Let's get things started: Muppets and Transformers reinvent for streaming
Classic kids brands retool for the streaming age but optimize for older fans, with mixed results
As candidates for a streaming remodel, the Transformers and Muppets brands couldn't be further apart. One is a cartoon about transforming sentient vehicles based on a line of toys, the other, a group of madcap puppets who created a vaudevillian variety show.
Yet as studios look to create content for the insatiable maw of streaming video, both brands have something new.
The Muppets upload for the age of YouTube
For Disney+, Muppets series producers decided on a very literal approach for the streaming age. The format finds viewers watching the desktop computer of Scooter, the harried stage manager now relegated to working in IT as he battles pop-up ads and posts content to a new Muppet portal.
WATCH | The Muppets join a conference call to talk about their new show
Fortunately, the web-based format is only the wrapper for what is essentially a new variety show. There are recurring segments with the Swedish Chef, Miss Piggy has a self-care show and Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew demonstrate science lessons — of a sort. The result is a series filled with familiar felt faces but lacking some of the original chaotic Muppet energy.
WATCH | Miss Piggy and RuPaul discuss divas and fashion, and Kermit sounds different
Toronto's Kira Hall is a puppeteer who plays Cottonball the cat for CBC Kids. A major Muppet fan herself, she says she was underwhelmed by the new series, "I think it doesn't quite know what it's trying to be yet."
While watching the show with her friend, one of the first things that struck Hall was that Kermit seemed different.
"I said Kermit sounds depressed. He sounds sad."
Hall says even Kermit's posture, his mouth movements have changed. "It's a lot calmer and I feel like Kermit in general since Jim Henson [died] has gotten sort of sedate."
WATCH | Puppeteer Kira Hall discusses the new Kermit and the show Muppets Now
The reason for the new Kermit is the new puppeteer, Matt Vogel. For the decades since Jim Henson died, Steve Whitmire was the voice and arm of Kermit. But in 2017 Disney fired Whitmire.
Among puppeteers, Hall has a contentious opinion: she believes when a puppet performer retires, so should the character. Over the years, working with Cottonball, she says the puppet becomes an extension of her.
"The character isn't just this piece of felt. It's the connection between the felt and the fleshy person attached to it. So I think you lose a little bit of that when you try to carry that on because it really is super organic."
More than meets the eye
For a series more metallic and less manic, look no further than the latest from the Transformers. On Netflix, Transformers: War for Cybertron finds mortal enemies Megatron and Optimus Prime locked in combat on their home planet in the time before the characters came to Earth. For a series inspired by a line of shape-changing bots, the show is surprisingly grim, filled with more talking than transforming.
WATCH | A battered Optimus Prime appears in the grim trailer for new series
Britain's Thew Adams is someone who transformed his love of the toys into a full-time career. On this popular YouTube channel, Adams runs down his favourite and no-so favourite releases for an audience of over 55,000 subscribers.
But for Adams, the new series is a missed opportunity
"As a person who is neck deep in Transformers, I was uninspired by it because I felt it didn't really bring anything new to the table."
Adams says he's heard from casual viewers, frustrated that the series assumes a level knowledge that excludes new fans.
"There is that danger that it'll all sort of dry up and that it will just be an aging fan base getting into their sixties. I mean how many more times can you buy Soundwave?"
WATCH | Transformers reviewer Thew Adams on the new Netflix series
For a show that's truly reinvented itself, Adams points to Netflix's She-Ra and the Princess of Power. Based on the original characters from the He-Man cartoon, the creators risked fan backlash to make a show with progressive storylines that breathed new life into the characters, he says.
"It's so much more relevant to today's audiences, while also still retaining that sort of reverence."
But while series such as She-Ra and ThunderCats Roar chart new paths, Hollywood is always ready to reboot another beloved property.
Nostalgic comforts for a tense time
The reason there seems to be so much nostalgia around us is that it works, says David Berry, a Canadian culture writer and the author of On Nostalgia.
"I don't think nostalgic appeals are necessarily the most artful or subtle or even the best way to get people's attention, but they are good enough."
He says part of what makes it seem that there's more nostalgia than ever before is that past is instantly accessible. Whether it's your treasured toy or TV show, it's all a click away. But that makes originality difficult.
"I think it does cause us to start to solidify these things in a way that is probably unhealthy for art."
While Berry believes personal nostalgia is beautiful and important, he says the corporate nostalgia being fed to us is corrosive.
"I think of it as The Princess Bride way of thinking. Life is pain. Anyone who says different is selling something."
But as more of us look for comfort, Thew Adams says part of what he gets out of the Transformers is reconnecting with that original spark of joy, especially in the current climate.
"Right now everything's horrible. So why not have Optimus Prime standing guard over that little bit of you that still believes life can be nice? I think there's value to that."