So, when we last left The Muppets (in last week’s installment of The Series Project), it was 1984, and they had just taken Manhattan. The Muppets were loved by most people, and their films were all financial successes. The Muppets Take Manhattan was, I mentioned, followed not only by the surprisingly long-running TV show Muppet Babies, but also by Jim Henson’s much-beloved 1986 cult musical Labyrinth which was, from what I can ascertain, something of a financial failure. These days, Labyrinth is beloved by a generation of grown children, but 1986 would prove to be a tough time for the Muppet team who worked on it.
A pity, as Labyrinth would prove to be the final feature film that Jim Henson, the stalwart and good-hearted creator of The Muppets, would work on. Henson did start up his very own puppetry studio, however, and began making puppet creatures for other films. If you’re one of the many young boys who really dug Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it was Henson’s company (but not Henson himself) who worked on those awesome turtle costumes. Also, while the 1988 TV program The Storyteller doesn’t have as massive a cult as The Muppet Show, the show was still gorgeous and outstanding. Henson proved that he was interested in more than just the felt-skinned stock characters of The Muppet Show, and really wanted to push puppetry to new heights.
To the sadness of all, Henson died in 1990 of a lung infection. He was 53. For a while there it looked like The Muppet world would not continue, and The Muppets Take Manhattan would remain the final Muppet film. By 1992, though, good will for The Muppet characters would prove to loom large in the public eye. Another feature film was planned, to be directed by Brian Henson, and now operating under the aegis of the megalithic Disney Corporation. Disney, perhaps not insignificantly, tried to buy the Muppet characters several times by this point. And while they did eventually acquire The Muppets (in 2004), they would have to be content as the producers on the 1992 film.
This week in The Series Project we’ll be covering the 1990s three-film Muppet cycle that Disney oversaw, and we will be introduced to a new method of Muppet films that, quite frankly, I see as a brilliant turn. The first film in this new cycle is sweet, smart, and is easily the best looking of any of the Muppet films. Let’s to…
The Muppet Christmas Carol (dir. Brian Henson, 1992)
So in last week’s article, I tried to put my finger on the exact notion of canon that The Muppets present to us. I came to the conclusion that each of the films was to be treated like a stock stage production featuring a familiar cast of repertory players, in this case, the Muppets (Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, et al). That is to say: None of the Muppet feature films to date had been the actual mimetic lives of the actual Muppet characters, but diegetic films wherein Kermit the Frog merely played a character named Kermit the Frog, etc. What The Muppet Christmas Carol does is take that notion and bring it to its logical conclusion: recast the Muppet players into classical stories.
I’m surprised this hadn’t been tried right out of the gate. While I would never impugn the simple tear-inducing glory of The Muppet Movie, and certain TV specials did indeed recast The Muppets as fairy tale characters (yes, there was a series called Muppet Classic Theater), I’m kind of surprised that the first movie was an original story, and not a stock movie that the Muppets would bring their own spin to. If the puppeteers wanted to breathe new life into their property, this was the perfect way to go about it. As such, we have a film version of Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas parable, but with Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire) playing Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) playing his wife, Waldorf and Statler as the Jacob Marley role (one of them is named Robert Marley, no doubt a nod to the reggae king), and a famed human actor, Michael Caine, as Ebenezer Scrooge. The Muppets are all credited as themselves (Kermit does have his own IMDb entry). Did I mention I love this conceit? That The Muppets are all old guard actors who are now working as supporting characters in a classic drama? They only tried this twice more, once with great success, and another time with only middling success.
It’s hard to criticize A Christmas Carol. It’s such a well-known and classic story. And The Muppet Christmas Carol seems to know this, as it takes much of its dialogue and scenarios straight from Dickens. Indeed, to hedge their bets, Charles Dickens himself (played by The Great Gonzo, perhaps really Dave Goelz) appears in the film’s margins to give narration, all taken from the original story. The Dickensian language adds a classical oomph to proceedings. But just to make sure we’re not skewing too serious, Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire) appears as Dickens’ rat friend Rizzo. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are all played by Muppets, although they are original creations.
You know what I always forget? A Christmas Carol is effing terrifying. Have you seen that Ghost of Christmas Future? It’s bloody death! Four ghosts, remembrances of misery and regret, and an ultimate vision of mortality that feels like the gentle touch of a brutal strangling. Ebenezer Scrooge is a horrible man who is reminded that he is mortal, and that her should, perhaps, be less of a skinflint, spread his wealth, and give gifts to people during the ultimate season of charity: Christmas. I’m a sucker for this story. It always makes me a little misty to see Scrooge’s transformation, Tiny Tim’s purity is enough to melt any heart, and I do kinda like the spookiness of it. The Muppet Christmas Carol gets all of these details right. They even cast a good actor as Scrooge. Michael Caine, who was, in 1992, kind of at a low point in his career (this film was sandwiched in between Blue Ice and On Deadly Ground) was, I think, given a great acting opportunity to play the well-known misanthropic miser. And while he’s not as good as, say Alastair Sim (who played Scrooge in the famous 1951 film), he still gives a soulful performance. Although, I admit, I bought Caine’s performance much more when he was being cruel. To his credit, he never winks at the audience to let them know that he’s slumming. He sells it.
Paul Williams (who wrote “The Rainbow Connection”) writes the songs for this one, and they are a delight, although not necessarily as catchy as they could be; I think I liked the opening number about how awful Scrooge is the best. Some people who saw this film when they were young admit they like the Christmas Present song a lot. I suppose it is merry.
I mentioned that this is the best-looking of the Muppet films, and I meant it. It was clearly shot on soundstages, but they were photographed well, and both the Muppets and humans in this universe are all properly decked out in Dickensian attire. It looks slick and well-moneyed. The previous films were charming because of how shabby they were. This one is the first to look like a proper feature film. Another thing: in the previous films, the Muppet characters were seen as an anomalous species who only ever ran into one another. In the world of this film (and the next) the Muppets seem to co-exist with humans on an everyday basis. Like they’re merely another race of human. A race that happens to be felt anthropomorphic animals.
It’s a good movie, but I think a lot of people objected to the relegation of the Muppet characters to supporting roles for a human actor. If you’re a Kermit the Frog fan, you’ll be disappointed, as Kermit hardly appears in this film. Gonzo gets the most screentime of any of the Muppets. Despite any fan gripes, The Muppet Christmas Carol was a huge success and led to, four years later, what will prove to be my favorite of all the Muppet movies.
Muppet Treasure Island (dir. Brian Henson, 1996)
I know The Muppet Movie is a classic, and will always be highly regarded for his disarming wistfulness, self-aware corniness, and unfettered optimism. But, I have to admit, I adore Muppet Treasure Island. In terms of comedy, of production design, of pure fun, this is the best of the Muppet films. Please, Muppet purists, forgive my heresy. But have you seen this one? My goodness, is it hilarious.
It was about this time that The Muppets became sort of aware of their own pop culture reputation. As such, the Muppet characters, as they’re introduced in Muppet Treasure Island, are given a sort of special treatment. Kermit doesn’t merely appear on screen, but is given a kind of big reveal. Doubly so with Miss Piggy. The film also seems to be the first film since The Muppet Movie to really bank on the inherent absurdity of The Muppets; that is: these characters are, after all, just puppets. It doesn’t, however, hammer that articular facet too hard, making for a slightly self-aware comedy about classic well-known characters, all within an awesome adventure story. If you were tired of me heaping praise on The Muppet Christmas Carol, I apologize. My adulation will only continue here.
You read Robert Louis Stevenson in school, right? Then you know the story. The young Jim Hawkins (first-timer Kevin Bishop), working in misery in a seaside inn (run by Jennifer Saunders), is given a treasure map by the dying Billy Bones (Scottish comedian Billy Connolly). In this version of the story, Jim is best friends with Gonzo and Rizzo, essentially playing themselves and offering the same running commentary as in the last film, although as characters within the story. Jim Takes the map to the Squire Trelawney (Fozzie Bear/Frank Oz), a rich halfwit who believes there is a small man living inside his finger, and they are granted access to The HMS Hispaniola, captained by Cpt. Smollett (Kermit), and manned by a variety of Muppets and humans. Long John Silver, the one-legged cook and eventual villain is played with glee by Tim Curry who, in 1996, was very much in the same place as Michael Caine in 1992. The Ben Gunn role will be turned into Benjamina Gunn (Miss Piggy) who, rather than being a destitute wildman left to languish on a deserted island, will actually be the high priestess of a local tribe of boars. Okay, so Muppet Treasure Island takes a few liberties with Stevenson. It’s mostly accurate.
I love maritime stories, I love slapstick comedy, I love breaking the fourth wall, and I love Muppets. Yeah, this one is pretty much perfect for a guy like me. True, the Disney imprimatur is still in place, which means the film will feel slick and safe, rather than personable and slightly grungy, but, again, it feels more like a real feature film than some of the earlier entries. And it’s funny. The jokes are timed perfectly, and the slapstick is impeccable. I guess my central criticism of this era of Muppet slickness would be that the puppets are being gradually replaced in some scenes by other special effects. When we saw Muppets riding bikes in the last few films, it was a wonder of puppetry. In this one, such effects are being handled with crude CGI. When you know it’s not really a puppet, the character loses some of its charm. In a way, the more CGI “convincing” the Muppet effect, the less effective it is.
This slickness also bears the unfortunate side-effect of beloved familiars behaving out of character. For instance, Kermit the Frog, benevolent, pacifistic, and egalitarian, wields a sword in this film, and does a number on Tim Curry. I think the scene is hilarious, but some have complained that Kermit should not have a sword. This is true; Kermit is not a violent man. Er, frog. But he’s been in peril before, and I think, however much I abhor violence, it’s fine that he swordfight.
The actual drama is, like the last film, carried entirely by the human characters. There is some romantic dealing with Smollett and Gunn, but it’s the relationship between Long John Silver and the young Jim Hawkins that the film will be about. There’s some surrogate father stuff going on, and the meaning of friendship. It’s handled well enough.
The songs in this film are catchy as all get out. All of the Muppet films to date have been musicals (indeed, they will all prove to be, with one exception), and Muppet Treasure Island has some of the best songs, and, what’s more, the cutest musical cues in all the films. Everything that sounds like it ought to be a musical cue, is. The songs are all upbeat and awesome and hummable. “Sailing for Adventure” is great, “Shiver My Timbers” is dark and cool, and Tim Curry gets his own song called “Professional Pirate.”
I’ll cease heaping praise upon this thing. Suffice to say, it’s underrated, and you should perhaps catch up with it. Muppet purists disliked it in 1996, but I think, with its repertory players approach, it seems to be in-keeping with the Muppet ethos.
The film did, sadly, kind of tank, and the classic literature approach was abandoned. What a pity. Imagine all the great novels that could have been made with Muppets. Imagine Dumas in Muppet. Or Jules Verne. Gonzo and Rizzo could be kidnapped by Captain Nemo (Benedict Cumberbatch). Heck, how cool would it be to see a Muppet version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Miss Piggy could play Titania. Gonzo could play Bottom. That seems perfect to me. Why not Muppet Moby-Dick, or Muppet Sleepy Hollow? And, heck, why stop with literature? Why not re-enact famous movies? A Muppet Citizen Kane practically writes itself. As would Muppet Casablanca. But I digress.
That same year, The Muppets would attempt to re-enter the world of TV with their own primetime show, in the same mold as The Muppet Show. This new show, also a variety show, would be called "Muppets Tonight," and would feature all the same old characters (Fozzie, Scooter, Kermit), but they would be relegated to a sort of elder statesman status. Waldorf and Statler would heckle the show from a nursing home, and the new host would be an as-yet unseen character named Clifford Catfish (played by Kevin Clash, better known as Elmo on Sesame Street). Other new characters included Bobo the Bear and the lothario Pepe the King Prawn. Muppets Tonight was a great way to revive the Muppets after the disappointment of Muppet Treasure Island, but the show never took off. Indeed, there was a serious publicity blow to the show when they featured a mad bomber character blowing up people on the one-year anniversary of an infamous bombing in Oklahoma City. They still got notable guest stars, and the quality was never bad, but, for whatever reason, lightning never struck with Muppets Tonight. It ran 22 episodes. It’s a show seen as kind of a blot on the Muppet reputation.
1999 rolls around. Time to try something new…
Muppets from Space (dir. Tim Hill, 1999)
This is the first film since the first that wasn’t directed by someone directly connected with the Muppet troupe. Tim Hill is a kid’s director who would go onto Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties and the CGI version of Alvin and the Chipmunks. He tends to skew young. And indeed, Muppets from Space seems to skew younger than any of the previous films. The humor is more broad, the jokes more obvious, and the slapstick more violent. Muppets from Space doesn’t even seem like a Muppet film in many ways.
For one, this seems to be the first Muppet film that deals directly with the lives of the Muppets themselves. This is going to be about what Kermit and Gonzo and the rest do when they’re not making movies. The conceit is that they all live together in a big house, and are all roommates, led by Kermit. None of them seem to have jobs other than Miss Piggy who works as a gopher on a TV set. I guess they all had to move in together after they were fired from Muppets Tonight. Grim times in the Muppet world.
One of the running gags of The Muppets had been that no one really knows what species Gonzo is. I always took him to be a bird of some kind (maybe a peacock), as he has a beak and feathers. But now his species is the central conceit of Muppets from Space, and his solitude is finally bothering him. I hate when franchises do this. When they make explicit something that has its power in being implicit. Gonzo is a “whatever,” and that’s all we need to know. I don’t want to see a story explaining what he is. Gonzo, indeed, is my favorite Muppet, as he is a weirdo and an outsider, and seems to celebrate his oddness. He doesn’t seem to notice that others see him as a freak, and his is blissfully happy to shoot himself out of a cannon, make odd cracks, and date chickens. Indeed, by explaining Gonzo’s origins, you are robbing something vital from the character; his happy mutant outsider status. Explaining that he’s an alien is… well, it’s just wrong in a way. You may as well explain that Muppets are all lab animals who were given the power of speech by that gas from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Hey! Knock it off with the origin stories!
And, yes, as the title implies, Gonzo is really an abandoned space alien who was left on Earth as an infant. Indeed, the title gives that away, so there’s no mystery as to what Gonzo is. All the drama comes from the villain, a Man in Black played by Jeffrey Tambor, and his sci-fi machinations to kidnap the alien. There’s a daring rescue by the other Muppets, and some goofy devices like invisibility spray and a spray that can seduce security guards. To the film’s credit, though, the notion of the celebrity cameo is back, in addition to Tambor, we meet Ray Liotta, David Arquette, Kathy Griffin, Hulk Hogan (in his sad WCW “Hollywood” days), Gary Owens, Andie McDowell (as a reporter), and Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson playing their parts from Dawson’s Creek.
This film is chaotic and obvious, and it plays too rough. The previous Muppet films, even the last two, had a sort of sophistication to them. They seemed to know that puppets were involved, and that it was inherently silly. This one doesn’t. This one drops all pretenses, and goes for the picking-your-nose jokes. Little kids will love it, but I was a little bored by it. What’s more, this is the only Muppet film that’s not a musical, favoring instead a soundtrack peppered with obvious funk hits. If these characters were not Muppets, the film would have nothing going for it.
The final number in the film is a sing-along, by Gonzo aliens, of “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang. I can’t explain exactly why, but I loathe this song with a passion. Seriously. It makes my skin itch. A good way to torture Witney: strap him to a chair and force him to listen to “Celebration,” “Walking on Sunshine,” “Moon River,” and anything written by Burt Bacharach on a constant loop.
And that’s where we’ll leave it for this week. The Muppet franchise has been kind of staggering for a few films, and, as we shall see next week, will spend a few years in TV special and straight-to-video purgatory. Next week, we’ll look at the ‘00s, and how unkind it was to the Muppets before it was given a shot in the arm in 2011 with a well-remembered feature film written by a fanboy. Be sure to tune into next week for the final leg of The Series Project: The Muppets.