[28 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
At the time, they were riding high, the success of their UK based series showcasing their “beyond Sesame Street” viability and both mainstream entertainment and critical cult hit. For more than two decades Jim Henson had slowly developed a dedicated following, his puppeteering skills and unique characters creating a niche in both children’s programming and irreverent counter-culture comedy as well. In fact, it wasn’t unusual to see his celebrated “Muppets” as part of late night talk shows, weekly variety hours, and perhaps, most importantly, the first season of Saturday Night Live. Henson had that rare talent to target a specific audience, whether it was teaching young children the necessary educational lessons they would require, or getting a drug-addled young adult to giggle at his or her TV screen as monster’s mashed each other.
The Muppet Show changed all that. Henson had been looking to branch out on his own for two years but no US network would bite. Finally, Sir Lew Grade snatched up the potential series and brought it to the UK. From 1976 to 1981, it was a syndicated smash, a refreshing bit of backstage farce which saw major celebrities interact with such bizarro world creations as The Great Gonzo, the Swedish Chef, and Lew Zealand (who specialized in a ‘boomerang fish’ act). It also introduced a beloved cast of regulars such as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Scooter, Dr, Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker, Sam the Eagle, and a precursor to those wacky in-theater commentators over at Mystery Science Theater 3000, Waldorf and Statler.
With success came renewed interest in The Muppets, so much so that it was decided that a full length feature film “origin story” was in order. TV director James Frawley was hired (outside the Henson family of creative collaborators) and a script was fashioned where we learned just how these divergent characters finally came together. Kermit is discovered by a vacationing talent agent (Dom DeLuise) and told to pursue his dream of making “millions of people happy.” Leaving his bayou home, he heads to Hollywood, picking up Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem, Scooter, Gonzo, Camilla the Chicken, Sweetums, and Rolf the Dog along the way. Naturally, the trip is not without danger, as a crazed fast food Frog Legs magnate (Charles Durning) will stop at nothing to see Kermit as his spokes-amphibian. In addition, the constant challenges of the road leave the rest of the Muppets feeling unsure of their future.
Perhaps best known for its opening song, a sensational bit of sonic skylarking entitled “The Rainbow Connection,” The Muppet Movie reminds one of what family entertainment was like before the advent of infomercial like Saturday morning cartoons, Disney direct-to-video sequels, and our contemporary obsession with CG. It was a kinder, gentler time 34 years ago and this is a kinder, gentler film as a result. The humor is wistful, the satire merely nibbling instead of biting. Apparently, Henson and his crew clashed often with director Frawley who wasn’t quite up to the complicated challenges the characters and the cinematic special effects required to bring them to life. Sure, most of the movie is just Henson and his fellow manipulators with their hands inside felt figures. But there were also scenes where Kermit and Piggy road bikes and where other characters were seen interacting sans a human hiding piece of scenery.
Borrowing an approach that was popular in the ‘70s, The Muppet Movie also populated its plot with as many interesting and unusual cameos as possible. Mel Brooks makes an appearance (he has done something similar with his experimental spoof Silent Movie), as does Melinda Dillon, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Elliot Gould, Bob Hope, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and Telly Savalas. Orson Welles even shows up as a Lew Grade substitute that signs the Muppets to their eventual movie deal. At the time, it was seen as a badge of honor to be part of this production. Today, most in the audience will turn to their parent/guardian/older sibling/babysitter and remark “Who the Hell is that?” It won’t matter. They’ll eventually forget the foreign face up on the screen and get swept away in the magic of this movie.
There is no denying the spell cast by The Muppet Movie. You just unconsciously smile while watching it. Sure, the jokes fall a bit short considering their age and era and we expect a lot more cinematic whiz bang for our buck nowadays, even in the realm of kid vid. There’s no splashy set piece, no extended action sequence which tries to mimic the more adult oriented efforts of the day. Instead, Henson understood the inherent allure of his characters and kept the film based in same. This was a chance for anyone who had fallen under The Muppet Show‘s spell to have their frame of reference widened, to see these felt players interact in ways unexpected and, for the most part, exhilarating. Indeed, just watching Kermit and Fozzie dance in full form is worth the price of admission alone.
Now that Disney has taken over the franchise (and rebooted the icons via the equally impressive 2011 effort The Muppets), one expects more mayhem, and more movies, from this collection of characters, but one thing will always be amiss. Any future film will miss the original joys presented by The Muppet Movie. Nothing will replace the feeling of seeing Kermit, sitting on a log in the middle of a swamp, strumming a banjo and singing what would soon become a signature song. It’s a moment so enchanting, so enriched by our present knowledge of how important the Muppets our to so many of our childhoods, that it’s almost impossible not to fall in love all over again. Jim Henson may have started with a sock, a magic marker, a pair of ping pong balls, and a five minute showcase on a local TV station, but he managed, before his death, to do something few in his field have ever accomplished - he created something timeless. The Muppet Movie illustrates this in measurable multi-hued happiness.