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The Series Project: The Muppets (Part 1)

Professor Witney Seibold delves into the sweet and cuddly world of the Muppets, starting with the first three feature films. 

 

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what’s on the other side?”
“Life’s like a movie. Write your own ending. Keep believing. Keep pretending.”

                   ~ Lyrics that make Witney cry a little.
 

When it came time to decide which of the Muppet feature films I wanted to cover for The Series Project here on CraveOnline, for the first time I had to be selective. Ordinarily, I try to be as holistic as possible (as witnessed in my write-up of Never Say Never Again and the 1967 version of Casino Royale for The Series Project: James Bond). The Muppets, however, have provided the world with a wealth of material. In addition to several TV programs, The Muppet performers have been featured in literally dozens of TV specials and other hour-long broadcast spots. And while I could have committed myself to every last hour of Muppet goodness, and forced myself through not one, but two John Denver Christmas specials, I had to cherry-pick what I would consider to be a “feature film.” To lay down the rules right off the bat, here are my criteria for what constitutes a Muppet film:

Most importantly, length. 45-50-minute TV specials do not count as Muppet features. Those are TV specials. And while many are, no doubt, very entertaining, and very much in keeping with the spirit of The Muppets, they were disqualified for their mere length. That means no Christmas specials, no John Denver, and no Muppet Classic Theater. It also disqualifies any Muppet pilots or TV episodes. Secondly, it had to feature Muppet characters exclusively. Jim Henson and his descendants were involved in numerous puppet-based features films, and while they are all noteworthy on some level, they don’t, technically, count as Muppet films. That means I will be skipping past The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Mirrormask, and The Storyteller. I will also, by that rule, be looking past the two Sesame Street feature films, Follow That Bird, and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. Yes, there are cameos from the Sesame Street characters in the Muppet films, and Kermit the Frog appears in the Sesame Street films. But, by my own ruling, I declare they are not in canon with the Muppet feature films. They are their own entity.

Despite all this cutting, I am left with eleven Muppet films in all. Which is plenty. Be sure to join me over the course of the next three weeks as I explore them all.

So where do I start with The Muppets? Goodness me. They are icons of children’s television that everyone under a certain age knows. Thanks to the 1976 television series (which is, incidentally, the single best variety show to ever appear on TV), kids grew up watching the antics of Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and a whole slew of felt puppet creatures that seemed to be more cracklingly alive than any old "real" actor. I guess to be perfectly clear, I’ll give a rundown.

The Muppets were presented to the world as a hard-working theater troupe whose TV show took place half off-stage. The Muppets themselves were a species of anthropomorphic animal puppets (including frogs, pigs, bears, and a whole menagerie of monsters and creatures), led by the inimitable and calm-hearted Kermit the Frog (originally voiced and operated by Jim Henson, the series’ creator, later played by Steve Whitmire). They would be themselves backstage, but play roles onstage. The Muppet feature films were presented on varying levels within this structure. In some of the films, we seem to be looking at the lives of the actual Muppets when they were off-duty. In some of the films, though, we would not refer to their home lives at all, and would simply be following them through a staged drama. In both cases, there would be plenty of human guest stars.

The key players were Kermit, his bad comedian pal Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz), his tempestuous and fickle occasional girlfriend Miss Piggy (also Oz), and daredevil Gonzo (played by Dave Goelz, whose character is indeed named after Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, and whose species wouldn’t be defined until 1999). There was also a psychedelic rock band named Electric Mayhem, a mad scientist named Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, his bug-eyed assistant Beaker, a stern Eagle named Sam, and other supporting characters too numerous to mention. You know these guys. You likely even have a favorite.

Muppet humor was frequently absurd, always kid-friendly, always gentle, and often self-referential; in addition to constantly commenting on the fact that they are in a movie, the Muppets would also be ever-heckled by a pair of cantankerous old men named Waldorf (Henson) and Statler (Richard Hunt). I will be trying to keep track of the so-called Reality Factor as we go, and trying to determine which of the Muppet films are about the Muppets and their own, actual personal lives, and which ones seem to be staged as independent dramas that feature the Muppets as repertory players.

The first film in the series is a legitimate classic that, well… it makes me tear up a little.

 

The Muppet Movie (Dir. James Frawley, 1979)

James Frawley only directed two feature films in his career, spending most of his time working in television. He is known for directing the bulk of The Monkees.

The Muppet Movie is staged as a movie-within-a-movie. The film opens with Kermit introducing his new movie at a special screening for all the Muppet players. Seeing all the Muppets in a theater, all being operated by what must have been dozens of puppeteers, well it’s astonishing. Indeed, the illusions required to animate the puppets is seamless and wonderful. Later in the film, we’ll see Kermit riding a bicycle, and you’ll just wonder how they did it. When you see Kermit on-screen, indeed, you see less a furry puppet being operated by a man’s hand, and more a real character.

There is something magical about the Muppets. I like to compare them to the kids from “Peanuts.” No matter how many times they get recycled, no matter how much they’ve been bought and licensed and re-licensed, they maintain a kind of sweet innocence. A purity. They are never in danger of being overexposed. Garfield, now he was overexposed. Even Bugs Bunny was ruined forever by the cinematic atrocity that is Space Jam. Only several Chuck Jones shorts in a row can wash away the flavor. But The Muppets are oddly indelible.

I think a lot of their appeal comes from Kermit himself. Kermit is not a broad, comic character like Daffy Duck. He’s not a bland cipher either, like Mickey Mouse. Kermit is a sweet, gentle put-upon soul who is moved not by fame or a need to accumulate wealth, but by an inner drive to make people happy. Indeed, at the beginning of The Muppet Movie, he chooses to go to Hollywood and make a film not because of anything missing from his own life (indeed, he’s pretty content in the swamp), but is enticed by the prospect of making millions happy with his antics. Kermit is noble. I’m guessing that while Jim Henson himself had his party moments, he was largely a gentle guy with a similar ethos. Heck, he listened to John Denver, and invented some amusing puppet shows for little kids. This is a man without a whole lot of darkness in his soul.

Gosh darn it, “The Rainbow Connection” still gets me misty. The songs in this film, by famed songwriter Paul Williams, are on the nose, and the first song is a sweet plea to find the dreamy connection that keeps us looking heavenward. Later in the film, Gonzo will sing a song about how great it is to fly on balloons, Kermit and Fozzie will sing about being on the road.

The Muppet Movieis a road picture, complete with vehicle switches, celebrity cameos, and a pursuing villain. Kermit picks up Fozzie at a bar called El Sleezo. They meet Electric Mayhem rehearsing in a church. The two of them run into Gonzo driving the other way. They meet Miss Piggy at a fair. Rowlf the dog joins in along the way. Eventually, the troupe is dozens of Muppets. The bad guy is a guy named Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) who would kidnap Kermit and force him to appear in TV ads for his fast food joint that specializes in fried frog legs. Yes, Doc Hopper even hires goons (represented by Austin Pendleton), assassins, and evil German doctors to help him. To take the edge off the evil, the German doctor is played by Mel Brooks.

Other celebrities to appear: Dom DeLuise plays an agent. James Coburn plays a bar owner. Telly Savales, Madeline Kahn, and Carol Kane play bar patrons, Elliot Gould plays a pageant emcee, Edgar Bergan (in his final film) plays a judge, Richard Pryor sells balloons, Bob Hope sells ice cream, Milton Berle sells cars. Steve Martin plays a snippy waiter. And who is the final cameo? Orson Effing Welles. That’s how beloved the Muppets were and are. Celebrities loved working for them.

Is there any real tension? Well, there’s a western-style stand-off at one point. And we’re never really sure if Piggy and Kermit will end up getting together, but this is a G-rated film for kids. It’s more about the journey than the surprises. So all our assembled friends gather by the film’s end and sing about how great it is to dream and to aspire, and… excuse me… I have something in my eye.

The Muppet Movie is, in terms of its structure, kind of shabby, but I think that’s where its appeal lies. It seems to stem naturally from the manic and cheerful characters. It’s self-aware, fun, funny, and has the good sense to point out just how dumb its dumb jokes are. True, some of the jokes go splat; I still roll my eyes at the “fork in the road” gag, and the “Myth! Myth!” line bugs me a bit. But those can all be forgiven, ‘cause the rest of the film is so danged good-natured. It’s like the makers were so thrilled to be making a feature film, they didn’t care whether or not it had a complex story. Story is not why we go to see Muppet films. It’s just to see our calming heroes alive for a few minutes. The Muppet Movie is a classic.

The next film is not as good, but has its fans.


 

The Great Muppet Caper (dir. Jim Henson, 1981)

I had bad memories of this film. As a child – and I can’t explain this – I had an inexplicable hatred for Charles Grodin. Something about his face, maybe, made me think he was a bully. True, he plays the villain in The Great Muppet Caper, but I sensed as a child that he was doing more than acting. He was just a bad guy. For many years, I refused to see anything with Charles Grodin. I didn’t see Midnight Run until I was in my mid-30s. Yes, I’ve since gotten over it.

The Great Muppet Caper is a pretty good film, and still has that charming shabby chaos of the first, but it is definitely the lesser film. The first film seemed to be preoccupied with gags. Caper seems a bit more hellbent on mayhem. There are more chases, more action, and a conventional crime plot about an evil thief. There’s even a scene wherein Miss Piggy, wrongfully accused, spends the night in jail. Weird. A Muppet in jail. This is not to say that the tone is dark. It’s just a little more chaotic and busy, making it weaker than the first.

Also, I don’t like the music in this one. The songs (by Joe Raposo) are an insufferable homage to old-timey ‘40s Broadway shows, but are filtered through a bland ‘80s filter. The stilted dancing and dull music are, dare I say, things to endure. The Muppets are, for the most part, known for their excellent songs (Paul Williams was nominated for an Oscar for “The Rainbow Connection”), but the songs here are forgettable at best, and insufferable at worst. I have yet to find a Busby Berkeley homage that was the least bit amusing. Well, outside of History of the World, Part I.

The film’s Reality Factor seems to be easily within the film-with-a-film range again. Fozzie, Kermit and Gonzo all comment that they’re in a film, but then get down to the nitty-gritty. Kermit and Fozzie play twin brothers (!) who work as investigative reporters. To prove themselves, they hitch a ride to London (aboard a freight plane) to investigate the theft of some valuable diamonds belonging to Lady Holiday (the gorgeous Diana Rigg), a famous fashion designer. They stay in a dumpy motel populated by the rest of the Muppet cast, including Sam Eagle and Electric Mayhem. Miss Piggy is in London too, applying for a job, and Kermit mistakes her for Lady Holiday. They go on a date. Charles Grodin plays the younger Holiday child who steals his sister’s diamonds for sport.

The celebrity guests this time include John Cleese, Peter Falk, and Peter Ustinov. Also Jim Henson himself appears on screen. I’m kind of surprised more British comedians weren’t tapped. What was Dudley Moore doing this week? Peter Cook? Benny Hill wasn’t occupied. And what of the rest of The Pythons? Heck, David Niven could have rocked this thing. I guess French & Saunders and Fry & Laurie weren’t famous enough yet.

A detail I liked: The rats. This was the first appearance of a Muppet rat named Rizzo (after Dustin Hoffman’s character in Midnight Cowboy), and all the other Muppet rats. They talk like New Yawk wiseguys, even though they’re in London, and the presence of rats seems to make a weird bit of sense, given how many other animals are marching around.

The plot meanders a bit in this film, and eventually we have a room full of Muppets passing around a large Baseball Diamond (funny), while Charles Grodin cavorts about trying to retrieve it before the cops arrive. Meanwhile, Miss Piggy has stolen a motorcycle, and guns it noisily down the road. I understand that we’re in a world of talking animals and puppet performers, but it didn’t need to be this broad. It’s funny for segments, but I miss the calm and the sweetness of the first film.

A note: in each of these films, Miss Piggy has a set piece wherein she flips out and kicks a bunch of guys, screaming kung-fu screams. Miss Piggy is an interesting character, and provides a wild balance to Kermit’s calm. She’s self-obsessed, vain, whiny, and utterly fabulous. She’s pretty shrill a lot of the time, but still manages to be lovable. In each film, you may notice, she has a hairdo that matches the style of the time. By the next film, she’ll have a frizzy ‘80s-tastic perm.

Indeed, let’s take a look:


 

The Muppets Take Manhattan (dir. Frank Oz, 1984)

In between this film and the last, Henson made a notable fantasy film called The Dark Crystal. It came out in 1982. It’s a wonder to behold. Not a Muppet film. A scary fantasy film about spooky creatures and evil magic. See it.

The Muppets Take Manhattan has no winks or nods to the camera, and no one comments on the fact that they’re making a film. One might be led to believe that it is telling the story of the real-life Muppets. I will shoot down this theory. For one, this film is about 21-year-old Muppets, and I got the impression that they were older from the previous films. They play college graduates in this film, but still have the air of seasoned theater veterans. I will argue that The Muppets are like Commedia dell’arte archetypes who have different roles in each play, but who are essentially the same type. Kermit is always named Kermit, and always plays a Kermit-like character, but he’s always a different Kermit character. It won’t be until the next film that this pattern will change.

The Muppets Take Manhattan feels epic, and even heartbreaking in many ways. The sweetness is back, but in this film, it’s tempered by a desperation and melancholy of a genuine drama. I found myself really hurting for Kermit and the Muppets. When, partway through the film, the Muppets disband (!), they sing a song about saying goodbye, and it’s emotionally rending. The film has plenty of funny moments (I especially like the rats, returning from the last film, now in their New York element), and is marked by the usual punsterism and fun of the characters, but there is an inescapable sadness underneath it all.

This time around, all the Muppet players are graduating from the same performing arts college, and dream of taking their little stage show, Manhattan Melodies, to Broadway. Once they sell the show, they’ll all be rich, and Kermit can finally afford to marry Miss Piggy. Only here’s the thing: When they get to New York, life beats them all savagely in the face. They live (literally) out of lockers, and run out of money quickly. They are hungry. Their only friend in the big city is a teenager named Jenny (Juliana Donald) who doesn’t have the resources to help them. Kermit even feels like a failure, and yells at the other Muppets. This is the first time Kermit has yelled in anger. I didn’t think he was capable of anger. Rather than stay in the city growing evermore destitute, the Muppets decide to go their separate ways. They say goodbye and drift apart. It’s so tragic.

Indeed, the Muppets stay separated for the bulk of the film. Kermit stays in New York, working for Jenny’s dad as a dishwasher, but all the other Muppets take jobs in other states. Fozzie decides to hibernate. I like it when the Muppets do animal stuff. It reminds us that they are indeed animals. Miss Piggy stays in New York too, but spies on Kermit from afar, growing jealous of his friendship with Jenny. Why does she spy? Why didn’t she leave town? I couldn’t say.

The celebrity cameos are back. Joan Rivers appears as a makeup counter girl who paints Piggy’s face. Gregory Hines plays a jogger who likes to run around in shorts. Brooke Shields (who was known best as a Jordache model at the time) flirts with Rizzo. Liza Minnelli plays herself in a restaurant scene. John Landis plays a Broadway producer. And New York icons Vincent Sardi (of Sardi’s Restaurant) and Mayor Ed Koch show up. Oh yeah, and Elliot Gould is back too. Also, near the end, the entire cast of Sesame Street appears.

Another weird twist in the already-darkened plot. Once Kermit sells his show, he reunites the Muppets, only to be hit by a car (!) and lose his memory (!!). I think the filmmakers were going for an old-timey showbiz drama that, in an earlier era, may have starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, but they really ratcheted up the melodrama. So over and hour into this film, Kermit is wandering around New York City with no memory, and landing a job with a frog advertisement company. Eventually, using the usual sitcom rules, Kermit’s memory is restored by another blow to the head, and he makes it onto stage just in the nick of time. The show featured a wedding between Kermit and Piggy, but in their Broadway debut, Piggy replaced the stage minister with a real one, making for a real wedding. They get married. Isn’t that sweet?

Something else of note: There’s a truly bizarre flashback scene, wherein Piggy imagines herself, Kermit, Fozzie, Scooter (an orange-skinned thing), Rowlf, and Gonzo to be babies. They are cutesy chibi versions of themselves, and they sing a cute 1950s-style bop number. This scene was so popular that it spawned an animated series called Muppet Babies, which I and all of my peers watched. Although I couldn’t say why. The show is pretty obnoxious. It also ran for – get this! – eight seasons.

In 1985, the Henson crew would make the first Sesame Street film, called Follow That Bird. Kermit the Frog did appear in the film (as he did on the show), but it mostly concerns itself with Big Bird, and definitely skews younger than the Muppet films.

In 1986, Jim Henson would make another fantasy film called Labyrinth, written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, and starring David Bowie as the villain. It’s a cult classic, and, while not as good as The Dark Crystal, is still hugely entertaining and undeniably weird. I find it telling that David Bowie plays the villain in this film. Henson was, after all, a folk rock fan, a friend of John Denver, and a wearer of comfy sweaters. He likely felt that the glam rock of David Bowie was abrasive and incomprehensible.

And that’s where we’ll leave it for the week. The next Muppet film would be made eight years later, after Jim Henson’s tragic death, and after the Muppet characters were bought by Disney. It would mark a new three-film cycle of Muppet pictures which, I admit, I’m kind of fond of. Indeed, one of the best Muppet films will come from this cycle. Join me next week for my analysis. Also, in two weeks, I’ll be back to discuss the straight-to-video films and TV movies, the debacle that was Muppets Tonight, and the proud 2011 return to theaters.

Keep believing. Keep pretending.