Closing in on Kermit

The next time you're at Walt Disney World, make a point of dropping by Epcot's recently reopened "Journey into Your Imagination" ride. Then try to guess what performer provided the new voice of Figment, the purple dragon.

No, it's not Billy Barty. Hollywood's favorite "little person" provided the original vocals for the much beloved character when this Future World attraction first opened in March 1983. But Barty passed away in December 2000.

So, for some fresh words from Figment, Walt Disney Imagineering turned to one of the Jim Henson Co.'s top creative people, veteran Muppeteer David Goelz. Best known as the hands (and voice) behind the Great Gonzo and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Goelz was the only guy the folks at Disney thought could fill Billy's not-so-big shoes.

Now, a somewhat cynical person might say that this seemingly innocent gesture is yet another sign of the Walt Disney Co.'s continued interest in acquiring the Jim Henson Co.. After all, there must be hundreds of performers in Hollywood who could imitate Barty's distinctly raspy voice. But the Mouse seems to be trying to "make nice" with the Muppets, trying to keep the Henson Company's key players -- folks like Goelz -- from wandering off the reservation. Just in case Disney does ultimately end up owning the Henson Co.

Of late, Henson has been losing some of its veterans. Muppeteer Frank Oz (best known as the performer behind Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear) has cut back seriously on his puppeteering in order to concentrate on his career as a film director. And Brian Henson, son of Henson company founder Jim Henson, recently announced that he will step down as chairman of the firm (also to pursue a directorial career).

Meanwhile, the Walt Disney Co. keeps (directly and indirectly) throwing a lot of business Henson's way. It hired the Jim Henson Creature Shop to provide robotic huskies for last winter's film, "Snow Dogs." Then it decided to turn ABC's hit miniseries "Dinotopia" -- a program for which Henson's special-effects wizards provided animatronics -- into a weekly series.

Even more telling, perhaps, was last December's announcement that the Walt Disney Co. and Jim Henson Pictures would team up to turn an old Philip K. Dick story, "King of the Elves," into a full-length feature film. That followed Mickey's offer last fall to allow the Henson company to use the sole remaining soundstage at Disney/MGM Studios. Just so Henson would have an affordable place to produce a new direct-to-video project, "Kermit's Swamp Years: The Real Story Behind Kermit the Frog's Early Years."

Based on the Mouse's overtures, there's little doubt that Mickey is still courting the Frog, for whom Disney CEO Michael Eisner has lusted for the last 13 years. The key problem continues to be cost. Eisner loves a bargain, and he has never found the price to be right.

But, since Sept. 11, the price for the Henson company has been slowly drifting downward. Right now, its owner, financially strapped German entertainment conglomerate EM.TV, reportedly wants no more than $175 to $200 million. That's just a bit higher than Disney had originally agreed to pay Jim Henson for his company back in 1989. (EM.TV paid $680 million for the firm in 2000.) So, Mickey may finally be ready to act. But he'd better get a move on.

Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch clearly cares about Kermit. His Fox network already has agreed to present a brand new primetime Muppet TV series next year. Then there's Vivendi/ Universal. That company already has a new Muppet-based attraction, "Sesame Street 4D," in the works for its Universal Studios Japan theme park. It's not much of a stretch to think that Universal might be able to find a spot for the Muppets inside its stateside parks, as well.

Of course, the longer the big guys take to close a deal, the more likely it is that some underdog -- like Henson CEO Charlie Rivkin, who (with the help of private investors) has been seeking to buy the company -- may swoop in and scoop up Miss Piggy and her pals.

In the meantime, Disney continues to woo Henson's top talent by "making nice" with the Muppets. One of the latest examples is the release last month of a DVD of the Disney and Henson coproduction, "Muppet Treasure Island." This beefed up version of the film has snazzy new features like an audio commentary by Brian Henson and David Goelz.

Exactly the kind of people that Disney wants to keep happy. Just in case it ever gets around to closing on the Frog.