Muppetology 101: Muppet Babies

Muppetology

Alex Guttridge – In 1984 the concept of the Muppet Babies was created for a sequence in ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’ and it was immediately apparent the idea could be expanded upon and used in its own show. Consequently it was only 2 months after the film was released that the cartoon premiered, becoming hugely successful and popularising the concept of baby versions of famous characters (wikipedia has a list of these, for my money the only ones that were in any way worthwhile were Disney’s Jungle Cubs and Tiny Toons). Jim Henson wanted the show to promote and encourage using your imagination, one of the story editors recalled ‘He wanted children to believe that anything is possible. That’s the only thing that’s going to save this planet – the power of imagination.’ And it is a message that is as relevant today as it was then.

I think a lot what works about the show is exemplified in the design of the characters, they are all perfect versions of the characters in baby (well technically toddler but Muppet Toddlers doesn’t sound anywhere near as good) form. Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Scooter and Rowlf all take their design from the movie puppets verbatim (or whatever the visual equivalent of verbatim is) with Skeeter, Beaker, Bunsen and Animal designed for the show.

Kermit has what seems like the biggest departure from his classic look, a sailor suit, seeming to be a random choice at first but I think it fits the character. Firstly an aquatic theme suits a frog character well and secondly, whilst I have no information to base this on, I like to think it’s a nod to the line in ‘Rainbow Connection’ ‘Is this the sweet sound that calls the young Sailor‘ Using a typical baby style to create a thematic whole with the character is exactly the sort of detail that gives the show some depth.

Piggy is a quite easy translation from puppet to picture, the gloves being the main link that gives the character the right look. Combined with the apposite pink dress and bow it does really feel true to what a baby Piggy would wear.

Rowlf has what I think may be the cleverest design, the nappy and bib combo perfectly encapsulating the two things dogs are know for doing, a lot, drooling and defecating. I don’t think it’s at all coincidence that the dog character has the two baby items necessary to catch the said bodily functions and the addition of the musical note to the bib, whilst a little on the nose, ties the baby version well to the adult one.

Fozzie is an interesting case as they made the decision to add clothes to the character. Whilst Rowlf and Kermit are similarly naked in puppet form Baby Kermit’s clothes create a character and Baby Rowlf’s are functional infant items, I think Fozzie’s are more of a decision to not have any of the characters without clothes of some kind. Keeping his neckerchief/bow/tie and having him wear a hat, albeit a child’s hat, are perfect details and create the classic puppet look in baby form. Having it be a propeller hat fits perfectly with the rubber chickens and Groucho glasses the adult Fozzie would use in his act. The colouring of the clothing seems to be designed to fade away somewhat and not be noticed, giving the same impression as the adult Fozzie.

Gonzo’s design uses another standard baby look, the dungarees, and goes for a red colour, probably as no other character wears red and to contrast nicely with the lighter blue hues the character has. Whilst nowhere near his classic look of crumpled suit, it does feel right for the character, it has a slightly uniform look about it in the way a suit would. The addition of the chicken as the motif on the dungarees is a nice nod to Gonzo’s obsession with poultry and the addition of his stuffed toy chicken, called Camilla naturally, not in the original scene of the babies in ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’, is a lovely in joke.

Scooter differs a little from concept in ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’ to design in ‘Muppet Babies’. I think the movie version is a better design, the striped t-shirt and blue short combo giving the casual impression that adult Scooter has and the striped colours containing the hues of the puppet’s jacket and Muppet Show logo patch. The cartoon version instead goes for a violet/purple colouring which I think was influenced by the fact no other character used that pallet. I would be wrong to not include Skeeter in this, the character created to add another female into the show and essentially a tweaked version of the Scooter design. I think the colours of her design would be perfect for Scooter, the light green t-shirt and blue shorts would be a perfect counterpart to the puppet Scooter and feels like it was probably the intended design. I would hazard a guess that there was a possibility of Skeeter being the one in violet/purple but it was swapped with Scooter to stop her being too similar to the Piggy colour scheme and emphasise her sporty/tomboyish character. They did seem to go out of their way to giver her some lace on her clothing to show she was a girl, a very unnecessary addition.

Beaker translates perfectly to baby form, an enlargening of the eyes, adding more hair and changing his lab coat and similarly coloured shirt/tie combo to a sort of baby grow/nightgown, with the perfect colour, makes it look like a shrunk down version of the puppet. He is in some ways the purest version of an infantalized character.

Bunsen is a nice counterpart to Beaker, wearing the same style of baby grow/nightgown, but in a light blue to give an impression of his lab coat, it ties the two of them together as a twosome amongst the disparate personalities of the other Muppets. The glasses and no eyes, and using a red scarf as an analogue of his tie, immediately makes the character an infant version of the good doctor. Giving him bunny slippers is child appropriate but I really want to think it’s a sly reference to the Steel Rabbit in the Zero Mostel episode of ‘The Muppet Show’.

baby bunsen

Animal is, I think, an easy translation of puppet to picture, the yellow/red tied T-shirt and brown torn offs (as opposed to cut offs) becoming a yellow t-shirt and brownish/red shorts. The big blue bow as a way to imply the puppet collar/chain combo is a nice touch and giving him a baby bonnet immediately shows his younger age than the others, also allowing nicely for his monosyllabic speech patterns.

They assembled an incredibly talented voice crew for the show, including a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a Gummi Bear, a Real Ghostbuster and Minnie Mouse but I find it very difficult to judge the voice talent on the show. In retrospect I think they do a good job at touching on the vocal characteristics of each character whilst giving them a youthful tone. They aren’t a patch on the Muppeteers, and could never hope to be, but I’ve watched so much of the Muppet Babies through my life the voices are just right to me now.

With designs and voice talent in place it was time to produce a show. How well did they do?  Find out in our Retro Review of Episode 1 tomorrow!

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