Forty years ago, a banjo-strumming amphibian left his quaint Florida swamp to chase his dreams of Hollywood stardom.
That frog was named Kermit, the de facto leader of the Muppets, whose logs-to-riches story was charted in 1979's "The Muppet Movie," which Fathom Events is showing Tuesday in more than 700 theaters nationwide.
The heartwarming musical/road-trip comedy was the first of many successful big-screen outings for the late Jim Henson's now-iconic puppet characters, who were launched into the pop-culture stratosphere in 1976 via their star-studded variety series "The Muppet Show," which ran in syndication for five seasons.
But somewhere along the way, audiences stopped leaping to see the frog.
Kermit and Co.'s last film, 2014's "Muppets Most Wanted," flopped, earning just $51 million at the box office against a reported $50 million budget. Disney, which bought rights to the characters in 2004, attempted to revive the brand in 2015 with ABC's sitcom "The Muppets." But the workplace comedy was a critical and commercial misfire, drawing ire from longtime fans for its use of crude language and sexual innuendo, and earning low ratings until it was canceled after just one season. (Last year's R-rated Brian Henson puppet parody "The Happytime Murders," although not sanctioned by Disney, also bombed.)
Representatives for Disney did not respond to USA TODAY's requests for comment regarding the future of the franchise. But some longtime fans say that it doesn't look so bright.
Simply put, "a lot of kids just don't know the Muppets," says Josh Spiegel, who co-hosts the podcast Mousterpiece Cinema and has written extensively about the characters. "I fear that in buying the Muppets, Disney has failed to use the characters in a way that will help them become popular again."
Their ABC comedy, for instance, misstepped "because it presumed that audiences would want to see the Muppets act like adults, with relationship issues, stresses, etc.," Spiegel says. "At heart, the Muppets are charming because of their universality. The show didn’t capture that feeling."
Along with its jaunty production numbers and the poignant signature ballad "Rainbow Connection," the main reason "The Muppet Movie" has endured is because parents who loved the film later show it to their kids.
"It's a great introduction to different types of comedy: there's slapstick, puns, a lot of fourth-wall-breaking and self-referential stuff," says Jesse Hassenger, a contributor to pop culture website The A.V. Club. "It's a nice range of humor, and there's a gentleness that makes it appealing and comforting to an adult as well as a child."
Tom Lucas, Fathom Events' vice president of studio relations, calls “The Muppet Movie” a “cinematic treasure,” noting that the film made the top 10 at the box office when it returned to theaters last week for the first of a two-night engagement.
“The movie's theme of following your dreams and believing in your own abilities resonates with audiences of all ages," Lucas says. "(It's) a message that will never get old, which is one of the reasons this movie – and the Muppets in general – are so beloved."
No plans have been announced for more Muppet movies, which "will likely be boxed up and stored in the attic for the foreseeable future," says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "In regards to the box office, the Muppets just don't stack up to Pixar or Marvel or even Winnie the Pooh. That puts the puppet crew on the back burner for now."
The Mouse House will take another crack at rebooting the franchise with a new Muppets series premiering next year on its forthcoming Disney+ streaming service. Although there's no official word on whether the show will be more family-friendly, it is reportedly co-created by Josh Gad ("Frozen") and follows the characters after the events of 1984 film "The Muppets Take Manhattan."
As for whether the show can bring the Muppets back to their soaring '70s heights, Hassenger says it's unlikely, but we shouldn't ring the death knell just yet. Recent fumbles aside, 2011's well-reviewed "The Muppets" starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams was a respectable box-office hit and took home the Oscar for best original song ("Man or Muppet"). Even lesser films such as 1996’s "Muppet Treasure Island" and 1999's "Muppets from Space," both produced after Henson’s death in 1990, have come to be embraced by purists in recent years.
"Now tons of fans think of those as just as legitimate as the ones Henson made," Hassenger says. "And the fact that people were so disappointed by the TV show a few years ago speaks to how beloved the Muppets are. Even as their popularity ebbs and flows, 'The Muppet Movie' is sort of a (testament) to how this thing will probably keep going for decades."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Muppet Movie' turns 40: Are Jim Henson's puppets still relevant?