Muppetology 101: History of Television Animation

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Abigail Maughan – Welcome back to Muppetology 101, Muppet fans! Today we are going to look at some of the major forays into cartoons made in Muppet history. From short segments on Sesame Street, to the mega hit of Muppet Babies, to the Henson Company’s upcoming show Splash and Bubbles, animation has been the close companion to puppetry throughout Muppet history. There have been live-action characters in animated worlds, like in Song of the Cloud Forest and Elmo’s World, and animated characters in a live action world, like Waldo C. Graphic in The Jim Henson Hour and Horace D’Fly in Kermit’s Swamp Years. Dozens of Muppet projects over the years have implemented animation, so let’s narrow it down a bit to the animation-based shows that aired on TV (sorry, The Skrumps).

Muppet Babies (1984-1991): 107 episodes over 7 seasons
From a dream sequence in The Muppets Take Manhattan straight to the screens of Saturday morning cartoon viewers, the first and most successful venture into animated Muppet TV came in the form of Muppet Babies. Toddler versions of the Muppet Show cast, plus Scooter’s twin sister Skeeter, created their own adventures, worlds, parodies, and songs through the power of imagination, and some live action footage, in a nursery under the supervision of their Nanny. The juggernaut produced comics and merchandise galore, and won the Emmy award for Outstanding Animated Program for four years in a row. The show’s vocal cast included Scooby-Doo’s Frank Welker as Kermit and Skeeter, Minnie Mouse voice Russi Taylor as Gonzo, Gummi Bears’ Kate Leigh as Rowlf, and the animated Ghostbusters’ Dave Coulier as Animal and Bunsen.

Little Muppet Monsters (1985): 3 episodes
Half of Little Muppet Monsters centered on the antics of three monster children and their penguin band trying to put on their own TV show. The other half was recurring animated Muppet segments: “Fozzie’s Comedy Corner,” in which Fozzie and an animated chicken would analyze why the chicken crossed the road; “Muppet Sports Shorts,” a Goofy-like bit in which Animal would incorrectly demonstrate a physical activity under Richard Hunt’s narration; “Kermit the Frog, Private Eye,” in which Kermit would solve mysteries with the help of Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy; and the continuing cartoon adventures of the Swinetrek crew in “Pigs in Space.” Despite another fifteen episodes being produced, the show was quickly cancelled after only three had aired, due to both a losing competition with Muppet Babies, and the problematic animation studio. Frank Welker and Greg Berg reprised their Muppet Babies roles as Kermit and Fozzie, respectively, with Hal Rayle as Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and Animal.

Fraggle Rock: The Animated Series (1987-1988): 13 episodes over 1 season
The exploits of the Fraggle Five, the Doozers, and the Gorgs continued on for another year in a flatter form after the original Fraggle Rock ended in 1987. One of the only shows on this list that has become available on DVD, the animated Fraggles engaged in adventures such as Wembley becoming a giant, a rock-wide flood, and Traveling Matt losing his memory. The voice cast included Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Townsend Coleman and Rob Paulsen as Gobo and Boober, respectively, Power Rangers’ Barbara Goodson as Red, Rainbow Brite’s Mona Marshall as Mokey and Cotterpin, and future Porky Pig voice Bob Bergen as Wembley and Cantus.

Dog City (1992-1995): 31 episodes over 3 seasons
The television special Dog City made an Emmy-winning splash in its own right in 1989, and the concept of dog noir returned to the public eye three years later in a Canadian TV series. Like Little Muppet Monsters, the show was split between puppets and cartoons. The live segments follow canine cartoonist Eliot Shag (Kevin Clash) and his endeavors to create his own animated story about dog detectives, with characters based on his neighbors. In said story, Ace and Bugsy return from the original special to duke it out again, albeit under different surnames, while Colleen Barker (Fran Brill) returns in the puppet world as Eliot’s girlfriend. Voice actors for this production included Ron White as private eye Ace Hart, a role for which he was nominated for a Gemini Award, The Legend of Zelda’s Elizabeth Hanna as chief detective Rosie O’Gravy, and The Magic School Bus’s Stuart Stone as Ace’s young friend Eddie. Other puppeteers included Joey Mazzarino, Brian Muehl, David Rudman, and Lisa Buckley.

Sid the Science Kid (2008-2013): 68 episodes over 2 seasons
The Henson Digital Puppetry Studio is an advanced waldo motion capture system in which digital 3D puppet characters are manipulated and rendered in real time. Animated puppets performed through this system hosted the educational preschool show Sid the Science Kid, in which a boy named Sid and his friends ask and then investigate a different scientific question per episode. The show was nominated for seven Emmy awards, and a movie was released to culminate the series in 2013. The cast was made up of classic Henson puppeteers, with Drew Massey as Sid, and Julianne Buescher, Victor Yerrid, and Alice Dinnean-Vernon as his friends.

Dinosaur Train (2009-): 89 episodes over 4 seasons
The Jim Henson Company’s second educational show created to teach science to preschoolers was Dinosaur Train, a CGI series about a tyrannosaurus rex child and his adoptive pteronodon family. The family travels through their prehistoric world on a train to learn, and teach to the viewers at home, facts about the different dinosaurs in their world. The show has been nominated for eight Emmy awards. The voice cast includes Philip Corlett, Claire Corlett, Ian James Corlett, Erika-Shaye Gair, and Ellen Kennedy.

Doozers (2013-2014): 52 episodes
Returning to the Fraggle world after almost 25 years, in CGI form this time, Doozers takes place in the new environment of Doozer Creek. The show follows the Pod Squad, four Doozer children who love to create, invent, and build solutions to their problems while exploring the values of teamwork, environmental awareness, and engineering. The Pod Squad members were voiced by Millie Davis, Trek Buccino, Jacob Ewaniuk, and Jenna Warren.

Puppetry and animation are very similar in theory—giving the appearance of life to something that isn’t actually living, whether the vessel for doing so is physical, drawn, or computer-generated. Perhaps this is why many puppeteers, such as Caroll Spinney and Karen Prell, have crossed over into animation in their careers. Throughout all of their hits and misses alike, animation has played a huge part in Henson and Muppet history, and will continue to do so, whether breaking ground or just being a perfect complement to puppets.

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