Flying squirrels and fussy frogs

Those who know me well should not be surprised that I’m still thinking about Kermit the Frog today, even though it’s been over three weeks since I learned that my favourite amphibian has a new puppeteer (and two weeks since I last wrote about it in this column space).

I’m also thinking about June Foray today.

A legend in animation circles, Foray died last week, two months shy of her 100th birthday. I knew she had decades of cartoon voiceover work under her belt, including the Granny character in  Warner Brothers’ Tweety and Sylvester  shorts and the flying-squirrel half of  Rocky and Bullwinkle .

I even knew that she had a cameo in the first season of The Simpsons as the elderly head of the Rubber Baby Buggy Bumper Baby-Sitting Service, and that the show later created the fictional voiceover actor June Bellamy (in the infamous “Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie” episode) in tribute to Foray.

I didn’t know, however, that her resume included two of the characters that I recall from my childhood – the prank-playing Jokey Smurf and the adorable Cindy-Lou Who from the animated adaptation of  Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas . (The director of that iconic holiday special,  Warner Brothers  animation legend Chuck Jones, is said to have framed Foray’s legacy by offering this comparison to the man responsible for the voices of dozens of  Looney Tunes  charactes, Mel Blanc: “June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc, Mel Blanc is the female June Foray.”)

She was active in voiceover work until 2014, but the June Foray project that I’ll likely remember the most is her reprisal of Rocket J. Squirrel’s voice for the 2000 live-action/CGI feature film The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. The movie only pulled in $35 million at the worldwide box office and received mixed reviews from critics, but I remember seeing it on TV and being utterly charmed by its pace, wit and characters, particularly Foray’s voicing of Rocky as a hero-in-the-making, attempting to overcome a crisis in confidence before he can learn to fly again.

As I recently discussed in this column, Steve Whitmire knows what it’s like to re-launch a franchise and preserve the memories of beloved characters while giving them new adventures. He took on the role of Kermit the Frog and a handful of other beloved Muppets following the shocking 1990 death of their creator, Jim Henson, and earned my respect and admiration for carrying Kermit and friends through a quarter-century of new Muppet productions, including five feature films and two network TV series.

In July, we learned that Whitmire was dismissed by The Muppets Studio – the official Disney-owned branch of the franchise – last October. I’ve already written about this but I feel the need to do a brief follow-up, in light of the mind-blowing news that the recasting of Kermit took place with the input and blessing of Jim Henson’s children.

Brian Henson, who has run The Jim Henson Company since his father’s passing, told The Hollywood Reporter that Whitmire “played brinkmanship” and “made outrageous demands” in contract negotiations, using his position as Kermit’s new puppeteer to elevate himself beyond his fellow performers. Both he and his sister Cheryl Henson have also slammed Whitmire’s characterization of the beloved frog, with the latter suggesting that Kermit has become “a bitter, angry, depressed victim.”

Now, as with  Rocky and Bullwinkle , Tweety and Sylvester or any other beloved property from a bygone era, the performance and delivery of a specific character is often going to come down to the writing. To that end, I actually commend Whitmire for guiding Kermit through two of the trickiest projects the Muppet brain trust has encountered in recent years – the first of  Disney’s  two reboot movies, in which Kermit was depicted as a recluse living alone in a Beverly Hills mansion and missing the glory days with his friends, and the recent  ABC Muppets  series that saw Kermit occasionally dip into passive-aggressive territory while serving as producer of Miss Piggy’s late-night talk show (shortly after the couple had officially broken up, no less).

So I’m torn here.

On the one hand, it’s hard to blame the Hensons for wanting to address this issue, and I’m disenchanted with Whitmire’s “Muppet Pundit” blog posts in which he defends the notes he sent to ABC executives about the new series and dismisses younger Muppet performers as glorified “fans” with no real connection to the Henson legacy.

On the other hand… well, on Whitmire’s hand, there’s the happy, jokey, fun-loving Kermit I always knew, especially in the live performances and TV-interview segments that I’ve so enjoyed over the past 27 years.

Perhaps, sometime down the road, Steve Whitmire will be remembered in the same treasured manner as June Foray, and we’ll all be able to enjoy the Muppets again without remembering the rancour of this summer’s dispute (described by one Muppet fan site as the “Ker-fuffle”). I just wish I had a flying squirrel to help me get there a little faster.