of AIDS in 1992 and Jerry Nelson, now 77, retired from puppeteering in 2004. It won’t be before long that Goelz (now 65) will also hang up the strings and then none of the original Muppet performers will be part of this amazing group. What we’ll be left with is what many people would regard as ‘Muppet Impersonators’ rather than ‘Muppet Performers’.
But I don’t want this to come off as a sombre piece and, more importantly, I don’t want this to sound like I am badmouthing this new Muppets line-up. Far from it.
Nothing in this world lasts forever. The original Muppets TV series was first broadcasted in 1978 – nearly 35 years ago. Even if we hadn’t have lost Jim, would he have followed in his best friend’s footsteps and retired from Kermit? I’ve often heard people say that the Muppets shouldn’t have continued on after Henson passed away, but if you ask me that would be like saying Disney should have shut its doors after Walt died in 1966. The Muppets can and will continue to live on in this post-Henson world.
Bear in mind, we are among a generation who grew up on Whitmire’s Kermit (he has been doing it for two decades after all). For many people reading this article, their first Muppet encounter may have been The Muppet Christmas Carol (hailed as a Muppet classic) and as far as they are aware, that is how Kermit sounds. In turn, for this new generation, Jacobson’s Piggy and Fozzie will be the new standard and this won’t be an issue. So rather than focus on what they used to sound like, let’s just enjoy the fact that Muppets are alive, still relevant and still entertaining. I hope this new team have a lot of success and keep making movies that entertain us – just like this new Muppets movie.
To finish off this post, I want to share with you a video from Henson’s public memorial service from May 1990 featuring Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Kevin Clash (Elmo), Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt singing Jim’s favourite songs. I wanted to end on this, because it highlights the true bond these performers had and the final moments bring tears to my eyes…
What are your thoughts on the new Muppets voices? Feel free to leave your comments…Luke Owen is a freelance copywriter working for Europe’s biggest golf holiday provider as their web content executive. You can follow him on Twitter @boddickerfilms.