Topper remains true to inheritance

Although very much a tough businessman in his own right, Brian Henson clearly prefers working out the intricacies of transforming Muppets into fearsome pirates, while leaving the battles of business to others.

“Basically, my priority is on the creative direction of the company,” he says, “overseeing the quality and choice of the product that we create. And a lot of the time, we’re in the business of entertaining ourselves.” One of Jim Henson’s five children, Brian was named president, CEO and chairman of the board of Jim Henson Prods, upon his father’s death.

The failed merger with Walt Disney left many in the company feeling adrift, he recalls.

While seeking partners for its recording, video and international TV distribution arms, however, JHP struck gold with its ABC primetime series “Dinosaurs.” “We wanted to do something that showed we were a new, fresh company, and Dinosaurs’ helped us get that across,” Henson says. “Then we began to focus on the Muppet franchise, which had not been in production, really, for four or five years.”

Henson directed the 1992 feature “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and is currently wrapping production of “Muppet Treasure Island,” set for release in the U.S. on Feb. 16.

With two classic-themed features having re-established the Muppets, Henson says the next film will probably be a more original work. “We’re really not very formulaic about it,” he says. “It’s easy to find market research to tell you what to do with the Muppets, what sort of character would be popular with an audience, and that would work well in licensing and publishing. But it basically just reflects what’s popular right now.

“We know these characters more intimately than anybody else in the world,” he continues, “so it’s really a matter of keeping them fresh for ourselves, and just doing what feels right.”

To that end, “The New Muppet Show” will find the characters in charge of a television station, feeing the challenge of mounting a half-hour program every week. “That allows us to do the sketch comedy and musical numbers, but it’s different enough that people will know they’re watching a different series,” Henson says. And although Kermit, Gonzo and the rest of the core crew will be on hand, JHP hopes to use the opportunity to launch new characters.

Henson notes that Miss Piggy and Fozzie will appear only in small segments, as they are voiced and operated by Frank Oz, who has his own feature film directing career.

“The (Muppet) characters are very flexible in all different media, much like animated characters are, but at the same time they’re three-dimensional,” he says. “They have a more real feel to them, and that works very well with computer animation and renderings of the characters. Plus our style of entertainment has always involved breaking that fourth wall, with the characters talking directly to you through the screen, and that works very well on records and interactive CD-ROM product.”

JHP also plans to generate more human-based productions, while keeping an eye on the new wave of computer animation techniques. “Everyone’s talking about getting into eel animation to take on Disney, but Disney is looking toward things like ‘Toy Story,’ brand new ways of doing things.”

Henson takes a philosophical view when asked about the Henson family possibly selling the company somewhere down the road. “Right now, no, I can’t see that time,” he says. “It really is a family-held company.

“With the whole Disney near-merger, that showed us what life might be like,” he continues. “We feel terrific about the company, and we hope to continue that way – to take our style and try to be very classy but at the same time quite irreverent and off-the-wall.

“After all,” he says, “we are a little eccentric.”

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