Looking back at the Muppets movies

News James T 23 Aug 2011 - 11:00

Anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Muppets movie? Why not join us as we take a look back at all the other films to feature Jim Henson’s characters…

If you’re as enthusiastic about seeing The Muppets as we are, you’ll almost certainly be excitedly waiting for its release in November. And if you’re a resident of the UK, you’ll have to wait until next February, which is a terrible injustice. You might have heard us moaning about this before.

To tide us over until then, we’ve provided a handy guide to the history of the Muppets’ big screen adventures, starting with their classic debut from 1979…

The Muppet Movie (1979)

The first cinematic outing for the Muppets is an excellent piece of work. The film follows Kermit as he travels to Hollywood to become rich and famous, meeting the rest of the Muppets along the way and trying to avoid the villainous Doc Hopper, who will stop at nothing to enlist Kermit as the new spokesman for his frogs’ legs restaurants. The dialogue is sharp, and the jokes hold up very well, despite some of them being more than a little bit cheesy.

The songs are a bit hit and miss, but on the whole, they’re very good. Of particular note are the Electric Mayhem’s Can You Picture That and the duet between Kermit and Rowlf (both voiced by Jim Henson), I Hope That Something Better Comes Along. The film is filled with meta-references, such as the film itself depicting the Muppets watching a film about them eventually making a film.

Unfortunately, this becomes something of an annoying plot convenience when the Electric Mayhem find Kermit and his friends by looking at the screenplay Kermit gave them. Finally, there’s a shedload of celebrity cameos including Mel Brooks, Telly Savalas and Orson Welles, which is pretty much the cherry on the cake.  

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

The Muppet Movie gave us the Muppets’ take on the road trip genre. This time, we see them tackling the crime caper, and it’s every bit as good as the first film.

Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo are newspaper reporters, who travel to London to interview fashion designer Lady Holliday (Diana Rigg) about the recent theft of her jewels, and stumble across plans for a second jewel heist.

The slapstick humour is as masterful as ever, the songs are delightfully catchy and upbeat, and the fourth wall jokes are stepped up a gear, with the first two minutes of the film being Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo waiting for the opening credits to end so they can actually start the film.

Possibly the best part of this film is a scene where we see all of the Muppets riding bicycles in the park. It’s a small masterpiece, and easily outclasses any of the glossy CGI nonsense of recent years. We also have the obligatory cameos from stars such as Peter Falk, Peter Ustinov and Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch.

It’s John Cleese who steals the show, though, in his brief role as an English gentleman that incorporates several elements of Basil Fawlty. A worthy successor to The Muppet Movie.  

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

The Muppets’ third cinematic outing takes them back to their roots, depicting them as a struggling stage troupe led by Kermit, who is trying to find a financial backer for his musical, Manhattan Melodies.

Unfortunately, it’s the first Muppet film to disappoint.

The problem is that too much of the film is spent with the Muppets apart, and it eventually descends into a series of vignettes, each showcasing a different character, such as Rowlf working as a receptionist at a kennel, and the Electric Mayhem playing at an old folks’ home.

It’s this lack of substance and cohesion that affects the film’s quality. Well, that and the excruciating Muppet Babies sequence, which crops up out of the blue and has no relevance to the rest of the story whatsoever. And the plotline of Kermit developing amnesia really doesn’t add a lot to the film. There’s a fair few laughs, though, and it’s far from a complete disaster.  

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

The first Muppet film of the 1990s goes in a significantly different direction to its predecessors, since it's a take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol rather than an original plot. The end result is arguably the best Muppet film to date. For once, the Muppets are sidelined, with the film focusing on Michael Caine’s Scrooge, while Gonzo and Rizzo narrate the story and serve as comic relief.

Caine’s performance is sublime, especially considering that, in the vast majority of his scenes, he’s the only human actor present. Most of the songs are of the high quality we’ve come to expect from the Muppet films but, occasionally, they cross the line and become a little bit mawkish. One of the best things about this film, though, is that it affords its source material the respect it deserves.

When it comes to the final act, and the entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, Gonzo and Rizzo are written out until the ending, allowing the darkest and most mature part of the story to be played out as it was in the novel.

The entire thing is an absolute joy to watch and showed that, although Jim Henson had sadly left us, his legacy would live on.

Muppet Treasure Island (1996)

Following on from the success of The Muppet Christmas Carol, Brian Henson decided to adapt another classic novel. And, just like The Muppet Christmas Carol, it worked brilliantly. Muppet Treasure Island is a terrific, swashbuckling adventure full of memorable songs (especially the splendidly flamboyant performance of Cabin Fever), great one-liners, and a marvellously hammy performance from Tim Curry as Long John Silver.

Even Kevin Bishop (yep, that Kevin Bishop) does a reasonable job as Jim Hawkins. And as with the other Muppet films, it does an excellent job of breaking the fourth wall occasionally, especially the brief reference that shoehorns the Swedish Chef into the film. In addition, the brief cameos from Jennifer Saunders and Billy Connolly serve to make the film even better.

Muppets From Space (1999)

The first of the ‘next generation’ Muppet films that features characters from the short-lived Muppets Tonight TV series.

This film is effectively a quest story, which sees Gonzo attempt to discover his origins. It’s nowhere near as good as its immediate predecessor, but it’s a solid cinematic revival of the series. It’s a shame, then, that so much of the comedy is given over to newer, minor characters, such as Pepe the king prawn and Bobo the bear.

Gonzo’s final decision is very well written, though, and the film deals with the theme of identity in a suitably mature way.

The Muppets’ Wizard Of Oz (2005)

It had to happen at some point. With The Muppets' Wizard Of Oz, the Muppet films finally reached their lowest point. As the title indicates, the film is a retelling of The Wizard Of Oz, but unfortunately, it’s really just a vehicle for R&B singer Ashanti, who plays Dorothy.

Call me a cynic, but given that Ashanti’s acting talent is non-existent, it’s pretty obvious that the only reason she was cast was because, at the time the film was made, she was popular, and would subsequently increase the film’s profits. We are also subjected to pointless and tedious cameos by Kelly Osbourne and Quentin Tarantino. This means that three of the six main human actors in this film can’t act for toffee.

The jokes are feeble, the songs dull, and feel as though they’ve been crammed in as a required element. There are too many pop culture references and bits of sexual innuendo for a children’s film, including a fleeting reference to the softcore porn film, Girls Gone Wild.

Also, rather than adhering to the source material, as they did with the adaptations of A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island, the writers make the story into a shallow quest for fame on Dorothy’s part, as opposed to her trying to find a way back to Kansas. The entire thing is a complete car crash.

Still, at least we know for a fact that the new film, The Muppets, can’t be any worse than this. In fact, from everything we've seen, it's looking quite the contrary...

Not Seen: It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002).

See more of our Looking Back articles here.

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