The Walt Disney Company is one of the largest media and entertainment companies in the world, known mainly for its family-friendly products. Founded in 1923 by brothers Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney as an animation studio, it has become one of the largest Hollywood production houses. It also owns a dozen theme parks, several television networks (including ABC and ESPN), and other assets such as book publishing and video game production divisions. Mickey Mouse serves as the official mascot of The Walt Disney Company.
Disney and Henson
In 1984, Jim Henson considered purchasing the Disney company, which at the time was run by Ron Miller and under the threat of a hostile takeover by corporate raider Saul Steinberg. The idea never went further than inquiries, but after Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over management of Disney, the idea of a Disney/Henson pairing was revived. Due to lack of activity with the Muppets after The Muppet Show’s run, Disney decided to pass on a merger.
Another aspect that made the deal unattractive for Eisner was that the Sesame Street franchise was untouchable. Joan Ganz Cooney recalled that "In the end... at the end of his life, when he was being pursued by Disney, and very close to being bought by Disney... they had tried to get control of the Sesame Street product as well as the Muppet franchise, and Jim said 'that's a deal breaker'... they should remain entirely separate... He said to me 'I intend to leave with you... in my will.' He wanted it to go on in perpetuity."
Jim Henson again had a desire to sell the company to Disney in 1989, and this time Michael Eisner was more willing to buy the company without getting the rights to the Sesame Street Muppet cast (though Eisner did still want to do so). However, since Kermit was so much like Henson, he did not intend on including Kermit unconditionally, feeling that he should continue having control over the use of Kermit, which The Walt Disney Company would not agree with.
On August 28, 1989, Disney and Henson officially entered a merger agreement reportedly valued at $150 million. The deal included, in addition to Henson's characters and film and television library, a fifteen-year contract for Jim Henson's personal "creative services." In May 1990, the deal was near completion when Jim Henson unexpectedly passed away at the age of 53. By the following December, the two sides could not come to terms, and the merger was called off.
Many projects were planned; however due to Henson's untimely death, very few came to fruition. Among the Disney/Henson collaborations that have been seen are the 1990 special The Muppets at Walt Disney World (one of the few collaborations to be released before Henson's passing), the stage show Here Come the Muppets, and the theme park attraction/film Muppet*Vision 3D. Among the projects that were made but never shown to the public are the proposed TV series Little Mermaid's Island for Disney Channel, and a segment for The Mickey Mouse Club about puppeteering (this sequence was filmed while Jim Henson was making Muppet*Vision 3D). Also in development were several theme park attractions, including The Great Muppet Movie Ride and The Great Gonzo's Pandemonium Pizza Parlor, and a Muppet takeover of Disneyland, renaming it Muppetland, which were abandoned once the Disney/Henson deal dissolved. The Jim Henson Company also produced Mother Goose Stories, an original series for Disney Channel, which did not air until after Henson's death. Jim Henson had also pitched the series Dinosaurs, which Disney developed and released after Henson died.
All the character illustrators at Walt Disney World were asked to create concept sketches to choose from for the condolence card to be presented to the Henson family from Walt Disney World. Each artist created several.
Throughout the 1990s, The Jim Henson Company partnered with Disney. The Walt Disney Company produced and released The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, the first two Muppet movies made after Jim Henson died. For several years, the Disney-owned Buena Vista Home Video controlled the home video rights for various Henson properties, released through their Jim Henson Video label. In addition, Walt Disney Home Video released a number of Sesame Street videos in the UK. Muppets Tonight was also produced for the Disney-owned ABC network and Disney Channel. Disney also produced Bear in the Big Blue House with The Jim Henson Company for Disney Channel.
Disney buys the Muppets (2004)
Before The Walt Disney Company bought the Muppets, there had been a number of references in Muppet/Henson projects to Disney and its productions and characters. In recent years, such references to Disney in Muppet productions have occurred as cross-promotion. The Muppets have also been referenced and have made appearances in Disney projects as well.
- A number of songs from Disney movies have been sung on The Muppet Show, including "Never Smile at a Crocodile", "An Actor's Life For Me", "It's a Small World", "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah", and "When You Wish Upon a Star".
- In episode 320 of The Muppet Show, during the song "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off", after the lion sings "I like Plato and you like Pluto", Sylvester Stallone says "You can have Plato, and I'll stick with Pluto, and Mickey, and Goofy".
- In The Muppet Movie, the "Rich and Famous" ad in Variety that Bernie the Agent shows to Kermit features a blurb about Walt Disney.
- In Labyrinth, a panning shot of Sarah's scrapbook reveals an image of the fox version of Robin Hood, as seen in the 1973 Disney animated film. A book version of Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" can also be seen in Sarah's room.
- At the top of scene 3 in The Best of Elmo, as Ruthie plays with a feather boa, she sings a line from "When the Buzzards Return to Hinckley Ridge," a song Ruth Buzzi sang in the 1969 animated short It's Tough to Be a Bird.
- A Sesame Street episode parodying The Lion King was introduced as a "Walt Dizzy Film," with a small Warner Bros.-like logo below, and an MGM-like circle with a chicken in the spot of the studio's trademark lion.
- In The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, Toto talks on his cell phone with Michael Eisner saying, "If you think we're going for that deal, you're out of your Mickey mind, okay."
- In The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, the "Goofy Holler" is used when the Tin Thing falls through the Wizard's trap door.
- On September 7, 2007, following Disney's purchase of the Muppets, a pin was released for sale only at Walt Disney World, featuring Kermit as Mickey Mouse, Miss Piggy as Minnie Mouse, Fozzie Bear as Goofy and Rizzo the Rat as Tinker Bell.
- In The Muppets, after '80s Robot drives the Muppets wildly down the street to The Muppet Theatre to start the show, their car drives past Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store.
- Disney Drive-On with The Muppets takes place at the Disney studio, with various references to Disney productions.
- In Episode 4615 of Sesame Street, Big Bird writes his own version of Beauty and the Beast, which has a parody of the song "Something There" and concludes with a spoof of the titular song from the Disney animated version.
For other references, connections, appearances, or mentions, see the following:
- Theme parks
- Mobile & video games
- Bernie Brillstein, Where Did I Go Right?, p.327
- Interview: "Time Travel with Dan Hollis & Jeff O'Boyle"
- Davis, Michael Street Gang, page 6.
- Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones, page 446.
- Apel, Joe Toughpigs article: One Lucky Muppet Fan's Muppetvision set visit