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When You Wish Upon a ... Frog?!
As Jim Hill continues to explore the convoluted relations between the Walt Disney Company & the Jim Henson Company, he now delves into the specific details of the deal that Michael Eisner tried to hammer out with Henson ... as well as never-before-revealed info on a Disney Channel TV series that Jim was working just prior to his death.
There has always been this mis-understanding about what Micheal Eisner was really after when he decided to buy the Muppets.
Some folks say that Eisner was just anxious to get his hands on the already established Henson repertoire company -- Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo et al -- so that he could start putting those much beloved characters in movies & TV shows for Walt Disney Studios as well as dropping them into shows & attractions for the company's theme parks.
Still others suggest that Uncle Michael might have had a darker purpose in mind. These folks claim that the real reason that the Disney CEO went after Jim Henson Productions is that he wanted to get his hands on the other Muppets -- Ernie, Bert, Big Bird & the rest of the bunch that were associated with the long running PBS children series, "Sesame Street."
Given that Henson only half owned these characters (The other 50% was held by the TV production company that actually produced "Sesame Street," The Children's Television Workshop), this scenario may seem somewhat unlikely ... But -- later on in this series -- I'll reveal that the "Sesame Street" characters (Or -- more importantly -- who controlled what these characters could appear in) actually did play an enormous part in Henson's widow and children's' decision to break off merger talks with the Walt Disney Company. But let's not get ahead of ourselves now, shall we?
No, the real reason that Michael Eisner wanted the Muppets under the Disney umbrella was that he desperately craved the creative talents of Jim Henson himself. Kermit & Co. were great. But the real prize here was Henson's services. The great ideas for rides, show, movies, attractions that the man was sure to generate during his tenure at the Walt Disney Company.
Don't believe me? Then how do you explain this piece of language from the proposed Disney / Muppet merger deal? As part of the purchase agreement (According to the preliminary version of the deal, the Walt Disney Company was supposed to have acquired Jim Henson Productions through a straight stock swap. Had the merger actually gone forward, Jim & his associates would have be awarded $150 million worth of Disney stock -- to do with in whatever way they wished. In return, the Mouse was to have received the rights to Henson's characters; plus a film & TV library made up of five feature films as well as nearly 300 episodes of three different TV shows: "Fraggle Rock," "Muppet Babies" and "The Muppet Show." ), Jim Henson had to sign an agreement where he promised that -- for at least 10 years -- his creative output belonged exclusively to the Walt Disney Company.
Hard to believe? Well, wait until you hear this: The only reason that there was a 10 year limit on Henson's creative services with Disney is that Jim reportedly balked at the terms that Eisner originally asked for. Had the deal gone forward the way Michael had first hoped it would, Henson would have agreed to have been in Disney's employ for 15 years. Not free and clear to do his own thing again 'til 2004!
What exactly was so crucial about Disney locking up Jim's services well into the next millennium? From having worked closely with Henson during his tenure as head of children's programming at ABC, Eisner knew that Henson was an originator. A guy who didn't build on the ideas of others, but -- rather -- came up with brash new concepts all on his own. A man who -- like Walt Disney -- thought outside of the box. A guy who saw opportunities where others just saw adversity.
Take -- for instance -- Disney's 1989 animated hit, "The Little Mermaid." Here was a motion picture that -- by March of 1990 -- had already made an obscene amount of money for the corporation. But, after "The Little Mermaid" 's theatrical release (And just prior to the movie's release on home video), Eisner & Co. were frustrated because they had no immediate additional ways to cash in the movie's recent win at the Academy Awards. This film franchise had -- at least for the foreseeable future -- run out of gas.
Oh, sure. The company would eventually do a "Little Mermaid" animated series for television. But it would be another three years before that program would be ready to air on CBS & the Disney Channel. The lead time for creating a "Little Mermaid" theme park ride or show for Disney's theme parks was equally daunting. It would take 'til January of 1992 for the film's first official tie-in attraction -- the "Voyage of the Little Mermaid" show -- to appear at the Disney/MGM Studio theme park.
And as for direct-to-video sequels ... Folks, we're talking late 1989 / early 1990 here. Five years before the Disney Company finally got around to burping out its first official video premiere, "The Return of Jafar." (Which reminds me. That's another series that I had promised to deliver to LaughingPlace.com readers way back when. Looks like I'm going to be cranking out these epic length stories for quite a while yet. Don't say I didn't warn you. Anyway ... ) So -- at this point in time -- doing a direct-to-video sequel to "The Little Mermaid" wasn't really an option.