Very soon, we’re to be re-introduced to The Muppets on TV, courtesy of a new, The Office-style sitcom that follows them at work and behind the scenes. Of course, The Muppet Show was also a blend of performance and off-stage antics, so it’s not a new or particularly subversive idea to say puppets have lives when they’re not actually mid-act, it just has shakier camera work now.
Anyway, I suppose the Muppets should be allowed to “borrow ideas” from The Muppets. They certainly have before (see below).
What follows are some thoughts on the eight Muppet movies made for cinemas to date. I’ve ranked them, which was pretty much like picking a favourite kid… by which I mean it was quite easy, actually, but I have to pretend it was a heart-wrenching insult to my integrity so that I can look good in public.
What all of these films have in common is the Muppets. They’ve been through so much over the years and faced so many set-backs, none more savage than the untimely passing of Jim Henson, that their continued appeal stands as testament to their megalithic cultural relevance and insoluble endurance.
Anyway, enough of that froofy talk. Let’s get to business and decided which of these ‘children’ would be the first one packed off for chimney sweep training.
8. Muppets From Space
The main premise of Muppets From Space is that Gonzo is an alien, not just a “whatever” or a “thing.” This has not been referenced too loudly since, let alone overtly registered as canon, and it seems that pretty much everybody considers the idea to be something of a misstep. The odd thing is, this wasn’t exactly a new notion: Gonzo alluded to extraterrestrial origins in his song “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” in 1979’s The Muppet Movie.
Muppet continuity is liquid stuff. Are Kermit and Piggy married? Well, the ending of Muppets Take Manhattan suggests that they are, but the recent press release announcing their separation, for example, implies that they never have been.
Kermit has told me personally in an interview that there’s a lot of confusion around what constitutes real Muppet history and what doesn’t because he’s typically been cast as fictionalised versions of himself. Apply the same thinking applies to Gonzo; he’s not an alien, he just played one in Muppets From Space – even if it was an alien called Gonzo, with Gonzo’s personality and Gonzo’s inimitable dress sense. One that was, to all intents and purposes, Gonzo if Gonzo were actually to be an alien. Which he isn’t. Except when he is because it’s funnier or more touching that way. And then he isn’t again, for the sake of the next joke.
Get over the whole alien thing and there’s a lot to enjoy in this movie, and while jokes miss the mark a touch more often than we’re used to, plenty of them land. And there’s always that base level thrill of just seeing the Muppets together, making a movie, Muppeting about. The quality of acting in these films – at least if you waive the human guest stars’ past – is always of exceptionally high standards. How absurd that not one of the Muppets has a Best Actor or Actress Oscar. Speciesism in action.
I saw Muppets From Space in the cinema. Three times. And I’ve seen it several times since. Saying it’s my least favorite of the big screen Muppet movies is like admitting I will eat a Caramac a lot less often than a Milky Bar or Galaxy.
And there really was no good reason for the 12-year hiatus in Muppet cinema that followed this film. That long fallow period reflects very badly on whoever at Disney was making all of the daft decisions.
7. Muppet Treasure Island
In the middle period of Muppet movie making, there were two adaptations of classic – ie. public domain – literature. The second of these was Muppet Treasure Island, and it doesn’t compare too favorably to the first… but more on that later.
One key conceit with these adaptations is employing Gonzo and Rizzo as narrators. In this case, they’re playing chums of the human lead, Jim Hawkins, and those are not roles that really existed in Stevenson’s original novel. It’s a good trick, because it keeps our storytellers on hand for plenty of the usual fourth-wall busting, as well as some convenient exposition and pace-tightening.
Unfortunately, it all feels a bit too fleshy on Muppet Treasure Island, with both Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver played by humans, as well as many of the supporting characters. Casting Tim Curry as Silver wasn’t a bad idea, but a Muppet version of Hawkins would have been more apt and effective than the young Kevin Bishop, I feel. Perhaps it was simply felt (no pun intended) that there wasn’t a Muppet of the right age group. Robin’s too young and Kermit’s too old – and definitely too wise. Where was Walter when we needed him, eh? Anyway, a Muppet movie with a central human protagonist seemed rather out of joint.
Also in the human cast, but in more suitably-sized chunks of screen time, are Billy Connolly and Jennifer Saunders, either of whom would have been a great guest for The Muppet Show.
The songs in Muppet Treasure Island were by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, previously responsible for some cracking pop hits like Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again,” Cass Elliot’s “It’s Getting Better” and The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.” On Treasure Island, they struggled a bit with the showtunes style, and their contributions are not amongst the best in the Muppet songbook. They’re just too darned straight, for one thing.
6. The Muppets Take Manhattan
The third in this list was also the third Muppet movie to be released, and – pub quiz fans – the solo directorial debut of Frank Oz. Actually, here’s some more pub quiz gold for you: this is the film where we first met the Muppet Babies, before their spinoff TV series.
That’s one of the stand-out scenes in the film, and there’s not a lot on this green Earth that’s cuter than a baby Muppet. Mini Rowlf is eminently adoptable, but even he’s trumped by Kermit on his rocking horse and trike. This sequence also scores points for the song “I’m Always Gonna Love You,” and especially how it puts Fozzie’s “Wocka Wocka Wocka!” to brilliant use.
Similarly winsome is Jenny, this movie’s lead human, and played by Juliana Donald in what is comfortably her best-ever role. It’s a shame we haven’t seen much more of Donald since, but seeing as she shared pretty much every shot in this movie with one Muppet or more, it’s not such a surprise that she was eventually overlooked.
The plot of The Muppets Take Manhattan follows the ‘put on a show’ paradigm, and also features the Muppets up against financial hardship and great practical adversity. It’s staple Muppets stuff, and so is the climactic combination of happy endings, which mix song, dance, and wedding vows to supremely overblown effect.
5. The Great Muppet Caper
Muppet history sometimes seems to repeat itself, and here’s one half of a case study in how so. Back in 1980, coming off the success of the first Muppet movie, Jim Henson and friends were keen to find a new vehicle for their troupe of musical, comical performers. They were smart enough to not try and repeat the first film, which was shaped significantly by its standing as the original spinoff from the TV show. The eventual solution was too cook up a caper plot, thereby shifting the focus away from the larger meta narrative, and to just make this a comedy adventure film in a Muppet style, with Muppets.
Thus Kermit and Fozzie are introduced to us not as entertainers or theatrical entrepreneurs, but journalists. Better still, they’re revealed to be twin brothers in one of the funniest yet deeply disturbing visual gags I have ever tried desperately to scrub from my memory, the better to sleep peacefully at night.
When it came to the plot and genre trappings of this caper, the Muppets essentially took a bit of Pink Panther and re-calibrated it to their own tempo. The results have been enduringly inspirational, with obvious debts owed by Wallace And Gromit and Paul King’s Paddington, to give you some particularly successful examples.
And it’s a technically jaw-dropping film, with Kermit going full-on Fred Astaire, Piggy engaging in some wonderfully accomplished synchronised swimming, and Muppet travel by hot-air ballon, motorbike and, shining away at the very pinnacle of early-80s movie magic, a whole fleet of bicycles.
4. Muppets Most Wanted
Muppet history sometimes seems to repeat itself, and here’s the second half of a case study in how so. Back in 2012, coming off of the success of the first Muppet movie in 12 years, writer/director James Bobin and friends were keen to find a new vehicle for everybody’s favourite troupe of musical, comical performers. They were smart enough to not try and repeat their first film, which was shaped significantly by its standing as a kind of “reboot.” The eventual solution was to cook up a caper plot, thereby shifting a lot of the focus away from the larger meta narrative, and to make this a comedy adventure film in a Muppet style.
Having said that, they do start with a song called “We’re Doing A Sequel,” which is essentially a musical version of the ideas in the paragraph above. But funnier.
They use these opening minutes to burn through a whole Simpsons episode’s worth of self-aware asides and observations, and it all works as a super efficient bridge from a new spin on the closing moments of The Muppets into the basic plot premise of Muppets Most Wanted.
The big idea this time is the introduction of Constantine, The World’s Most Dangerous Frog and a near-enough doppelganger for Kermit. This allows for the central crime plot to work – as per Muppet logic – and also gives Bobin and company some real reach in what they can do with Piggy’s storyline.
Late in the film there’s a song, “Something So Right,” in which Piggy struggles with her feelings about Kermit from a very story-specific point of view. I won’t spoil the specifics, in case you haven’t seen the film, but it’s where this one film’s specific story is best leveraged for emotional impact and insight that spans the entire, multi-decade story of Muppet relationships.
Talking of which, there are even more Muppet Babies in this movie, and they’re a sort of cute repetition-inversion of the sight gag from The Great Muppet Caper that still haunts my dreams.
There’s a lot of depth in Muppets Most Wanted, even if it isn’t consistently apportioned throughout the film. This was a Muppet story told by people who dearly love Kermit and the gang, though, and you can feel that in every single sequence.
3. The Muppet Christmas Carol
The first of the Muppets’ literary adaptations, in feature film form at least, nails the balance between human and Muppet performers. Casting Michael Caine as the archetypically penny-pinching misanthrope Scrooge works brilliantly because he’s an anti-hero, and all of the insta-sympathetic characters around him – principally the Cratchit family – can be played by Muppets.
The story is well told too, with a crisp and typically tightly structured script. Gonzo and Rizzo’s double act of narrators – they play Charles Dickens and a rat respectively – manage to mix just enough pathos and moody portents in with the gags to keep the right tones in play for what needs to be both a creepy ghost story and sentimental moral fable.
When this film wants you to cry, you will cry, and when it wants you to laugh, you will. And then when it wants you to believe Kermit is ice skating you somehow will and won’t all at once and he is, and you can see it, but it just seems like a miracle and you’ll find your jaw in your lap.
Or that’s how it goes with me, anyway.
This was the first Muppet movie produced after the death of Jim Henson. If you were there at the time, you’ll remember what an amazing relief it was, to see his legacy continue with no insult and relatively little injury. The film is dedicated to Henson and also Richard Hunt, who had also passed away before the film was released and, sadly, had not been able to lend his usual assistance to Scooter, Beaker, Statler, etc, during production, due to his illness.
As much as I like and respect some of the others, this is the definitive big-screen version of A Christmas Carol for me because it’s the one that most makes me feel the core emotional beats of the story. It’s become a Christmas perennial around here, and I’ll never count down to Christmas (or, really, anything else) in units of days again. It’s always a measure of sleeps now.
2. The Muppet Movie
After The Muppet Show became one of TV’s greatest ever successes, it was inevitable that Kermit would lead the gang onto the silver screen. So it was with James Frawley’s 1979 movie, a story of the Muppets dreaming of Hollywood and making their way across America towards the City of Angels.
The ambition and dedication of the filmmakers is apparent from the very opening of this movie, with a push in from a rainbow to Kermit’s swamp. A couple of shots in, as the camera cranes down to frog’s eye level, we notice that our hero is sitting alone on a log, strumming on his banjo and singing “The Rainbow Connection.”
Besides the hitherto unseen scope of Muppet moviemaking here, there’s also an immediate poignancy, a kind of simple melancholy mixed with optimism that perfectly embodies the appeal of Kermit the Frog and expresses why we love him so much. Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher’s song is absolutely on-target, and “Rainbow Connection” inevitably became one of the tunes most associated with The Frog, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the half-lament, half-anthem, “Bein’ Green.” How lucky a frog that Kermit is to have sung the two greatest songs that were written for TV or cinema in his lifetime.
Fundamentally, The Muppet Movie works because it gives us the Muppets that we know and love, even if they’re suddenly on a bigger stage and running farther and faster than ever before. Most of the key relationships are on show, and there are buckets of jokes that turn on the Muppets’ own, identifiable twist of irreverence.
But here are the brass tacks of it: somebody made a Muppet movie, and in 1979 that was extremely exciting in and of itself.
1. The Muppets
After 12 years simmering on The Walt Disney Company’s backburners, The Muppets’ return to the hot hot heat of high-profile cinema was well overdue. We apparently have Jason Segel’s ascendency to stardom to thank for this belated sequel finally seeing the light of day, as the actor and writer made it his mission to get Henson’s finest back on track. Jason, send me your address and I’ll get the world’s biggest box of chocolates in the mail, stat.
And while a comeback for the Muppets would have been welcome in any circumstances, the sheer intricacy, subtlety and depth of this film made for an impossibly happy ending.
The Muppets is informed by its position in culture far more than any of the other films, with the plot acknowledging the Muppets’ time out of the public eye, and conceiving that they’ve disbanded in the meantime. It’s a simple set up that’s milked for seemingly endless effect, be that some humorous back stories for Fozzie and Gonzo, Kermit’s devastating elegy “Pictures In My Head,” or the perfect plot arc for new boy, Walter.
Oh, Walter. The protagonist this time is a Muppet, but not one we had met before. But it isn’t that we couldn’t recognize Walter or relate to him right out of the gate because he was us. Okay, maybe not all of us, and maybe not all of the time – I’ve met a few Uncle Deadly-types, and sometimes I slip towards Waldorf or Statler as well as just Walter – but the little fella’s bruise-tender belief in Kermit’s innate goodness is something we’ve all been able to tap into since The Muppet Movie at least.
The details of The Muppets are positioned carefully, and with as much wit as they are the pedantic affections of hard fandom. So this doesn’t just mean we get various references to Muppet lore and previous movies – though do note where we see Sweetums for one particularly subtle throwaway, and proof that due reverence is in full effect – but also that the specifics of this film’s own story are painstakingly interleaved.
So, for example, Walter is introduced in a wonderful montage set to “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard” and even the whistling breaks in that song come to take on resonance and relevance by the movie’s end. It’s just the first tiny detail in a list of thousands that underscore the storytelling elegantly.
There’s skill and craftsmanship on display here that outdoes almost anything else you’ll see in the cinema, and most of it rendered utterly invisible. Just think about some of the impossibilities of what you’re seeing for a moment and your head might spin clean off your shoulders. Not many films have ever impressed me as much as this one.
But still, above all else, it’s my heart that The Muppets touches most powerfully. There are many big ideas in this film about what the Muppets mean, and why these guys bring something important to the cultural war on cynicism, apathy and selfishness – and they’re all entirely true.
Jim Henson introduced us to a wonderful array of characters that remind us of some very important truths about the human condition, and this film, made by those who are head over heels in love with Henson’s original accomplishments, was ideally positioned to acknowledge and discuss the beauty and perfection of his work in ways Henson himself would always have been far, far too humble to indulge.
Perhaps The Muppets isn’t the greatest film in the history of cinema, but there’s not one that I love more deeply.