By 1979, Jim Henson and his Muppets had already been established as household names. Sesame Street had been educating and entertaining children since 1969 and The Muppet Show was in its fourth season. Kermit the Frog had interviewed children, wooed some of the top beauties of the 1970s, and had been karate chopped across the set by Miss Piggy thousands of times. The next logical move for The Muppets was to the big screen. The Muppet Movie debuted in theaters and was met with several award nominations, a few wins, and overall critical success. Not too shabby for a film starring a frog, a pig, a bear, and a weirdo, right?
The basic plot of the film parallels Henson’s own rise to fame. Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) is a small town, simple young man, er, frog, with an itch to be in show business. When he is discovered one day (in a cameo by Dom DeLuise), he is told he has potential and should head to Hollywood. He enjoys adventures along the way and meets some interesting characters. These kindred spirits quickly join his entertainment family and become the principle writers and performers. Eventually, he is offered “the standard rich and famous contract” (by Orson Welles!!) and the rest is history.
In true Muppet form, however, there is a villain. Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) and his crony (Austin Pendleton) also agree that Kermit the Frog has potential. They want to recruit him to be the dancing, singing, joke telling mascot for Doc Hopper’s Frog Legs restaurant chain. The chain is sort of a combination of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Durning is dressed like and channels Colonel Sanders while standing outside his restaurant, characterized by giant green frog legs instead of golden arches. Doc Hopper becomes obsessed with Kermit and follows him across country, trying to coax him or kill him to use him as his frog-leg-pitching puppet.
Kermit meets his best friend and comedy partner Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz) who provides the wheels for their journey. Vaudevillian entertainer and overall weirdo Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and heartthrob Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) join the fold and eagerly help Kermit battle Doc Hopper. The troupe is complete with the addition of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band and Rowlf the Dog who make The Muppets the perfect package for Hollywood.
Being the first movie in the Muppet franchise, it has set the tone and established several tropes that will return throughout decades of Muppet movies. The Muppets are the “goody guys,” they are not perfect and can be selfish, silly, and short sighted, but they eventually do the right thing. There is also always a villain that they must band against.
One of my favorite Muppet traditions is the cameos. This film demonstrates the best use of cameos among the Muppet movies. Henson had a lot to prove with his jump from television to movies, and The Muppet Movie embraces that sense of “Go big or go home.” Cameos are cleverly inserted left and right so often that it's like opening a box of Cracker Jacks and finding a load of peanuts hiding among the candied kernels. The list of cameos is impressive and includes several performers who also guest starred on The Muppet Show.
Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, James Coburn, Paul Williams, Carol Kane, Elliot Gould, Dom DeLuise, Orson Welles, and Telly Savalas pepper into blink and you may miss it appearances. Sadly, an entire generation of new viewers may not recognize who they are; even though Carol Kane is a personal favorite of mine.
The best executed cameos include the greats of comedy; giants like Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, Big Bird, and Steve Martin. Not only does the movie cash in on their name factor, these actors are given fun material and are allowed to shine. An amazing and confusing moment in cinema is an appearance by Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Their appearance (filmed shortly before Bergen’s death) is almost like a kindly grandfather sitting in an armchair as he takes in and enjoys watching a younger generation, but, it is oddly placed. The duo portrays celebrity judges of the Bogen County Fair Beauty Pageant. Their placement seems lack luster and ill fitting, but it is Edgar Bergen, after all. How can you really nitpick? It's like having a solid gold paper clip. It is a bit weird, but also fairly awesome.
As if the big name cameos weren't impressive enough, The Muppet Movie is packed full of technical tricks that were extremely innovative for the time of its release. There is a barrage of technical stunts and effects that hit the audience like rapid fire. While you are in the middle of trying to wrap your head around how a puppet is sitting in water strumming a banjo, Kermit rides across the screen on a bicycle. For a moment, you wonder, “How did they do that?” Once again, you are mesmerized by the charm and magic of movies and the Muppets and you stop caring how it was done. You tap your feet and are headed to the next scene in which a giant Animal towers over the other characters.
The best use of super sizing in this movie occurs in the finale. 250 Muppet characters appear at the end of a rainbow during the “Magic Store/Rainbow Connection Reprise.” Almost every Muppet character ever created appears in this scene, except for characters from Henson’s early television show Sam and Friends, Sweetums, and Mr. Snuffleupagus. This is also one of the few times the Muppet characters are mixed in with characters from Sesame Street. 137 puppeteers, including directors John Landis and Tim Burton, assisted the regular Muppet performers to cram as many puppets as possible into the scene.
My one major complaint about this film is that it is almost too impressive technically. The overuse of puppetry tricks and camera cheats becomes distracting after a while. The technical tricks are great, but some of the best Muppet moments are the ones that don't require cables or rigs. It's in the tilt of Miss Piggy’s head as she gazes into Kermit’s eyes or how Kermit faces the camera and dares to break down the infamous fourth wall. Henson was not only a writer and performer, but also an innovator. By having a larger budget, he could explore techniques and puppetry that he otherwise could not in television. I just wish this movie focused a bit more on the characters instead of relying so heavily on having the Muppets do new stunts. Perhaps these newer techniques could have been a bit more spread out over the future movies. Then again, I seriously doubt that is something Jim Henson would have wanted. Remember what this movie is all about at its core…the lovers and the dreamers.
Overall, the Muppets offered a fairly strong movie debut. It was the first film of many. Over the years, the voices, characters, and even style have changed, but The Muppet Movie set a very high bar for the other movies to reach. I give it Four out of Five Rubber Chickens.
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