MOVIN’ RIGHT ALONG – ‘THE MUPPET MOVIE’ AT 40

 

 

My unending love for The Muppets started back in 1993 when my mother purchased THE MUPPET MOVIE for my sister. It was a clamshell VHS that came with a little digital watch. It was purchased alongside THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER and between those two films, I must have watched them a dozen or more times. These were comfort films for me. I watched them when I felt sick, I watched them right before bed as something comfortable and familiar to lull me to sleep. I didn’t have a security blanket – I had The Muppets. I kept THE MUPPET MOVIE with me all through my teenage years into adulthood (pretty sure that green-edged VHS is in my closet somewhere) and now that I’m a parent, I have a ninety-five minute torch to pass to my kids. And just as recently, I got the opportunity to see THE MUPPET MOVIE with my kids on the big screen, an opportunity I was not about to pass up because when The Muppets appear, you have to give your heart to them – it’s contractually obligated, you know. So, with the fortieth anniversary just passing us by, I figured it’d be time to draw up the standard rich-and-famous contract and revisit this magical classic for Daily Grindhouse.

 

 

From its theatrical release in 1979, THE MUPPET MOVIE is the film anyone should call on when they’re trying to elucidate to someone about the magic of movies. The whole concept of THE MUPPET MOVIE, a blender of different film archetypes: there’s the road trip movie which crosses neatly with the starry-eyed ingénue heading to Hollywood in search of their dreams, there’s your romance angle with Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog, the musical side which all ties neatly under the umbrella of the old-fashioned glitz and glamour ideas of Tinseltown and the amazing thing is, it all ties together in a cohesive whole thatdoesn’t threaten to tear itself apart despite the breakneck pace at which the story moves and serves as a satisfying big-screen adaptation of a small-screen variety show where the purpose was rapid-fire gags.The reason the film even works at all starts with the men behind the felt – Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt. Though they play multiple characters with many different facets to them, they never phoned in an iota of their work. They individualized, contextualized and breathed life into a being that never drew a breath. The simple physical and verbal nuances that they brought to every single Muppet onscreen made it real for audiences everywhere. It made it magical.

 

 

The screenplay by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl is still as sharp as a knife even forty years down the road. There’s the all too real concern that humor from the seventies won’t hold up, even humor from five years ago doesn’t hold up sometimes. But not here, this was screwball comedy of the highest order, rapid fire puns and gags that call to mind Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker when they were at the top of their game.The script is rife with puns a plenty (“if frogs couldn’t hop, I’d be gone with the Schwinn”), the myth/miss gag gets a workout but never grates, and clever running gags like “This guy’s lost. Maybe he should try Hare Krishna” – a line that admittedly might be lost on younger, modern audiences. The dominance of meta humor never exhausts the audience either, despite the fact that there’s quite a bit of it starting with the ancient hecklers, Statler and Waldorf showing up to lob insults at the very movie they’re starring in. I’m a sucker for a good “read the screenplay” gag and there’s a great one herein, and leads to one of my favorite line reads: Dr. Teeth repeating Fozzie’s line – “They don’t look like Presbyterians to me.” THE MUPPET MOVIE doesn’t just break the fourth wall, it pulverizes it and considering now that we’ve all but been inundated with characters addressing us, or commenting on the film itself for as long as we have, it must’ve felt fresh and exciting for theatregoers in 1979. The way the script fleshes out the characters with little moments, nothing too show-boaty, mind you, is a testament to the writers’ prowess at tight story construction. For instance, we have Gonzo’s peculiar poultry proclivity (hey, I’m not kink shaming!), Fozzie’s attachment to his hibernating uncle’s Studebaker, Kermit and Piggy’s romantic dalliance all serve as pieces of the puzzle that don’t necessarily push the plot forward but enrichen our knowledge of these characters, granting them nuance and flaws (Fozzie just cannot catch a break). The movie was also my first introduction to Charles Durning and he plays splendidly as the cornball, insidious Doc Hopper and Austin Pendleton is admirable as his put-upon foil. Max. The way that Pendleton sells out his virtue for the almighty dollar is a fun touch, and the fact that Hopper becomes increasingly psychotic in his quest to get Kermit to be his spokesman for his restaurant is a solid little B-plot.

 

 

Since guest stars were THE MUPPET SHOW’s forte, it’s none too surprising that the film is stocked with cameos. Some of them breeze right by like Elliott Gould as a pageant emcee or composer/ songwriter Paul Williams’ cheeky little cameo as the pianny player in the El Sleezo Café. When I was a kid, I didn’t quite understand the hilarious impact of James Coburn’s cameo, for example (or even who he was for that matter), but now having grown up on a meaty diet of tough guy cinema, I can totally get the appeal of having a roughneck actor tell Kermit and the audience that the gang of crazies in the café were just too crazy for him. Naturally, I love the cameo by Steve Martin, especially since his scene is allowed to breathe for just a moment, and like everything Martin does – his barely restrained lunacy seeping through every syllable, selling every single beat as a put-upon, annoyed waiter having to taste-test the crappiest wine in Idaho. Milton Berle’s cameo at least allows us to see the performer put on his biggest cigar-chomping, shit-eating grin as a vehicle slinging huckster and gives me an introduction to my personal favorite Muppet, Sweetums (well, second favorite, gotta love Rowlf, baby!). I’ll always get a laugh out of the way Telly Savalas spits out the line, “You’ll get warts!” And the wistful part in me loves how tender and sweet Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy’s cameo plays, you can see the joy radiating from Bergen, tears practically welling in his eyes. It was the ideal way for Henson to send gratitude to someone who inspired his work.

 

 

The technical prowess that Henson, Oz, Goelz, Hunt, Nelson, director James Frawley and their crew achieved in the movie was a miracle in and of itself. Seeing Kermit the Frog dancing and singing on a stage or in front of a curtain, somewhere that the keen puppeteering crew could hide behind or under was impressive all on its own. But to see Kermit the Frog crooning on a log in the middle of an actual swamp while plucking away at a banjo, out in the open, where camera placement couldn’t conceal a puppeteer, that’s magic. Now, I knew how Henson orchestrated this particular performance, enclosed in a metal container, underwater with a breathing tube and a glove puppeteering Mr. The Frog. That’s incredible. Hell, I didn’t learn how they achieved the “Kermit rides a bicycle” shot until recently, and even learning how they pulled it off is nothing short of an astounding feat. Or figuring out how they accomplished Kermit and Fozzie dancing on the stage at the café, or Fozzie actually driving a car. It’s mind-boggling just thinking about the brilliance these folks carry around in their skulls. I’m almost mad I ruined the illusion for myself, but then I remember that the next time I queue the movie up, the veil of mystery will blanket my mind and I won’t see a puppet with strings – I’ll see Kermit the Frog and Fozzie as actors, not too dissimilar from another flesh and blood thespian reciting lines for cinematic amusement. It’s quite funny that in all these years of technological advancement, of visual effects artists using millions of dollars to create cosmic comic book wars, Henson could show frustration in a felt puppet’s face by twitching his hand. Or the mania and pathos that Goelz could draw out of Gonzo by simply giving his words a little vocal fry. Jesus, Camilla the Chicken has more pathos in her intricately molded face than the CGI critters in 2019’s THE LION KING. Tragic, really…

 

 

If Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo the Great along with their respective voice actors are the heart at the core of THE MUPPET MOVIE then the soul at the core of the feature belongs to Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher’s delightful tunes. From the immortal and inspirational “Rainbow Connection,”to the ear-wormy, leg bopping tune “Movin’ Right Along,” and the stirringGonzo the Great ballad “”I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” these songs send our hearts fluttering, no matter if you’re young or if you’re old. The “Rainbow Connection” is just one of those songs that echo through time. In addition to the aforementioned Oscar nod, it landed at number seventy-four on “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs,” and has been covered twenty-five times from artists as disparate as Less than Jake and The Dixie Chicks. Hell, when the 2011 film, THE MUPPETS rolled out, it was the only Muppets song that got a glorious reprise for fans of the long running characters (not to mention, it’s a beautiful interpretation of the original).It speaks to the brilliant sensibilities of Williams and Ascher (continuing their collaboration from the ’75 version of A STAR IS BORN) that these songsmiths could help these characters enunciate their feelings via lyrical prose is something that most musicians couldn’t dream of doing (though Bret McKenzie came incredibly close with his songs for the 2011 feature). Between this feature and his songs for PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, Paul Williams will forever be in my heart. Here’s a Muppety aside on Paul Williams – the wondrous way he sings “Old Fashioned Love Song” on an episode of THE MUPPET SHOW just shattered my heart and built it back up again. The man’s got a power inside him that we all would love to harness.

 

The universe of THE MUPPET MOVIE is filled with snark, but not cynicism. It’s filled with sentimentality, but it’s not schmaltzy. It’s a place where dreams come true, but you yourself have to move your feet, one step at a time to the finish line. When you watch THE MUPPET MOVIE, a wonderful thing happens, time turns backwards and you find yourself a child again and you’ve escaped your woes for the entirety of the runtime. There aren’t many movies that can do that everyone. It’s the perfect antidote to a society filled to the brim with poison, and since tragically, Earth is always going to be a toxic place, no matter what we do or say, then the one saving grace we’ll always be able to take away is that we live in a world where we always need The Muppets and thankfully, they’ll always be there for us.

 

 

 

 


 

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a Dallas-based writer of both films and of Internet goings-on. He's also in a movie on Netflix, but won't tell you the title, for fear of transmitting a RINGU-type curse into your home. He can be found on Twitter as @madmanmarz81.
Nathan Smith

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