Some of your favorite Muppets characters have surprisingly emotional backstories.

The Muppets have been a cultural institution for more than 40 years. But their creators had never sat down to talk about their work.

Since "The Muppet Show" debuted in the 1970s, there have been eight feature films, reboots of the show, and a number of specials. Their legacy is undeniable, with each generation finding inspiration and meaning from the puppet characters first created by Jim Henson.

But in the new documentary "Muppet Guys Talking," Frank Oz (creator of Miss Piggy, Fozzie the Bear, Animal, and Sam Eagle) reveals that in all those years he and his fellow Muppet performers had never discussed where it all came from.


"You have fellow employees, how often do you get together and talk about work?" Oz says.

Oz's wife Victoria Labalme overheard her husband sharing stories about his past and came up with the idea for the film, saying it would be a rare chance to give fans of the Muppets a look behind the curtain — but also an opportunity to get these creative genius minds together in one room.

"There was no agenda," Oz says. "We just showed up and started talking."

Instead of going through major distributors or movie theaters, they decided to release the documentary independently through a website they created themselves. "It gave us an opportunity to build a community," Labalme says.

What ensued was an intimate and touching chat between five close friends who were often as surprised as the film's viewers when they learned in real time where so much of the Muppet magic originated.

The Muppet characters' origin stories are surprisingly complex.

The opening of the documentary reveals that, at the height of the show's popularity in 1978, an estimated 235 million people were tuning in each week in 102 counties to experience the adventures of Kermit, Miss Piggy, and their merry band. More than half of those viewers were adults.

Part of why the show resonated so much with adults, as well as kids, was because of the creators' approach. They were focused on telling great stories first. And great stories need great characters that mirror humanity back at the audience.

Oz recognizes that humanity in the characters he's created. He's said that Miss Piggy may be the most "three-dimensional" of his Muppet characters, while Fozzie the Bear is surprisingly the most tragic.

Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images.

Miss Piggy is a complicated character, full of seeming contradictions, impulses, and conflicts. Oz initially imagined her as "a truck driver who wanted to be a woman," before developing a more complex biography of a girl whose father died and whose mother neglected her. Piggy was forced to enter beauty pageants from a young age and is continually seeking stardom and fame to compensate for her insecurities, which are often funneled into her relationship with Kermit.

Meanwhile, Fozzie is the aspiring comedian who left home to pursue his dream but never lands a joke. "All of the characters have a key to the playhouse, except for Fozzie," he says. These characters' histories are as complex as Oz himself. "I was a very shy person. I was internal. To a great degree I still am introverted," he says. "The puppets protected me from being rejected."

Photo by Antony Jones/Getty Images.

Audiences responded to the humanity and vulnerability in these characters — and loved it.

It wasn't just Piggy and Fozzie either. In the film, the other performers (Fran Brill, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, and Bill Barretta) revealed the inspirations of their famous characters, where are deeply personal for all of them. Their characters were based on family members or transforming personal "flaws" into something more "lovable" for a broader audience.

The humanity of these characters resonated with audiences in a meaningful way and it was moving for the creators. All the Muppet performers agreed that there was something special about seeing people almost instantly forget about the person involved and start talking directly to a puppet as if it were a living, breathing, independent being.

They always sought to entertain and tell the best stories they could, but they quickly realized that disappearing into these characters gave millions of viewers the chance to connect with something special that was intrinsically a piece of themselves. "You don't have the limitation of your own body you can become any character," Oz says. "You can become any character you can put on."

That magical connection between creator, puppet, and audience is as special and unique as each of the Muppet characters — and the people behind them. And it's what sustained the legacy for all these years.

Photo by Jeff Christiansen/Flickr

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

RELATED: This fascinating comic explains why we shouldn't use some Native American designs.

Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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