Two Dissolve writers keep the Muppet Movie conversation going...
Noel: By the time The Muppet Movie came out in 1979, Jim Henson had been in show business for about 25 years—not all of it spent with his hand covered in felt. Beyond puppetry, Henson had tried avant-garde filmmaking, and had developed TV shows meant for adult audiences as well as for children. The Muppet Movie’s “Let’s go to Hollywood and get rich and famous” plot arc is tried and true—it’s a variation on the kinds of movies that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland used to make—but that story isn’t really Henson’s story. What’s more, I think a lot of people who went to go see The Muppet Movie knew about the Muppets’ actual path to the big screen, having seen Henson and his creations on nationally televised variety shows throughout the 1960s, and then on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.
Tasha, you’re about the same age I am, so you can tell me if you had some of the same experience I did with The Muppet Movie when it came out. Even as an 8-year-old, I felt a sense of pride and satisfaction that something I loved had been made into a movie—and a good movie, which made a lot of money and was well-reviewed. Maybe that was the secret to The Muppet Movie’s success: that so many people were invested in Henson and the Muppets because they’d had so many different opportunities to be exposed to them?
Tasha: And not just exposed to them, but exposed as kids, when we tend to be particularly fanatical about the things we love. I think the storyline justly assumes an audience that’s familiar with the Muppets as personalities, and with the Muppet Show setting. The conceit of making a movie about characters who are watching a movie, which is also sort of the movie the characters in the movie made when they went to Hollywood to try to make a movie—that’s all pretty convoluted and meta, and it requires both a certain amount of audience goodwill, and a little willingness to just go with the flow, as long as the songs are catchy and the jokes are funny. A baseline familiarity with Muppet lore also helps, since they’re doing double duty as themselves in the framing story and the framed story, sort of a present-and-fictionalized-past divide. It’s funny, this all sounds a little dizzying or contrived in print, but within the structure of the movie, it all holds together fine. The Muppet movies have always followed a sort of “Let’s tell a story!” structure, with that vaudeville staginess and self-awareness that permeated the TV show, and it feels entirely natural here: On an ordinary week on TV, the Muppets get on stage and put out a show. This week in theaters, they get in front of cameras and put on a film. Simple enough.
But all the familiarity and goodwill in the world wouldn’t keep The Muppet Movie afloat if the songs weren’t catchy and the jokes weren’t funny—look what happened with The Onion Movie, or any of the many flopped TV-show-to-film adaptations littering the landscape. I’d credit the film’s success more with the fact that the individual bits work so well, and that many of the songs are indelible, instant classics. The overall plot is your basic ramshackle road trip, a traveling excuse for comic business, but the one-liners (“Right, frog!”) and celebrity cameos are fun, and the overall tone is pure Jim Henson Productions: upbeat, a little weird, a little wistful, nakedly sentimental, and the product of a very specific voice. You’re as much of a musicals buff as I am, probably even more so—do you think this movie would have worked at all without the songs?
Noel: Oh, I’m sure it would’ve worked to some degree. A lot of Muppet Movie fans love the film more for its puns and repartee, which would still be there even if Kermit and company didn’t belt out the occasional tune. But golly, who’d want a Muppet Movie that wasn’t bookended by “Rainbow Connection?” The hardest thing for an original movie-musical to do is to introduce memorable new songs, and this one gets audiences on its side immediately with a timeless Paul Williams/Kenny Ascher composition. The film-within-a-film’s first five minutes are so beautiful and so offbeat—opening with a ballad instead of a slam-bang group number—that The Muppet Movie could’ve coasted through at least half an hour of blah without fully squandering all the goodwill it stores up. It doesn’t coast, though, which is all the better.
It isn’t just the the pretty melody and stirring lyrics that make the two “Rainbow Connection” performances so terrific. Even now, it’s breathtaking to see the camera move through the swamp toward Kermit, strumming his banjo. A lot of the humor in The Muppet Movie derives from the disconnect between the old-fashioned cinematic look of the film, and the dinky little puppets who are supposed to be the stars. But getting back to my memories of the early reactions to The Muppet Movie, I also recall how amazed critics and audiences were by some of the special effects, which allowed the Muppets to move around in some scenes with their legs showing. This was the era of Star Wars, and yet seeing Kermit ride a bicycle was in some ways as mind-blowing as watching space-stations explode.
Why do you think that is, Tasha? Is there some reverse Uncanny Valley thing going on here, where the more simplified the characters are, the less fancy the special effects have to be?
Tasha: I think again, it comes back to familiarity with the characters—in this case, their technical aspects and handmade quality. Even as a kid, I knew Kermit and Miss Piggy and the rest were basically elaborate hand-socks, so seeing Kermit’s legs actually at work was like seeing the Tooth Fairy hovering over my bed. There was the same sense of “But… that doesn’t exist!” Star Wars was full of effects, but most of them were at least conceptually familiar in some way: We’d seen explosions and light effects and flying machines in lesser forms, in other films. But no one had seen a Muppet on a bike before. Even Roger Ebert boggled at it. Jim Frawley has said that’s always the first question people asked him when they found out he directed The Muppet Movie: “How did you get Kermit to ride a bike?” (His stock answer: “I put him on a three-wheeler until he got his balance, and then I put him on the two-wheeler.”) And I recall an interview where Henson talked about how they had to solve so many massive logistical problems for that movie, like putting him underwater for the scene where Kermit is singing in the swamp, or packing four puppeteers into the bottom of the Studebaker to control three characters, and yet all anyone talked about was Kermit on a bike, which was actually a very easy effect. (Which is why the follow-up, The Great Muppet Caper, puts a whole flotilla of Muppets on bikes, doing things that upped the ante, like biking in circles and standing on the seats.)
I remember that when I was a child, Jim Henson was pretty much the only children’s entertainer who was as familiar to me as his creations were. I was just always fascinated with him and his behind-the-scenes work, his aesthetic and his personality, and always read any interview or article about him that I could find. And part of the fascination was that sense that he was always trying to push the envelope on what was possible with puppets. His later experiments on The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth got even more ambitious, and he had a grand time with video effects once they became possible, but even here on the first Muppet movie, he wanted to do things that were difficult, like having Kermit biking, or dancing onstage with Fozzie. I think you’re on to something about lo-fi technology permitting lo-fi effects, but I think the novelties of seeing the Muppets do new things also helps, and it has a great deal to do with Henson and his team constantly focusing on how to surprise and convince people.
Noel: When I reviewed The Muppet Movie Blu-ray for The Dissolve back in 2013, I wrote that Henson and this film kind of summed up what 1970s pop culture was all about: “soft rock, self-help, and crafting.” Two years prior to The Muppet Movie, The Jim Henson Company made the HBO special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, which to me has always captured a lot of what I co-associate with the Muppets and my childhood: dwelling in a world where state parks, country stores, bluegrass music, hand-sewn clothes, and earth tones are all more popular than disco. There’s a lot of that value system in the film too, where a beat-up old Studebaker or a Ford Woodie station wagon is better than anything a fast-food magnate can offer.
But the “movie” part of The Muppet Movie matters, too. You mention Henson’s ambitions in high fantasy (they’ve always seemed very 1970s to me, perhaps because I have vivid memories from my childhood of friends and family keeping coffee-table books about dragons, gnomes, and spaceships lying around), but this film is also like a mission statement for Henson the cinephile. It’s a musical, it’s a romance, it’s a road picture, it’s a showbiz story… it’s even a Western, for one scene.
First and foremost, though, it’s a comedy. I keep crediting The Muppet Movie to Henson, but as you’ve already pointed out, he didn’t direct it. And he didn’t write the film either—his longtime collaborator Jerry Juhl did, alongside George Carlin’s and Avery Schreiber’s old partner Jack Burns. It plays like a movie written by variety-show veterans, from the “Lost? Maybe you should try Hare Krishna” gags to the line about “sparkling muscatel… one of the finest wines of Idaho.”
How about it, Tasha? Want to beat the commenters to the punch and have a Muppet Movie quote-off?
Tasha: “Read my lips: all-ee-gay-tors.” I don’t know how you can bend that into a response to your question, but it’s certainly a common response around my house. Any four-syllable word or word combination can be substituted in for “alligators” and used for emphasis (“Read my lips: wash-thee-dish-es”) but really, if you’re trying to convey “I meant whatever I just said,” the original quote works fine. I love that quote so much, for the rhythm, the surprising sense of Kermit actually being sarcastic at another “adult” character instead of the wayward, kid-like Muppets, and the way his puppetty mouth goes all squashy around the word.
Apart from that, my favorite moments in the film are mostly random bits of business around very familiar characters: Big Bird hitchhiking, saying, “I’m on my way to New York City to try to break into public television!” Dr. Teeth catching up on the action of the movie so far by reading the script and weighing it in his mind: “This is a narrative of very heavy-duty proportions.” Kermit’s response to Doc Hopper’s latest devil’s bargain around the fried frog-leg franchise: “All I can see are millions of frogs with tiny crutches.” And especially Fozzie and Kermit’s response to Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem repainting their car in a psychedelic/cosmic mural: “I don’t know how to thank you!” “I don’t know why to thank you.” And I should probably bring up the cameos and the running gags (“That’s a myth! Myth!” “Yeth?”), but frankly, they’ve never done it for me: As a kid, I had no idea who Carol Kane, Dom DeLuise, Bob Hope, Madeline Kahn, or any of the others were. I knew Steve Martin, at least, but none of their business here ever connected with me the way Statler and Waldorf’s sneery one-liners did.
But the comedy is still secondary to the songs for me. When I think of favorite moments in the film, I still immediately go to “Can You Picture That,” the deliriously energetic nonsense song Dr. Teeth and the band sing while painting the car, and Gonzo plaintively singing “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday,” still one of the all-time great quiet Muppet moments. “Sun rises, night falls, sometimes the sky calls / Is that a song there, and do I belong there?” Emotionally, that song nestles in the same contentment-in-melancholy place as “Rainbow Connection,” that sweet spot Henson’s team so often strove for. What do you connect with most in The Muppet Movie, Noel, the familiar faces, the vaudeville jokes, or that emotional palette?
Noel: Well, like you, I knew Martin already when I was 8, but perhaps because my parents were pretty slack about what they let me watch on TV, and—because I watched a lot of TV—I also recognized Hope, DeLuise, Richard Pryor, Milton Berle, and even Orson Welles. Watching the movie now, I find the array of guest stars pretty moving, as another way The Muppet Movie embraces showbiz traditionalism, and how showbiz traditionalists embrace right back. Even the appearance of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy makes a statement that lets savvy folks know they’re in the right hands (so to speak) with Henson’s team. I’m reminded of what it was like when Pixar began making features, and how its commitment to developing rich characters and narrative was such a delight to old-school types like myself. The Muppet Movie is just so lovingly assembled. Even the songs are integral, both to the story and to that emotional palette you mention.
And yeah, the palette is still what I respond to most. I’ll quote my review again:
[At the end], Kermit and his new friends re-create the entire film in a studio, with plywood sets, until everything falls apart and another rainbow crashes in, [and] the lyrics to [‘Rainbow Connection’] change from the opening, from ‘the lovers, the dreamers, and me’ to ‘the lovers, the dreamers, and you.’ With that one gesture, Henson and his colleagues bid farewell to The Me Generation by insisting that there’d been more heart in the 1970s than many believed.
I’d like to believe that all the kids who were raised on Henson internalized what he championed: community, creativity, a sense of humor, and respect for the past. And while I think The Muppet Show is his masterwork (with Emmet Otter close behind), The Muppet Movie is the most concentrated, easily digested dose of the Henson philosophies of life and art. I hope we’ve heard it too many times to ignore it. It’s something we’re supposed to be.
Don’t miss Genevieve’s Keynote on the Henson Connection in The Muppet Movie. And on Thursday, Noel returns with a look at a crossover with long-term consequences: When Kermit met Luke Skywalker.