I’m not sure whether it was the first, but soon after Muppet Babies launched in 1984 it seemed like the thing to do for aging franchises losing their luster was to roll back the ages of the characters. It’s a corporate strategy in order to open things up to a fresh demographic. Nevermind that the Muppets were already very kid-friendly, by shifting them to toddler age, supposedly that made them that much more appealing to toddlers themselves, right?
In its own way, the Star Trek reboot was the same basic phenomenon. Now we get to roll back the clock to Kirk and Spock right out of the academy. That way they are sure to appeal to the prime 18-25 demographic, right?
Star Wars does the same thing. Originally George Lucas was going to have younger actors play Luke and Leia, but he settled on actors who at least looked grown up. But now we have a band of teenagers in Star Wars Rebels, because kids aren’t expected to relate to characters unless they are also kids, right? Not necessarily a bad show, but the pandering, oh, the pandering. *
And why would you want to pursue a younger demographic?
It’s the corporate market research aspect of de-aging characters that bothers me the most, because it ignores the fact that you don’t have the be the same age as a character to be into them. For instance, aside from Spiderman, most comic book characters are adults, or even middle-aged in the case of Iron Man, Batman, and Wolverine. Nevertheless, the comic-book gener primarily appeals to kids and young adults.
While I have a lot of respect for Jim Henson, I think that Muppet Babies was a major mis-step on his part. He’s no longer around to defend it, but Frank Oz has gone on record to say that he feels the spirit of The Muppets was always a certain edginess or irreverence, something that even remained true in Sesame Street, at least the early years. A program like Muppet Babies, by being so defanged, so innocuous, so sickly sweet, it robs the characters of their individuality.
What I find really strange about the announcement that Muppet Babies are coming back is that this represents a reversal in strategy in Disney’s handling of the Muppets characters. The revived TV series pushed the characters into a PG-13 direction, and perhaps this represents an over-reaction going the other way.
I know some people have a nostalgic fondness for Muppet Babies, which has to be wrapped up in them being of “a certain age”. In my case, it represents that line where I finally realized that I could no longer sit there on Saturday morning and zone out anymore. I could still rationalize watching something like Superfriends or Scooby, but no way in hell could I get anything out of watching Muppet Babies. So I guess I have a particularly sore spot about it as it representing a farewell to my childhood. I’d rather think of The Muppets as more of an all-ages property that sites in the middle, not Two and a Half Men with puppets and not just “kiddie-fare”. Muppet Babies went a long way towards rendering it just kiddie-fare and it looks like history may be repeating itself through this stretch of the franchise’s troubled post-Henson life.
- You’re probably wondering why I’m not mention the Solo movie. Well, it may very well be a case of “Muppet Babies Syndrome” as well. Maybe I’m more forgiving about it because Han’s character arc is already plaid out and there’s nowhere left to take the character but in his past.