Movies We Like
The Muppet Movie
Most television shows that make the jump directly to the big screen seem to also carry an inside-jokeyness about them -- at least, the best have (South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, Strange Brew and the '60s pop art Batman). In so many ways, they announce to the audience that what you are now seeing is a film, not a TV show (though Batman is the closest to an actual long episode of the show). The Muppet Movie from 1979, in terms of postmodern meta-ness, is as self-referentially meta as a film can get. Like Strange Brew, it begins with a screening of the movie you are about to see. (Strange Brew’s is actually a homemade version before the actual film begins). As the world-famous Muppets sit in a packed screening room, eager to watch their own autobiographical movie, self-serious Sam the Eagle delivers one of the film's best deadpan lines when he asks Kermit, “Does this film have socially redeeming value?” And strangely we later find out, it does. What a perfect gem it proves to be because, like the syndicated TV series from which it sprang, The Muppet Show, the film version works perfectly as a good time for kids and for adults as a first-class musical.
Instead of the less cinematic story of how an inventive puppeteer named Jim Henson got together with a group of educators at the germinal government-sponsored PBS and created Sesame Street (which later begot The Muppet Show), this movie takes more inventive creative license to tell the Muppets' origin story. One day, while playing banjo in a swamp, Kermit The Frog was spotted by a Hollywood type (Dom DeLuise) who tells him about an opening in the picture business. So Kermit sets out for Los Angeles. On the way, he is joined by a Bob Hope wannabe bear named Fozzie and it becomes a road picture. Their crew keeps getting bigger as they are joined by a creature called Gonzo and his chicken girlfriend as well as the rock band Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem. The film really jumps up a notch when they meet Miss Piggy. She and Kermit have electric chemistry but her ambition throws some curves into their fledgling relationship. She is the most interesting Muppet because while most of her peers are kind-hearted and giving, she is completely selfish and self-absorbed (and obviously based on Barbra Streisand). Meanwhile, Kermit is pursued by a Colonel Sanders-type fast food entrepreneur named Doc Hopper (the great Charles Durning) who will stop at nothing to get Kermit to be the spokes-frog for his new chain of frog-leg restaurants.
Director James Frawley started out in the '60s as a director on The Monkees TV show and has racked up almost a hundred television credits since. He has only a few theatrical films sprinkled in, The Muppet Movie being the best, but one underrated film of note is The Big Bus in ’76, a very funny spoof of disaster films that beat Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker’s Airplane to the punch.
The film is highlighted by a list of memorable songs by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher, including the Oscar-nominated “The Rainbow Connection” as well as “Moving Right Along,” “Can You Picture That?” and the too short epic final song “The Magic Store,” a song that seems to bring in every Muppet that ever appeared on the show into the chorus. The film is also notable for its plethora of celebrity cameos, including Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn and -- in a cagey final scene -- the great Orson Welles as the head of the studio. The cameo stand-out however is Steve Martin at his most insincere, in the same year he made his debate as a movie lead in The Jerk. Also of historical interest are cameos by ventriloquist dummy legend Charlie McCarthy (and his handler Edgar Bergen) as well as old school, Muppet icon Big Bird, from Kermit’s old Sesame Street.
The Muppet Movie proved to be the beginning of a new film frontier as they continued successfully (both commercially and artistically) with their first two follow-up films, The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan. But after the death of the Muppets' creator, Henson (in 1990) the next trio of films in the '90s (The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets in Space would not prove to feel as fresh. However in the past decade, now under Walt Disney Studios’ control, the film re-imaginings The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted seem to find a new urgency and exciting new voices (symbolically, not literally). But still, the old Muppet Show and that original Muppet movie still hold up well and now stand out as two of the best artistic endeavors of the 1970s for families (if not ever). To think Muppets evolved from puppets that were used in stale Punch & Judy shows to children's television programs in the '50s like Kukla, Fran and Ollie and The Howdy Doody Show to the fully formed characters we know as Muppets who potentially could go on forever! After all, Muppets never die.