So! Rule of Three. This something that I’ve been meaning to start as a complement to Trilogy of Terror. In that series we look at three related horror films in the runup to Halloween, so I thought Rule of Three could serve as a nice balance in which we look at comedies. Like the Trilogy of Terror selections, these could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really. The title Rule of Three refers to the comedy theory that if you say the same thing three times, Beetlejuice will appear.
Anyway, I had a few ideas for how to kick off this series, but, really, there’s only one way I knew I’d be happy with: by looking at the three Jim Henson-era Muppet films.
Well, the theatrical ones, anyway.
…and not Follow That Bird.
And…you know what? It’s The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Now leave me alone.
I’ve been running this site for around five years, and I’ve still, somehow, never properly covered a Muppet production. That’s…kind of crazy to me, and I have genuinely no explanation for that. But now, just as we’ve said goodbye to several thousand weeks of ALF reviews, I think it’s right to celebrate the much better puppets, much stronger writing, and much more effective characterization from the mind of Jim Henson.
These reviews won’t be unbiased. I mean, they can’t be, since I’m one man sharing my opinion on another man’s art. So, y’know, if you’re looking for unbiased reviews of anything you’re in trouble. But what I want to say up front is this: the Muppets mean something to me. They mean kind of a lot to me, actually. So much so that I can’t watch anything Jim Henson did without misting up a little bit, as every bit of footage he left behind reminds me of the profound loss that was his death.
Henson passed away in 1990. He was 53. I was nine. His death was the first that ever affected me. I hadn’t lost any family members before that. Or any friends. Or any pets. But I lost someone whose death, I truly feel, hit me as hard as I could possibly have been hit at the time.
Had I lost a family member or a friend or a pet, I would have been sad. I would have been overcome with emotion. I would have been inconsolable for some period of time. But with Jim Henson, I didn’t just lose someone I was close to. I lost someone who created worlds for me to inhabit. Places that felt like home. Multitudes of characters I loved and cared about.
At nine years old I wasn’t close enough to anybody to feel the true sting of their death. I absolutely felt it for Jim Henson’s, though, and I still feel it today. He was a visionary who, in large part, shaped the world for me. Made it seem less scary. Created an environment of limitless magic, imagination, and camaraderie. To this day, writing about his death is one of the most difficult things for me. I never met him, but I knew him. He never met me — or so many fans like me — but he did so much for me.
Watching The Muppet Movie as an adult, though, it’s not only a reminder of the great creative mind we lost; it’s an acknowledgment on his part that he knew what he accomplished. And that’s tremendously reassuring, as the only thing that would make Henson’s death sadder would be the suspicion that he wasn’t aware of how much he meant to so many people.
I feel comfortable saying this, because The Muppet Movie is framed as a sort of loose autobiography. By Kermit, of course, but also by Henson behind him. And it says a lot that, in both Jim’s case and Kermit’s, when they’re given this platform with which to tell their stories, they decide instead to tell a lot of stories. Not just about themselves, but about everybody who helped them get there. Kermit may have started out on his own, with a little bit of talent and a genuine desire to make people happy, but he ends the film with a legion of enthusiastic collaborators that accomplish so much more together than any of them could have accomplished alone.
The same goes for Jim. He may have been the center of these productions, but he was never the center of attention. They were group efforts. Ensemble pieces. Everybody got a spotlight, and nobody was any more or less important than anybody else. There’s very little ego in The Muppet Movie. There’s no room for it, because it’s much too full of love.
Early in the film, Kermit’s nephew Robin asks if this is how the Muppets really got started. Kermit replies, “Well, it’s sort of approximately how it happened.” And, just like that, Kermit’s biopic becomes Jim’s as well. (Or…vice versa?)
The Muppet Movie, for better or worse, is largely plotless. But what it lacks in narrative it makes up for in charm. Whether or not that’s a fair exchange, though, is up to you. For me…well, I like The Muppet Movie, but I think I respect and admire it a bit more than I actually enjoy it. It wouldn’t be until the troupe’s next theatrical outing that I really think they struck gold, but that’s a story for next week.
This film’s plot is admirably meta, if not necessarily complex. I mentioned the dual, fictionalized biographies of Kermit and Henson, but even if you discard that entirely and focus only on what we actually see, we’re watching a movie in which the Muppets made a movie about how they met in which the Muppets make a movie about how they met.
Parsing that sentence is more difficult than parsing the actual film, so that’s good, but The Muppet Movie definitely delights in poking fun at its own recursive narrative structure. The most notable meta gag is probably the one in which Kermit and Fozzie give The Electric Mayhem a copy of the screenplay so that the band can catch themselves up on the story without boring the audience. And the gag becomes an actual plot point when The Electric Mayhem show up later in the film to help Kermit, being able to find him by reading ahead in the script.
That’s a cute enough moment in itself, but my absolute favorite thing about it is that the screenplay is clean and crisp when the band first gets it, and dog-eared and doodled-upon when it turns up again later. It’s a completely unnecessary weathering of the prop that makes the entire production feel more real, even as it draws attention to its own artifice. (The screenplay reminds you, after all, that these are characters going through a scripted routine.)
It’s also an example of the kind of thought that goes into a great Muppet production from all angles, and it’s a layered instance of why the characters resonated (and continue to resonate) with so many different audiences and age groups. The smallest children enjoy the novelty of seeing puppets and listening to their silly voices. Older kids enjoy the coyness of the meta joke. Adults, and those who have seen the films multiple times, are rewarded for paying attention to detail.
The experience unfolds on several levels, and I don’t think that’s by design; I think that’s a natural outcome of having so many people involved with the production that genuinely enjoy what they’re doing. The more the filmmakers have fun, the more opportunities for the audience to have fun.
The Muppet Movie begins when an agent notices Kermit strumming his banjo alone in the swamp. The world’s most beloved frog is perfectly happy to stay just where he is. Maybe he’ll catch a movie now and then. Maybe he’ll match wits with a passing fisherman. But, on the whole, this is his life, and he is content.
He doesn’t want fame, or fortune, and the agent (Dom DeLuise, in the first of the film’s many great cameos) can really offer Kermit only one thing: the chance to make millions of people happy.
Kermit’s trip to Hollywood isn’t one of greed (like Piggy’s) or opportunity (like Gonzo’s). It’s just a way for him to bring joy to countless people he will never meet. That gives his life meaning. And that’s what gets him moving…the knowledge that he can help people just by being himself, but only if he gets out there and does it.
I don’t know how much The Muppet Movie syncs up with Henson’s own personal journey to stardom, but I do get the sense that Jim had a very similar desire. He had, as Kermit puts it at one point, “the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with.”
Admittedly, I don’t seek out scandalous information about celebrities, so I’m not the guy to say this conclusively. But I’ve read enough about Jim Henson through the years that I doubt he was motivated by fame, money, power, or anything along those lines.
His collaborators loved him. His family loved him. His fans loved him. He was, so far as I’ve ever known, a humble guy who worked incredibly hard to make a lot of people happy. And that was, also so far as I’ve ever known, enough for him.
I know also that Lew Lord (Orson Welles, in the last of the film’s many great cameos) gives Kermit his big break just as Lew Grade gave Jim Henson a real-life big break by commissioning The Muppet Show. But between those bookends, I think it’s less of a matter of mapping the biographical touchpoints than it is relishing the journey.
Sure, we know that there are general similarities between Kermit’s experience and Henson’s. We know that at some point Jim would have linked up with collaborators that each brought something unique to the team and therefore helped to define the Muppet experience as we know it. But try as I might I can’t seem to find any information about a villain who stalked Henson with the intention of eating his delicious, delicious legs.
As you see, I keep drifting away from describing the plot, and that’s because the film really plays like a feature-length episode of The Muppet Show that happens to take place outside the theater. (Or, well, in a different kind of theater.)
The Muppet Movie is a celebration rather than a story, a kind of victory lap even before its parent show drew to a close. (The Muppet Show would continue until 1981. Specifically it would end one month after I was born.) It even retains that show’s loose variety format, though it does its best to mask it.
Each character (or group of characters) gets some opportunity in the spotlight. Then we get a musical number. Then we get some winking feat of impressive puppetry. A famous face shows up to lend an air of legitimacy to the silliness. Then we cycle back through those things, not necessarily in the same order.
This can make for a fairly odd viewing experience, as it’s somewhere between sketch comedy and a road movie, without really being either. But if you’re willing to surrender to the scattershot format and ignore abrupt segues — such as when Kermit goes from singing with a piano playing dog to being enthusiastically tortured by Mel Brooks — there’s a lot to enjoy.
The Muppet Movie needs to be appraised as a series of scenes rather than as one coherent experience, and that makes me wonder how newcomers must feel seeing it. As an introduction to the Muppets, it’s probably pretty lousy. As a chance to spend an extended amount of time goofing off with them, though, it fares much better. I do have to admit that I’m in the camp that prefers the stronger narrative of The Great Muppet Caper, as I feel that the jokes land better when there’s some kind of identifiable plot behind them.
None of which is to say that the jokes in The Muppet Movie don’t land. It’s more, though, that they take the form of zingers and one-liners…comedy based in the moment rather than in the character or the larger situation. They’re jokes that play just as well on paper as they do in performance, because there’s little to them beyond the joke.
That’s due to the screenplay being written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl, two of the head writers for The Muppet Show. On that show, the jokes came fast and needed to register quickly, as no one skit got much breathing room. Subtlety was uncommon, and wit was paramount. Puns were often the order of the day, as those could be counted on for some kind of reaction, even if it was just a groan or a chuckle of recognition.
It worked on The Muppet Show (I mean…obviously now…) but I do think that films benefit from a wider comic perspective. We’re spending more time with these characters and in these situations, after all. The jokes have room to breathe; it’s just a matter of whether or not a writer takes advantage of that. Burns and Juhl for the most part do not, and that’s fine; The Muppet Movie is funny enough as it is. But the shift in approach for The Great Muppet Caper was, for my money, an improvement that better served the big screen format.
So that’s the writing, the performing, and the variety format from The Muppet Show accounted for…and that’s not all. When Henson celebrates, he invites as many people along as possible. That means we spend time with some human Muppet Show veterans, and it’s time well spent for sure.
Madeline Kahn, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and Edgar Bergen hosted the show and cameo here. The film is also dedicated to the memory of the latter. (Bergen died not long after filming his scene.) The Muppet Movie is therefore tribute paid to one important puppeteer by another, keeping the spirits of both alive for new audiences.
Paul Williams also hosted The Muppet Show and cameos here, and was even invited to compose the soundtrack. You have him (and Kenneth Ascher) to thank for “The Rainbow Connection,” “Movin’ Right Along,” and “I’m Going to Go Back There Some Day”…three of the best original songs the Muppets ever had.
But the best human in the bunch?
Steve Martin, who hosted the show in season two, shows up here as a brilliantly irritable waiter. There’s just something about the way he delivers innocuous lines like “May I help you?” and “Thank you” that manages to suggest an entire, hilarious character that we barely get to see.
I can’t overstate his impact. Martin is perfect, working so much comic business into such a small (and, strictly speaking, unnecessary) role. His demeanor is so rude and dismissive that he almost seems bigoted against pigs and frogs, and resents having to serve them on principle. (Something made a hundred times funnier by the fact that neither Kermit nor Piggy seem to pick up on this.)
It’s the careless way he tears the foil from the bottle of wine. It’s the way he tastes it and immediately spits it on the ground. It’s the way he announces Kermit’s selection as “one of the finest wines of Idaho.”
And that’s where The Muppet Movie both lives and dies. It’s either funny enough that we’re along for the ride, or not quite funny enough and we start wondering where we are in the plot, or trying to remember what these guys are even trying to accomplish.
But I’m not here to pick at the flaws. And, hey, even if I did, I’m sure someone else would disagree. A scene that leaves me largely cold could be somebody else’s highlight. Or a cameo that means almost nothing to me could hit somebody else in a way that I’ll never know. (Richard Pryor smoothly selling Gonzo an excessive number of balloons was an unexpected highlight from my most recent viewing, though I’m not sure I ever even laughed at that moment before.)
If I did have a concern worth discussing, it would probably be Doc Hopper, who doesn’t register as much of a villain. I hate to keep talking about The Great Muppet Caper ahead of its actual review next week, but a character like Nicky Holiday — nuanced, conflicted, willing to engage with the Muppets rather than endlessly push against them — really shows how to do a foil to these guys correctly.
Charles Durning does well enough, but I think Doc Hopper is just too relentlessly and transparently evil. It’s hard to care much about who he is when he’s hiring assassins to shoot Kermit through the brain, and while the basic idea of tempting Kermit to betray his species is an interesting one, it’s pretty clear that Kermit would never be tempted by that in the first place.
And indeed he isn’t. Hopper tries to tempt Kermit with something Kermit would never want, so it’s a bit deflating to that entire plot. Hopper is less Satan on the mountaintop telling Jesus “All these things I will give you,” and more some guy at the bus station asking if you want the pickle he found under the bench.
I’m really not sure why Hopper’s scheme wasn’t finessed in later drafts into something a little more interesting, or at least more difficult for Kermit to outright dismiss. Where’s the conflict?
It’s odd that Hopper is so one-dimensional, especially since none of the other characters are. That goes all the way down to Mel Brooks cathartically playing a gurning German scientist, Bob Hope getting an awed smile from Fozzie Bear, and Milton Berle trying to sell the gang a lemon with “detachable fenders, for narrow garages.”
There’s character in these characters, however small or thankless their role could have been. And that makes Hopper stand out in unfortunate relief.
And that’s without even looking at our Muppet characters. Henson, obviously, does incredible work as Kermit, selling every ounce of his pie-eyed confidence, and selling it even more effectively when that confidence falters, and he begins to wonder if a setback means he’s let everybody down.
Frank Oz does predictably solid work as Fozzie and Miss Piggy, two of the richest characters in the Muppet arsenal. Well-rounded and perfectly defined, with absolutely zero overlap between them, either in how they act or how they think, and that’s always been deeply impressive to me. (Eric Jacobson, I feel compelled to add, does an incredible job of keeping those characters, as well as Oz’s others, alive and with perfect continuation of their personalities. Jacobson is stellar at not just nailing how they sound and how they act, but what makes makes them who they are.)
Jerry Nelson (Floyd, Robin) and Richard Hunt (Scooter, Beaker) don’t get to do as much, but Dave Goelz as Gonzo gets an incredibly moving and unexpected spotlight. In fact, it’s probably the highlight of the entire film, which is pretty surprising as it’s just Gonzo singing about some balloons.
…okay. It’s not just that at all. And that’s what’s so wonderful about it.
At one point in the film, Gonzo gets swept away by the breeze while holding his balloons. It’s a nice bit of puppet stuntwork, there’s a brief encounter with Doc Hopper, and then Gonzo falls down and the show (literally) gets back on the road.
It’s nice, but not much different than any other death-defying antics Gonzo got up to on The Muppet Show.
Except for one detail: something clicks for him. Something feels right. Something feels…almost like home.
And then the balloons pop, before he can finish his thought. The movie goes on, and Gonzo keeps whatever awakening he’s had to himself. Until the car breaks down, and the gang is forced to spend a quiet night in the desert.
He says, “I wish I had those balloons again.” And if we don’t understand what he means by that — what he really means — he elaborates in song.
Rowlf plays a gentle harmonica. Fozzie strums a ukulele. Gonzo sings “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.” The entire song is a tangle of half-formed thoughts expressed earnestly…a character struggling to find words for something he can feel, but can’t explain. It’s heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time…a doomed attempt to describe an emotion too complicated for the singer to even fully comprehend.
But he sings anyway. And somewhere between the lines, we know what he feels.
Of course we do.
We’ve all felt it, too.
And it’s here that Gonzo, of all characters, occupies the emotional core of the entire film.
He doesn’t get to do much after “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.” But, well…what could he possibly do after that?
The Muppet Movie may or may not be a great comedy film. I don’t know that I’d call it one. But I’d absolutely call it an invaluable document.
It’s a record of something we had, too briefly. A glimpse into a universe Jim Henson wove together from nothing, with the help of friends and colleagues who understood his vision and each, with their own voices and talents, brought it successfully to life.
It’s a silly movie about a frog who meets a bear and a pig and a whatever and a dog and a bunch of other things and brings them to Hollywood, but it’s also, itself, evidence of the fact that somebody did that in real life, too. One guy who wanted to bring a little more happiness into the world, surrounding himself with those that could help him do it, and bringing them all along for the adventure.
The Muppet Movie is overflowing with love. With gratitude. With appreciation.
And when we lost Jim Henson, we lost a man who put so much of those things into everything he did. We lost an artist who cared. One who changed the world several times over. One who could have kept changing it. Kept bringing happiness. Kept making life a little brighter for those who needed it.
I’ve said before that I owe my creativity to Jim Henson. I’ll always stand by that. I grew up, after all, watching his productions. Watching him take pieces of felt and ping pong balls and glue them together to make something that was alive. I watched a man of profound imagination bring the things he imagined into the real world. Where they really existed. Where they’d continue to exist long after he was gone.
He didn’t care if you saw the rods moving the arms around. He didn’t care if a puppeteer’s head popped into frame. He didn’t care that you could see the seams.
He knew that a character’s life was deeper than that. It wasn’t on the surface, in the object; it was in what you brought to it. He had the not only the gift of imagination, but the ability to bring the things he imagined to life.
And that’s the word I’d use to describe his legacy. Imagination.
He showed me what imagination was, and then taught me countless times over what I could do with it. He taught me that imagination had value, and then you didn’t have to be afraid to share it.
I was watching a man bring his ideas to life. He made me think, for the first time, that I could do something, too. That achievement was not out of my reach.
Like Kermit, he believed in himself. He didn’t think he was fated for anything, or that he even deserved anything. He just worked hard and surrounded himself with people who understood. Little by little, the world opened itself up to him.
Who better to follow?