1979 could be considered The Year of the Child, where some kind of transcendental magic influenced creative forces at work during this period. This seeped into the hearts and minds of children everywhere who would later grow into adults who were somewhat “at one” with their inner-child, still believing in the magic they experienced as youngsters. The Muppet Movie is a testament to this everlasting enchantment. What Jim Henson and his team did for the world of children’s entertainment is not only historically important, but undeniably life affirming. It is a portrait of a culturally significant belief in the fact that adults can always hang onto what the Muppets represented: fun, laughs, camaraderie, sentimentality, irreverence, warmth, sweetness, silliness and above all else, a dedication to creativity and art. When Henson and his crew wanted to take their Muppets outside of the television world – which was still serving them well – the results were enchanting. The Muppet Movie was The Wizard of Oz (1939) of the seventies.
What Jim Henson and his team did for the world of children’s entertainment is not only historically important, but undeniably life affirming. It is a portrait of a culturally significant belief in the fact that adults can always hang onto what the Muppets represented: fun, laughs, camaraderie, sentimentality, irreverence, warmth, sweetness, silliness and above all else, a dedication to creativity and art.
Opening at a private screening of what will be the film-within-the-film, The Muppet Movie establishes itself as an already innovative creation: part meta, part coming of age, part road movie, part backstory, and all heart. Little frog Robin asks his uncle Kermit, “Is this how the Muppets really got started?” to which Kermit responds with “Well, it’s kind of the way we got started.” The backstory makes logical sense: it may not be the actual way in which this assortment of characters (a troupe of misfit performers and show business critters) found each other and gravitated towards their compassionate leader Kermit, but nonetheless, it is an endearing Oz-like plot, with each of these beloved and complex characters finding their own personal and communal “rainbow connection”. The wonderful gags come fast and sharp during the prologue where the Muppets settle into a soon-to-be trashed cinema ready to see themselves on the big screen (a beautiful reflection on us the audience who has since then only been used to seeing these wonderful characters on the small screen). It is a great example of Jerry Juhl’s swift and versatile writing. Fozzie expresses his nervousness saying, “If I’m not funny I couldn’t live with myself” to which Dr. Bunsen Honeydew replies “Well, then you’ll have to move into a new apartment.” Animal screams out a tribute to his number one love “Woman! Woman!” after bassist Floyd Pepper expresses his devotion to girlfriend and fellow band mate guitarist Janice by telling her that “Nothin’s too good for my woman!” Joined by Muppet regulars such as Lew Zealand, Marvin Suggs, Crazy Harry, Link Hogthrob, and many more, the Swedish Chef rolls film and we enter the world of The Muppet Movie.
Opening amidst clouds that gently glide across a heavenly sky and then descending down into the swamplands of America, the film harks back to the Hollywood fantasy films of the forties and fifties where anything was possible. This is where we find a whimsical and sweet frog strumming his banjo, singing “The Rainbow Connection”; a moving and poignant melody about fulfilling dreams, written by master musical craftsmen Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. “The Rainbow Connection” sits at the heart of the movie and its message. The song is both beautiful and uplifting but also melancholy and maudlin in its insight into endless longing and the dream for something more. It is a descendent of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and the opening lyric of “Why are there so many songs about rainbows…?” is a verification of this. What Kermit is both lamenting and hoping for is his own personal Oz, and in doing so he can find both his place in the world as someone who can “make millions of people happy” and his own personal connection to his craft, his purpose and the universe at hand. This is something that he will discover and claim with the help of fellow “rainbow connection” chasing Muppets that he meets on his journey.
Even when the first few strings of Kermit’s banjo are plucked, “The Rainbow Connection” hits the heartstrings and enlightens the audience, sending us into a dreamlike whimsy but also an unexplainable melancholy. This is what the Muppets do: they make us laugh and entertain us with their zany antics, but at the same time they melt our hearts with their tremendous tenderness and warmth. Sam the Eagle asks Kermit if the film has any social merits, and it most certainly does. The Muppets are inspired creations. They are the epitome of the human condition at its most frenzied and engaging, and the elegant sweetness that permeates the film is awe inspiring. After all, the magic is expressed in the opening number itself as Kermit cries out that “all of us (are) under its spell…”
Dom DeLuise (the first of many star cameos) is a catalyst driver: he’s a Hollywood agent who introduces Kermit to the idea of becoming a star, showing him that audition ad for frogs wishing to become rich and famous. Jerry Juhl’s writing is delicately handled, and here he has given a platform for Williams/Ascher and Kermit the frog to perform one of the most tender and moving songs in the history of the movie musical. Once the number does its job, he moves straight into comedy. Juhl not only delivers the goods with the comic elements of the film–which are all fantastically bright and always hit the right spot–but he fuels the film with a finely-tuned balance of the sentimental and powerfully magical.
The Muppet Movie is a perfect balancing act. When Kermit understands that he can “make millions of people happy” by leaving his swamp and heading out to Hollywood, the heart of the film begins to beat as steady as Animal’s drum, and the idea of “following dreams” comes into play just like the Garland and Rooney films from Arthur Freed and Busby Berkley and (of course) The Wizard of Oz itself. But The Muppet Movie is very much a creature of the seventies, and therefore a cynical edge is necessary. There are jokes that are self-deprecating, critical and cynical, but these never overshadow the overwhelming warmth of the film as a whole.
The cameos that pepper the film (such as Madeline Kahn, James Coburn, Steve Martin, Carol Kane, Kojak, and so forth) act as an extension to what The Muppet Show did: it provided a platform for artists to throw themselves into crafts in areas they were not normally associated. For example, in one episode of the series, ballet dancer Rudolph Nureuyev gets to cohort in a steam room with Miss Piggy playing very broad and hilarious comedy, while Mark Hamill–who audiences mostly knew as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars–got to showcase his tap dancing talents. In The Muppet Movie, the cameos serve gags alone–after all, it is a tribute to the Muppets themselves. This film is about the frog, the pig, the bear, the dog, and the rest of the gang, the humans are there in service of the furry and felt-covered puppet superstars. And superstars these characters most certainly are.
They are also facets of the human fabric and an expression of the human psyche: Miss Piggy is the superego, Animal is the id and Kermit the long suffering ego. Each Muppet reflects an aspect of the human condition and embodying the essence of a kind of person we all know–Rowlf the dog is the musical genius who just “gets by”, Janice is the forever cool Valley girl who lives for rock’n’roll, Scooter is desperate to feel like he is part of something, and so forth. They all make up a self-made family devoted to each other and, but not without their own distinct insecurities, flaws and dramas. At the heart of the Muppets is a definite suggestion of solidarity and a dedication to and the ability to dream.
The El Sleazo Café is a great sequence and a wonderful play on the movie Western, a genre which will be tributed later in the exciting climax. The film transitions from genre to genre: it soon hits the dusty highway and becomes a road movie, all the while loaded with a sophisticated and very dry, adult sense of humour. Composer Paul Williams lends his talents as the piano player at the El Sleazo as he plays against the frazzled Fozzie, whose inability to entertain an audience epitomizes his failed comedian persona: a loveable mess of a bear who wears his heart on his sleeve but just can’t manage the cynics. But quick wit is what this bear is blessed with, and when he suggests that “The drinks are on the house”, the drunkards literally get up onto the roof of the El Sleazo, while “Maybe you should try Hare Krishna” acts as the film’s running gag. Kermit saves Fozzie from the angry audience but only for a split second as they are aggressively thrown off stage, a finely-stitched commentary of the throwaway nature of show business and the cruelty of the industry.
Charles Durning is magnificent as the villain of the piece Doc Hopper, entirely devoted to money and success. The parallels to The Wizard of Oz–collecting an assortment of misfits and heading over to “see the Wizard” (in this case, to see Orson Welles to get a movie deal)–are also continued through to Durning’s answer to Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West, and Durning plays up the grotesque oversized Texan villain with sinister glee.
“Moving Right Along” is another inspired song that encompasses the heart of the road movie aspects of The Muppet Movie, launching Kermit and Fozzie off across the country in a bouncing old fashioned two-hander that the Muppets celebrate so often. The Muppets come from a world of pure entertainment: the song and dance mentality, the remains of the vaudevillian era, the minstrels and comics that parade around with skittish sketches and so forth, and as much as director James Frawley pieces these elements together to serve a steady and robust film, the irreverence and kookiness still hits home. This is a terrific counter to the sturdy narrative as well as the otherworldly visuals of the film, launching The Muppet Show firmly into the domain of the cinematic.
One of the strongest aspects of the film is Miss Piggy, a bonafide superstar, an icon of entertainment, a feminist role model, a style and fashion goddess, and also a fragile, vulnerable critter. She captures everything show business wants to hide from us: that glamour and beauty, assertiveness and confidence, defiance and elegance are all there to mask a crippling insecurity and overwhelming frailty. To present this through a “lady pig” who likes fancy gowns as well as being a master of karate is perfect. The Muppets are a complicated bunch, and characters such as Miss Piggy make this clear if you look beyond the surface. Much like the Muppets themselves, these puppets that come to life at the literal hands of artists such as Dave Goelz, Kathryn Mullen, and Richard Hunt are more than meets the eye. This is what The Muppet Movie is about.
Employing the structure of the road movie, there is a touching moment where under a blanket of stars our beloved Muppets question their place in the universe and the role of their dreams in one of the most romantic and emotionally crushing sequences in the film. The scene also brings forth a community that has newly taken form–a community of artists who truly love each other, and are all in pursuit of a common goal. There is something so magical about this and also mystically grounding. Gonzo sings “there’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met”, but that word surely is “Muppet”. When Gonzo continues singing “close to my soul and yet so far away…” we understand that dreams are just like that; they hold us together and are “the invisible strings” that Gonzo mentions. The gentle beauty of “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” sums up everything meaningful and precious about the Muppets, and when Gonzo explains that “I’ve never been there, but I know the way…” the sense of longing is at its most devastating. On a purely emotional level, when Piggy sings out a gentle harmony, soon followed by Fozzie accompanied by Rowlf on the mournful harmonica – a loving tip-of-the-hat to ragamuffins who dream big, hurt deep and sleep under the stars.
This is what the Muppets do: they capture vulnerability, tenderness, honesty, compassion, insecurity, loneliness, and togetherness, all while in service to story, entertainment, and a thematic focus on unity. Gonzo continues: “We can hold on to love with invisible strings,” a condensation of the wonder that binds these dysfunctional characters together and paints a very real notion of family. If the Muppets are all facets of the human condition, then they are also a combined effort in focused awareness. If Kermit is the eternal ego, than he is a highly evolved intelligent and passionate frog who follows his dream taking with him a team of misfits who all embody everything else that makes up the fabric of what it means to be human (and what it means to be a Muppet).
When it takes a frog, a pig, a bear, a dog, a chicken, and whatever Gonzo is to help us realize who we are as people–as a community and as lovers and dreamers–then there is something truly poignant about the seventies movie musical. With all their craziness, sweetness and dedication to entertain, the Muppets are the most life-affirming creations of the decade. In contrast to this, Doc Hopper is the enterprise man–the epitome of greed and corruption set up as a clear adversary to Kermit and his gang who wish to make millions of people happy by singing and dancing. Kermit is the movie’s anchor and the level-headed, reasonable misfit among his fellow misfits. When he is perplexed by a situation you know it has to be dire.
The film is shot in beautiful sparkling colors, and when Kermit and Fozzie sing on the road we are set on a beautiful journey both thematically and visually. The idea of taking the Muppets beyond television, performing on location, greatly appealed to Jim Henson, Frank Oz and their company. Audiences were thrilled to see Kermit ride a bicycle and he and Fozzie dancing on a stage (as they should be), and Paul Williams’s songs are once again perfection. Possibly Williams’s best writing exists in this film (and that is saying something, especially when his work in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), A Star is Born (1976), and Bugsy Malone (1976) were so brilliant). For fans of the Muppets, Sesame Street’s Big Bird gets a cameo also, and he will eventually get his own film in Follow That Bird (1985) which of course won’t be the only Muppet follow-up feature length. The first two Muppet sequels are nearly just as magical as the first outing: The Great Muppet Caper (1981) took the Muppets to England and threw them into a crime thriller/jewel robbery flick that boasted more great songs and gave Muppets such as Beuregard things to do and then The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), which was even better, gave the Muppets New York City as their playground and the world of the Broadway musical to toy with. In this film Rizzo the Rat features prominently as well as a spectacular marriage sequence for Kermit and Piggy to end the film.
Human co-stars populated the film, but were always in service of the Muppets. In The Muppet Movie, Austin Pendleton is terrific as one such human, and the great wit and comic back and forth between him and Charles Durning is wonderful. As great as they are, the other cameos such as Bob Hope, Cloris Leachman, and Orson Welles himself are terrific.
Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band are the fevered rock’n’roll group that represent the seventies. Outside of the Broadway leanings the other Muppets tend to favour, the Electric Mayhem Band headed by the Elton John-inspired Dr. Teeth are a celebration of rock in all its form up to that point: blues roots, jazz-infused, psychedelic, and glam. They also help the meta elements in the film where they catch up on the story by “reading the screenplay”. Scooter is the road manager here in the film, and later he would infamously become the Muppet theatre gopher because his uncle owns the building, therefore going back to what Kermit tells Robin; this is a variant of the truth and this makes the film even more of a fairy tale than it already is. The band are made up of spaced-out Zoot on saxophone, valley girl beauty Janice on guitar, raspy-voiced frizzy-faced Floyd Pepper on bass, band leader Dr. Teeth on keys, and feisty, frenzied drummer Animal–all of them a special part of a fabric that exists within the already wild and energetic community of Muppets. The Electric Mayhem’s “Can You Picture That?” is an ecstatic expression of hedonistic joy and the hippie-influenced disinterest in wealth. They also celebrate the romance of magic as Floyd and Janice sing to us directly: “Fact is there’s nothing out there you can’t do, even Santa Claus believes in you.” Santa Claus and the Muppets share the same magic: they both exist in our imaginations and both inspire the desire and the necessity to dream.
The Muppets have dreams to pursue, however they also understand their limitations and the necessity of the dreary “day job”. For example, Gonzo the great has a job as a plumber with Camilla his beloved chicken companion by his side. The duo is inseparable, and as much as Gonzo is the resident weirdo, he is one with the most love and the Muppet who is most in tune with a place outside of the norm where he belongs. For Gonzo, it is beyond human interaction, such as with the oppressive Milton Berle (the film’s first human menace). In fact, in The Muppet Movie a lot of the human cast are mean, obnoxious or uptight–the Muppets have their flaws, but they get through things together and are fundamentally good, whereas Steve Martin is hilarious but a completely jaded waiter, Cloris Leachman is also terrific, but she is a stuffy secretary to the intimidating Orson Welles, and Berle’s abusive nature towards Sweetums who is his personal “jack” that lifts up cars at his used car lot is plain nasty. Sweetums wishes to join the others, and throughout the film is seen following the others until he finally catches up to them crashing through the screen at the showing of the film. Sweetums drives the meta aspect of the film home, while Animal yells at us to “Go home! Go home!”
The country fair in small town America –set in a little Midwestern haven called Bogen County–is a knockout moment in the film and is where our star pig is introduced. When she locks eyes with Kermit it is both hilarious and sweet, a tricky combination in any film. The montage of Piggy and Kermit’s blossoming relationship references many filmic romance tropes–a Euro-style romance, a romantic period piece, a film noir, and finally an wedding which will come to stunning fulfilment in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Back in reality however, Piggy and Kermit have a tumultuous relationship, loaded with ups and downs that will go on for decades to come. Although the relationship is rocky, it is also poignant and delicate. In a lovely cameo, famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (to which the film is dedicated) and his dummy Charlie McCarthy act as judges of the Miss Bogen County Beauty Pageant, while a version of “The Rainbow Connection” plays over their brief moment on film. Bergen had the dream, chased the rainbow and made millions of people happy, and now it was the Muppets’ turn to do the same. But what the Muppets have is so much more complex and layered than what the legendary Bergen could do with his dummies. Piggy’s insecurities, Gonzo’s displacement, Camilla’s earthiness, Fozzie’s desperation, and so forth are part of the diversity of the Muppet’s cultural backgrounds and methods of expression. The collection of a troupe–all of them with their personal dreams, personal quests and personal quips–existing outside of the influence of a visible human (something Edgar Bergen always was) is unique and once again, magical. When Gonzo ascends up into the sky with the balloons, the main theme of “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” can be heard, and a different perspective – a perspective outside of social responsibility–is explored. This moment refers to the freedoms of the artist and the uplifting whimsy of the free-thinker, the creative ascending from the grounded. Doc Hopper fires a gun and blasts Gonzo’s balloons, sending him crashing back down to earth: later, when Gonzo sings about the “place he wants to go back to,” it’s all about that place away from restraints and meanies like Doc Hopper.
Piggy and Kermit’s romantic dinner is an expression of self-awareness of the restraints of puppets (such as the frog and pig stating, “we will need straws” in order to drink their champagne). Rowlf’s introduction occurs just seconds after the romantic dinner for two, and the way he is presented is great with his paws tickling the ivories. Here is the consummate canine musician and the greatest friendly ear known to a frog: “I finish work, I go home, have a couple of beers, take myself for a walk, and go to bed” states Rowlf as he heads into the terrific number “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along” with Kermit. Both of these critters sing this clever song devoted to the blues, howling and croaking their way through men’s woes about women trouble with fantastic references to dogs and frogs complete with more animalistic and pop cultural references at hand, with Kermit singing: “She made a monkey out of ole King Kong.” Rowlf joins the gang right after this therapeutic musical stop-over while Piggy’s feminine and tough talents come to the foreground when Mel Brooks turns up as a maniacal menace tapping into Nazi gags that he’s so obsessed with. When Piggy gets a genuine call from her agent (a great moment here where her sweet and demure voice turns into a hardened theatrical “Yeah Morty, whattya got?”), she races off, leaving Kermit alone. Here is the snappish selfishness that the Muppets are prone to and not alien from–remember, the Muppets are complicated and multi-dimensional, they can be self-centered, self-involved, and completely oblivious to their fellow Muppet’s feelings, and this is what makes them far more on par with the human race.
But what the Muppets do is also reflect the goodness and the wealth of tenderness that the human race is capable of. In a fond reference to Jor-El’s words of wisdom to his only son Kal-El who soon will be known to the world as Superman: “They can be a good people, Kal-El. They only lack the light to show them the way.” The Muppets themselves are a magical place, much like Krypton or Smallville or Metropolis. When Piggy’s dreams fail, she returns to the group: hitchhiking on a lonely freeway; the shattered dreams of the ingénue–opportunistic and also fragile–are left out on in the metaphoric storm, ready to be part of a group that will give her a much needed home and sense of belonging. Like Superman, who as Clark Kent surrounds himself with alienated and understanding people such as Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, and his beloved Lois Lane, Piggy too must share the limelight (as much as she might not like to) with fellow Muppets in order to find her place in the universe. When the car breaks down and they get stuck out in the desert, here is the place of existential discovery and reflection for all of them. Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Camilla, Rowlf, Scooter, and the Electric Mayhem Band make up the core Muppets of the piece, and somehow they make their little community work. When the defeated and doubtful Kermit has his conversation with his alter-ego, he is told that “They believed in the dream,” which is a shot in the arm. Kermit’s faith is restored, and he is reborn. The beautiful speech Kermit gives to Doc Hopper about the importance of friendship and community sums up the entire film, and with Animal’s gigantism (the most primal and least complicated Muppet finally setting the record straight and scaring off Doc Hopper and his associates) bringing the conflict to an end, the film is allowed to breathe and give our heroic Muppets their brain, courage and heart.
Although, of course, they had all of this from the get-go. The Orson Welles scene at the end of the film gives the genre tropes used throughout the film such as the showdown, the backyard musical, the road movie, and the western legitimacy, because the Muppets have finally reached Hollywood. When they set up their movie with their brightly colored sets and pieces that reflect their journey (an introspective account of what they have all experienced), it all comes crashing down. Dreams are shattered and the world of show business lets these hopefuls down. But the magic is still alive, and a rainbow shines through the soundstage, lighting up Kermit, Piggy, and their friends. The dream is alive and well as the Muppets–now joined by hundreds of animals, what-nots, monsters, and every single character that ever graced The Muppet Show–thank the lovers, the dreamers, and you. The final number expresses all there is to say about wanting to be an entertainer, but it also says what The Muppet Movie sets out to let its audience know: that “somebody out there loves you.”