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 Apr 26 - May 2, 2018 
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Idiot Box

Yes, Nanny!

“Muppet Babies” on Disney Junior

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It’s no surprise that—when it comes to entertainment—everything old is new again. Theater marquees and television schedules are slowly filling up with nostalgic reboots. “The X-Files” and “Roseanne” are already on the air. “Murphy Brown” is coming back, as is a recast “Cagney & Lacey.” The CW is bringing back “Roswell” and “Charmed.” Freeform, formerly known as ABC Family, is working on a Mexican-American version of “Party of Five.” “DuckTales” is a hit again for Disney XD. “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “Sweet Valley High,” “Clarissa Explains It All,” “Blue’s Clues”: All are in the process of being remade. And in case you didn’t notice, those are just the late-’80s/early-’90s properties resurfacing. It’s a good time, evidently, to be a ’90s kid.

Given the trend, it’s not a shocker that Disney’s preschool cable offshoot, Disney Junior, is now airing “Muppet Babies.” The original animated show—known as “Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies”—aired from September 1984 to November 1991 on CBS. The new version keeps close to the template laid out by the fondly remembered first series. In the original, preschool versions of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Scooter, Skeeter, Rowlf the Dog and Gonzo attended a nursery school, watched over by the kindly Nanny (whose face is never seen). The new version dumps Rowlf the Dog and Scooter/Skeeter, replacing them with the newly created character of Summer, a cheerful blue penguin.

The concept of “Muppet Babies” was always rather simple: stuck in the nursery with nothing to do, the young muppets had to rely on their imaginations for fun. Each episode the babies would find themselves whisked off to the Land of Oz or sailing a pirate ship or rocketing into space. Frequently, producers would drop in live-action stock footage, allowing the characters to interact with popular movies like Star Wars or Ghostbusters.

Disney Junior’s version is aimed at kids ages 4 to 7, meaning there aren’t nearly the number of pop cultural jokes that the original employed. Instead, we get 2 11-minutes stories each episode, hammering on the idea of “imagination” and padded out with a lot of musical numbers. The voices are all appropriate (comedian Jenny Slate is our new Miss Nanny) and the characterizations familiar. Kermit is the same self-effacing nebbish. Piggy is the same stage-hogging diva.

Unlike the traditional cell animation employed in the ’84 to ’91 version, this one uses modern CGI. I don’t think you can have an “uncanny valley” when it comes to animated puppets, but it may take a few episodes for adults to get used to the “realistic” 3D animation. The updated, Pixar-like animation renders the felt, fur and feathers of the Muppet Babies in almost uncomfortable detail. It’s as if Henson’s familiar puppets simply came to life and started cavorting around on their (previously unseen) legs. Kids, coming into it for the first time, won’t notice the change.

Cute, simple-minded and upbeat to a fault, the new “Muppet Babies” is clearly aimed at very young kids. Grown ups, hungry for the pop cultural zest of the original, may be tempted to stop by for a nostalgic glimpse—but they aren’t likely to stick around for long.

“Muppet Babies” airs weekdays at 11am on Disney Junior.

 
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