Hey, A Movie!: The Muppet Movie (1979)
Movin' right along.
A few days ago, I was getting my 3-year old son ready to go to day care. He has a tendency to get fussy in the process of me taking him (because he’s 3 and doesn’t love saying goodbye to Mommy and Daddy in the morning, especially since my wife is still on her summer break). On this specific morning, I distracted him by talking about his shirt, featuring all four of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Primarily, I did my best imitation of the theme music to the immensely and inexplicably popular TV show from the late-80s, noting that kids were super into that show when it was on the air1.
Now, even though he was wearing a shirt with the animated characters (I believe from a recent iteration on Nickelodeon), I said something to the effect of “Yes, they were teenagers, who were mutant turtles who fought bad guys and lived in the sewer and ate pizza, and their friend was a talking rat, and people loved it for some reason.” There are, as you know, many different versions of these turtles. There was a comic-book series, a video game, the aforementioned shows, and of course the movie series from the 1990s. You may also know that the live-action versions of Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo, and Raphael from those 90s-era movies were designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
On one hand, I’m no fan of the TMNT movies and find the characters all pretty dumb. On the other hand, it arguably made (and still makes) perfect sense that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would be involved in something so undeniably, surprisingly popular: bringing to life the impossible and making it all work, without its fans needing to wonder why it does.
We can debate about which character (or set of characters) is the most popular and/or beloved among the large selections created by Henson and his Muppeteers over the decades. Is it Big Bird or his other friends from Sesame Street? Those damn turtles? Or is it the Muppets from the wildly famous The Muppet Show from the 1970s? It should not come as a large surprise to anyone reading these words that the correct answer, in my estimation, is the latter group.
Kermit the Frog predated Big Bird and company, and is as much an icon of Western popular culture as Mickey Mouse, while always managing to be a character2. The syndicated variety series Kermit emceed introduced the world to Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, the Great Gonzo, and others, so it was natural that they would make the jump from the small screen to the big one.
This monthly essay series — titled, of course, Hey, A Movie! — is going to dive into the big-screen efforts of the Muppets, from their humble beginnings to the recent films produced and released by Disney proper. Future essays will be exclusively for paid subscribers, but I thought it would be fitting to kick things off with an essay accessible to everyone.
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As an important note, all but two of the Muppets’ eight theatrically released feature films are on Disney+, but this set of essays will cover all of them. (Yes, even Muppets from Space.) Though I’ve written briefly about these films, having made the grievous error of ranking them at Slashfilm a few years ago and realizing a little too late that some people do not appreciate the hilarious majesty of Muppet Treasure Island (about which more in a few months), I haven’t gone deep on any of them.
In some ways, these films aren’t daunting to write about, with a charmingly homemade quality that remains ever-endearing. They are not overly weighty in their themes, the filmmaking can sometimes be low-budget and bordering on sloppy, and their humor can technically be a little hit-or-miss.
And yet, by starting at the beginning, we’re about to talk about one of the greatest films of all time.
My bias is showing, I suppose. Some of you may not place The Muppet Movie as one of the best films ever made, or as one of your Desert Island Top Ten. (Why, I hear that some people even think The Great Muppet Caper is better than this one, and we will get into that next month.) You could argue that it’s difficult to do lengthy explorations on any of the Muppet movies, because they are lighter than air and often by design. They are — in a slight sense — akin to a handful of episodes of The Muppet Show in which one sketch dominates the whole proceedings. (I am thinking specifically of an episode featuring Lynn Redgrave that is basically “What if the Robin Hood story but with the Muppets?”, and thus something of an origin story for the two 90s-era Disney Muppet movies.) In one of these things, the Muppets get involved in a heist; in another, they tackle the Big Apple; and so on. And in the 2010s, the Muppet movies were modernized takes on the first two Muppet movies.
This one, of course, is the story of how the Muppets “really got started” (well, approximately). The unspoken premise is that everyone watching knows about The Muppet Show but wants to see how Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the others got to be famous enough to get their own show, thus allowing for an origin story of sorts.
So what is it about The Muppet Movie that makes it work in spite of everything else? If you pay enough attention to me online (and bless your heart if you do), you know that there are not just specific films I adore, but that they exist within specific sub-genres of film. Some of my all-time favorites are dark and brooding affairs. (I will still argue to anyone who listens and/or wants to disagree that the best American film of the new century is There Will Be Blood. Not presenting that as a daring hot take, but just…y’know, not an upbeat picture.) But my very favorite film of all time is Singin’ in the Rain. And then there are movies like Paddington 2, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Bowfinger, Galaxy Quest, Young Frankenstein, and so on. I adore these raucous, often joyous stories, many of which are about themselves and many of which are about the act and art of filmmaking.
So for me, The Muppet Movie was a perfect confluence of events the first time I watched it on VHS. It is, like the show that led up to it, a film that breaks the fourth wall constantly, to the point that a Muppet literally breaks through the screen at the conclusion. (And that’s after a scene roughly an hour in where the film strip being projected in an industry screening room breaks down and has to be restarted.) I do not love all films about filmmaking, but some of them work so well that they hit me in the pleasure center of my brain. The Muppet Movie also is a comedy whose combination of self-referential humor, of-the-era gags, and the right cadences made me laugh as a kid.
The joke in that GIF always made me laugh, if only because as a kid, I could get the humor of a silly-sounding frog getting into a scrape at the “toughest, meanest, filthiest pest hole on the face of the Earth”. Things like the frequent running gag of people name-dropping Hare Krishna…well, I didn’t know what Hare Krishna was, but I understood enough to know that it was supposed to be a funny little non sequitur. (To quote Perd Hapley of Parks and Recreation, lines like that had the cadence of a joke.) Honestly, the same is probably true of the Carol Kane cameo, where she appears as a lisping woman who responds to the word “myth” because she hears it the way she says it. Another of my favorite films of all time is the 1980 comedy Airplane!, which has always made me laugh in spite of many of its jokes being specific to the era3. A lot of the humor in The Muppet Movie feels very much of a piece with the ZAZ team, from the visualization of a fork in the road to the Hare Krishna gags (down to an advertisement on an abandoned church sign).
The style of humor also ties into something I’ve grown to put together but likely didn’t as a kid: the recognition factor of some of the cameo performers. I didn’t know Telly Savalas or James Coburn too well as a child growing up in the 1990s, but as a huge fan of Young Frankenstein, I for sure delighted at the presence of Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Mel Brooks, the latter hamming it up immensely as a nefarious German scientist. Something about their appearances communicated subtextually to me that The Muppet Movie had the same comedic sensibilities of Brooks himself (and that subtext is 100% correct, by the way)4. Some of the cameos are pretty damn close to blink-and-you’ll-miss-them, but some are beautiful distillations of why certain actors and actresses were so beloved. I am primarily thinking here of Steve Martin’s few minutes on screen (predating his star turn in The Jerk), as an insolent waiter with short shorts, an attitude, and enough awareness of his guests to bring straws for their sparkling Muscatel. (“Yes…I was expecting that,” is maybe one of the funniest line deliveries of Martin’s life.)
The use of cameos, too, speak to the wonder and brilliance of The Muppet Movie — here is a film that is attempting to not only bottle up the experience of watching episodes of The Muppet Show (with the pre-credits scene evoking some of the “At the Dance” bits with quick one-liners between paired-off Muppets), but doing it in a way that tells a complete story balancing a variety of tones. There’s fast-paced comedy, a romance presented heavily tongue-in-cheek, a face-off with a nefarious villain, a true attempt at a story arc, and a successful landing in which the witty humor is traded off with bald-faced emotion. Here is a story switching between sly gags about religious cults and tenderness in the music almost in the same breath.
Though it is hard for me to separate myself from this film — comedy is subjective, and while I will happily go to bat for many of the other Muppet movies’ style of humor, this one will always be the funniest — I am more willing to step back from my personal connection when you talk about the music in this movie. Muppet movies are synonymous with music, of course. “Together Again” in The Muppets Take Manhattan. “Hey, A Movie!” in The Great Muppet Caper. “Man or Muppet” in The Muppets.
It would be easy enough for me to say that The Muppet Movie is the best of the bunch since it has “Rainbow Connection,” and that’s that. Because, of course, in some ways…well, that is that. “Rainbow Connection” is arguably among the…what would you say, ten greatest songs written exclusively for a movie? It’s a perfect mission statement for the Muppets, for Kermit the Frog as a character (even more so than the already emotional “Bein’ Green”), and certainly a perfect song in any other respect you can think of. I would also say it’s arguably the best song to not win an Oscar, because, yes, contain your surprise, even back in the 1970s, the Academy was making bonehead decisions when it voted on yearly awards. (I encourage you to take a minute to open a new tab on your laptop or your phone to find out what did win the Oscar for Best Song in 1979. I guarantee you will be mystified and disappointed!)
So, yes, there is “Rainbow Connection”. As we say at Passover, dayenu. (For the non-Jewish among you, that Hebrew saying means “It would have been enough.”) But there is also “Movin’ Right Along”. Again, dayenu. But there is also “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along”. And “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday”. And “Never Before, Never Again”. And “Can You Picture That?”. You already know it is ridiculous that The Muppet Movie did not win an Oscar for “Rainbow Connection”. But now you know it is doubly, triply, quadruply (is that a word? Probably not!) ridiculous because this is a stacked set of songs. I’m glad that a film from the Muppet Studios won an Oscar for Best Original Song, but the fact that it took until the 2011 Muppet movie to happen is ridiculous. (I like “Man or Muppet”, but it’s not even the best song from that movie, and there’s another discussion we can table for a future essay.)
The point here is that the music in The Muppet Movie is not only vital to its success, but is far above and beyond the music in any other Muppet movie. Every possible aspect of this film is working in perfect synchronization. It’s not just that the Muppets are incredibly funny here. It’s not just that the script (by the TV show’s stalwarts Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns) utilizes the human characters effectively while giving the Muppets themselves the center stage. It’s not just that the songs are profoundly entertaining and often moving. And it’s not just that the emotions — from rapturously joyous humor to surprisingly effective poignancy — are employed so well. It’s all of these things together.
To the last two points, I do want to call out a sequence that has only grown over time. If you watch enough episodes of The Muppet Show — and seeing as it’s one of the greatest TV shows of all time, you should — you know that the series truly embodied the concept of a variety series, in that it offered musical performances, sketches, dance numbers, puppetry. But it also offered a variety of emotions. Think of “Bein’ Green”, which is a soft and somewhat sad piece of music (even if it ends in uplifting fashion). Just as the Muppets could be spiky and sharp, wild and crazy, and so on, they knew when and how to be sad.
Enter “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday”. Each of the core Muppet characters gets a song in this movie, down to the goofy Great Gonzo, who’s only in about the back half of the film, and primarily as a source of fun. (Everything Dave Goelz does as Gonzo, both in his puppeteering and his delivery, is killer.) But at the lowest moment for the characters — stranded in the desert and presumably with no hope of rescue — it’s Gonzo who gets to voice a wistful hope to the skies. He is, of course, thinking of his brief and unexpected flight through the countryside via balloon, but he’s saying something all of the characters are feeling in that moment. So often, the moments in our lives when we’re at our happiest are those we only appreciate truly in hindsight. Gonzo hadn’t been happier than when he soared through the air “on featherless wings”, and he just wanted to chase that feeling in the hopes of replicating it. Goelz knocks it out of the park, as does the songwriting by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher.
Gonzo doesn’t dominate the entire sequence, of course; before Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem get to serve as a form of deus ex machina (or, if you like, deus ex Muppet-a, and no, I will not take that back), Kermit has a conversation with himself where he realizes that even if he didn’t promise the other Muppets anything about the end of their journey to Hollywood, he does truly want to get there himself to become a star.
The balancing act of this movie, by the way, starts very early on but ties into Kermit’s whole quest. The keys to the kingdom are unlocked by a true icon of Old Hollywood, Orson Welles (as it should be), with his single line of dialogue tying into the audition ad Kermit’s shown for frogs to “become rich and famous”. When you think about it for more than a second, it’s a fairly vain quest. Do we really care if Kermit becomes rich and famous? (Especially since you could make the strong argument that, per The Muppet Show itself, he’s not exactly flush with cash. The Muppet Theatre’s charm is that it’s pretty ramshackle, no?)
“You could make millions of people happy.” That’s the key, spoken by the first of our cameo performers, the aforementioned Dom DeLuise as Bernie the agent, who flew in from Hollywood. Yes, he shows Kermit the ad to become rich and famous, the one that propels him through America, from Rhode Island to a fork in the road to a desert to an Old West town and eventually, Hollywood. (You know, the dream factory! The magic store!) But it’s what Bernie says after the ad — the idea that if Kermit makes it big, he’ll make people happy — that speaks to the real journey. And it speaks to the reason why this film works so perfectly.
I realize that it’s a bumpy production in some ways. (Charles Durning is very well cast as the oily Doc Hopper, but boy, almost half of his dialogue sounds very nakedly re-recorded in a post-production sound booth, huh?) Austin Pendleton has said before that the filming process wasn’t exactly joyful, and I don’t think it’s an accident that director James Frawley didn’t make any other Muppet movies, with Henson and collaborator Frank Oz directing future installments in the 1980s.
But The Muppet Movie is, to me, a perfect example of the pure, unadulterated joy of cinema. Just as Kermit the Frog wanted to make people happy, so too did Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, and countless others at the Muppet Studios. The movie wasn’t about being famous, it was about creating something that offered lasting joy.
I realize that if you read enough of the posts here (or if you ever follow along with me on social media/the outlets for which I write), you may presume I’m that classic stereotype of a grouchy critic, even though most critics are among the most passionate and ardent admirers of film. (Trust me on that one.) But something like The Muppet Movie is what I watch to recharge my love of cinema, because it reminds me of how beautiful, how funny, how moving, and how powerful the medium can be. A movie with a talking frog, bear, pig, dog, and …y’know, a whatever should not work. This movie — honestly, any of the Muppet movies — should not work.
But cinema can do or be anything, with just the right dose of magic. The Muppet Movie is living, breathing proof.
I’ll put this here, as opposed to in the main text: I was at the right age to get into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and just never did. I’ve seen the show, I’ve watched parts of the 90s-era movies, etc. I just never understood it. I still don’t! I get that it’s popular, but beyond belief. I’ve heard the new movie is pretty good! I can believe it, but these characters just do…nothing for me.
Mickey Mouse can be a character, but thanks to Disney canceling the Paul Rudish-produced series of short films just over this past weekend, one of his best non-icon eras has unceremoniously come to a close.
Quick example: you may recall a running gag in Airplane! in which a tense housewife on the plane thinks to herself about behavior from her husband that he’s exhibiting on the plane but never does at home: “Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home,” for instance. I am led to believe that’s a reference to a late-70s commercial campaign. I’ve never seen it! But man, I tell you, I love that line so much that I do riffs on it at home. Almost once a week. My wife loves it! Definitely not an overused joke on my part.
You know what’s weird? Gene Wilder never appeared on The Muppet Show. Never did a Muppet thing with them. Think of how many Brooks-adjacent folks appeared on the show or in one of their films: Kahn, Brooks, Leachman, Harvey Korman, Dom DeLuise, Bernadette Peters, Zero Mostel, Marty Feldman. Just…weird.