*** This story originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 279)***
Disney Junior delivers an awesome new CG-animated reboot of Muppet Babies, packed with clever adventures, pop culture references and catchy tunes.
It’s been 34 years since the animated baby versions of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal and other of Jim Henson’s Muppets first entertained Saturday morning TV audiences. A new generation of viewers will get to meet the loveable toddler gang this month when the CG-animated Muppet Babies wreaks havoc on Disney Junior.
The show’s exec producer Tom Warburton says he was thrilled to be asked to develop and produce this new version of the classic property. He recalls, “I was finishing up work on the Disney’s The 7D when Nancy Kanter [Disney Channel’s exec VP and general manager of Disney Junior] called me up and said, ‘We think you’ll be great to develop the new reboot of Muppet Babies.’ And of course, I said yes!”
Although the reboot is CG-animated, the new Muppet Babies retains the original’s wonderful characters and distinctive, silly charms. “At its heart, the show is about a lovable band of weirdos,” says Warburton, who is best known for creating the popular Cartoon Network series Codename: Kids Next Door and has also worked on shows such as Doug, Pepper Ann, Sheep in the City and Fish Hooks. “People respond to the fact that despite all their quirks, they are all friends and love hanging out together. It’s all about Fozzie Bear and his silly jokes, Gonzo getting shot out of cannons, Miss Piggy’s self-absorption and craziness, and Kermit pulling them all together. It’s really a big honor to bring them back and introduce a new audience to these special characters.”
This time around, voicing the series’ timeless characters are Jenny Slate as Miss Nanny, Melanie Harrison (Fish Hooks) as Piggy, Dee Bradley Baker (Phineas and Ferb) as Animal, Ben Diskin (The Spectacular Spider-Man) as Gonzo, Eric Bauza (The Adventures of Puss in Boots) as Fozzie Bear, and supervising director Matt Danner (Gravity Falls) as Kermit. The show is set in the playroom of a urban brownstone with an expansive backyard (home to Kermit’s bouncy “pond”).
The design of the characters echoes the look of the original Muppet Babies puppet characters from the 1984 movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan. The creative team studied the movements of the original Muppet Babies puppets and developed a digital sim technique called “Jiggle Tech” which allows the animated Muppet Babies to move just like their puppet character counterparts.
Powered by Imagination
Each episode of the new show features two 11-minute stories that follow the gang on various adventures — from building a time machine to flying through outer space. The project emphasizes the importance of imagination and friendship, without being pedantic.
One episode finds an impatient Miss Piggy wanting her birthday to arrive faster. So the gang uses a time machine, but ends up going too far into the past and the future. In another, the Babies learns a lesson about diversity when Gonzo befriends a potato, of all things!
Warburton says he found his new job to be both a massive honor and a terrifying challenge at once. “Here you are being given this huge honor, and it’s dropped into your lap,” he notes. “Your first reaction is, you’d better not mess this up. We had about one-third of the development time that you usually get, so we didn’t waffle over stuff. We had to fix things quickly. We ended up doing a lot in a short amount of time — In fact, we had less than a year to do this.”
It’s Time to Get Things Started
Warburton and head writer Eric Shaw (WordGirl, SpongeBob SquarePants) knew that they needed to introduce the Muppet Babies to an age group that don’t know who they are. “Maybe they’ve seen Kermit on DVD or Netflix, but they don’t know who these characters are,” says Warburton. “But when we go to preschools to test the show, their eyes immediately light up when they see them. When my son was a little, he had a little picture of Kermit on his diaper, and he loved it. There is something about certain properties like Goodnight Moon or Where the Wild Things Are that makes kids immediately gravitate to them.”
One of the big selling points of the new show is its eye-popping designs and appealing CG animation, which is produced by OddBot in Los Angeles, and Snowball Studios in Toronto and Tel Aviv. “We wanted to really feel the tennis ball texture on Kermit,” says Warburton. “They are using Maya in conjunction with new proprietary tools to really deliver the qualities we were looking for. This is a great chance to show these Muppets with feet as they walk around, and we can hear their flip-flap. I have to say the animation is so good, you want to hug Fozzie Bear, you really want to touch the Muppets.”
Since the show is about imagination, each episode finds the Babies going to different places or even time periods. Depending on the theme of each adventure, the animation experiments with different styles as well. “For one show, they are doing collages of their favorite places and Miss Piggy says, ‘Let’s go to Paris.’ So we used an animation collage style for that episode. For another one, we use kids’ crayon-style animation. For one episode, we have them against a live-action beach background. We use a torn-paper style for a pirates’ treasure hunt episode.”
Just like the old series, the show also pays homage to favorite TV shows or movies, which won’t mean anything to the preschool audience, but can be enjoyed by parents and older fans of the show. Of course, Warburton points out that it’s much harder to get clearance for the old movie clips these days. “I won’t give any titles away, because we like them to be more of a surprise, but there are some that are in the public domain,” he says “We try to use anything that fits well into our storylines. We even have little clips of GoPro footage sometimes.”
The creators of the new series also thought it would be a good idea to introduce a new friend to the mix: Summer, the purple-and-white penguin (voiced by Jessica DiCicco). “Since the show is about friendship, we thought it would be fun to bring in a new friend, who is from the deep south of Antarctica!” explains Warburton. “I think she is so cute. She’s like our art school girl, a creative powerhouse who looks at things in a different way. And we could really have fun with her relationship with Piggy!”
It’s Time to Play the Music
As expected, music plays a huge part in the new world of Muppet Babies. Each episode features a catchy song by Andy Bean (Wander Over Yonder, Danger & Eggs), who also scores the show. “He makes these insane earworms. They are funny and memorable, and he covers many different genres. We also brought back the classic ‘Rainbow Connection’ theme.”
Looking back, Warburton is pleased that he and his team were able to create a show that can reflect the enormous legacy of its characters. “My biggest fear was that [The Muppets Studio Vice President] Debbie McClellan would think that our show wasn’t Muppet-y enough, and I was so happy to find out that she’s thrilled with it,” he says. “One of the execs told us that you can really tell how much fun we are all having making the show. We’re making a show that is true to the spirit of the Muppets, who are fun, funny and adorable.”
Disney Junior’s Muppet Babies premieres on March 23 at 10 a.m. on Disney Channel and the DisneyNOW app.