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Further Muppet Film Thoughts, From an Invested Observer

August 19th, 2016 | Posted by Philip J Reed in film | guest post

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

Tossing things over to reader / friend / all-around-great-guy Stephen Fletcher this week. He watched me talk out of my ass about three Muppet movies and could stay silent no longer. Of course, he doesn’t seem very angry in his writing, but I assure you he flew to America and spat on my car. And if he says he didn’t, then WHO DID STEPHEN? Anyway, he wanted to share his own thoughts, and I wanted to let him. I’m just that kind of guy, and I had nothing else planned for this week.

I’ve gained something of a reputation as a Muppet fanatic. Almost annoyingly so to others, I sometimes feel. I’m pretty sure my friends’ Facebook feeds are littered with Muppet related posts from me, for one thing. My room has several Muppet posters and pictures adorning the walls and a good collection of Muppet DVDs and Blu-rays proudly sit on my shelf. I tend to get a bit of gentle ribbing or even eye-rolling from friends and family as Jim Henson and the Muppets have become such a strong part of my geeky identity. However I feel I must begin this with a shocking admission…

I didn’t become a huge Muppet fan until I was 21, and never even saw The Muppet Show and most of the other movies/specials until I was 21, too!

The only Muppet-y things I grew up with were primarily Muppet Babies and The Muppets Take Manhattan. I did also watch some of the 90s movies and Muppets Tonight at the time. I even thought Muppet Babies came first, and The Muppet Show and all the movies were made after that! At the time, that lead to me being totally confused as to why Scooter and Rowlf (as well as Skeeter) seemed to completely disappear from these other things. But that’s something I can probably go more in depth about when I talk about the third film.

The Muppet Movie (1979)

The Muppet Movie, 1979

But anyway. The Muppet Movie. If I had to sum this movie up in one sentence, I would probably call it the most spiritual and soulful Muppet movie of them all. Jim Henson, the Muppets in general, and pretty much all of Jim’s creations have always had this spiritual philosophy to them. The strong message that always pervades the Muppets is that it’s OK to be green, a bad joke-telling bear, or a crazy whatever. Another part of their message is about finding your voice and what makes you happy, following your dreams and being whatever you want to be, no matter what. I think nothing encapsulates that message more than this movie.

Of all the Muppet movies, this is truly the most spiritual, soulful and beautiful of them all. Three words that I may use a lot here, but I honestly think those three words are perfect for this movie, and really cannot be used enough. I find it impossible to not smile during many moments in this movie, particularly during “Rainbow Connection,” the look on Kermit’s face as he and the gang receive the standard rich and famous contract, and when the rainbow comes pouring through the studio at the end and the actual rainbow connection has found them. God, that last verse sung in the movie is just so wonderful and will always be in my head!

Which leads me to the soundtrack. It’s also impossible to not sing along while watching the movie. I find the music and songs just so joyous, and yet again, beautiful and soulful. Just what Muppet music should be. The two biggest stand outs for me are “Rainbow Connection” and “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.” Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher really excel here with their writing on these songs. Absolutely beautiful lyrics.

If I had to pick between the two songs, I would pick “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.” It might even be my favourite Muppet song ever. There’s just something about it that’s always struck a chord with me. A lovely mix of sadness, longing, contentment, wonder and idealism. Dave Goelz/Gonzo’s vocal track and performance are a big part of what makes the song so endearing. (I also highly recommend his performance of the song in Jim Henson’s memorial.) However, the true beauty of the song is the lyrics; play this song separately, out of context with the rest of the movie, and it’s open to many interpretations.

I will mention what is probably the one thing I don’t like about The Muppet Movie, and this will be a completely biased point as it concerns my favourite Muppet of them all – Scooter. I’m really don’t like how he’s used in this film. Or how little he’s used in this film, really. It just doesn’t sit right with me that he doesn’t join Kermit and Fozzie straight away. He’s one of the main characters from The Muppet Show, but I get the feeling that the writers just didn’t know what to do with him outside of the show.

This movie in particular, I get the feeling like they didn’t know where to put Scooter so they just threw him in as the band’s road manager and had him awkwardly added in during “Can You Picture That?” playing whatever instrument they could find for him. I think they do remedy this to an extent in The Muppets Take Manhattan. I remember six years ago, I got the opportunity to ask Muppet writer Jim Lewis on the Muppet central forum about Scooter’s treatment over the years and he did confess that as a writer he’s “struggled with Scooter.”

I’ve always felt that the Muppets had a “main six.” That “main six” changed over the years as some Muppet Performers either passed away or retired, but during the Jim Henson era, that “main six” to me were Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Scooter and Rowlf. Granted, I grew up with Muppet Babies and The Muppets Take Manhattan, which gave that impression. Though to be fair, the last two movies were arguably under that impression as well.

Every time I watch the movie, the one thing that bugs me is during the scene with Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Camilla and Rowlf all together in the car (about to be stranded in the desert). It bugs me for a couple reasons. The obvious one being Scooter isn’t there and I personally think he would’ve joined them sooner. And the other thing that doesn’t sit right with me is how of all the main performers, Richard Hunt is the only one who doesn’t have any of his characters in that car. Granted, I may sound a little biased (and probably a little crazy) since I just love both Richard and Scooter. And yes, I know Richard most likely had a hand in one of the other Jim Henson or Frank Oz characters in the scene, but as I said, it just really didn’t feel right to me. Again, I think this is something slightly fixed in the third film.

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

One thing that strikes me as interesting straight away in the film is the main trio of Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo. This film could’ve arguably just had twin brothers Kermit and Fozzie working together, and I think if this movie had been made just a few years earlier, it very well might have done that. But by this point, after five seasons of The Muppet Show and a movie, Gonzo had evolved and grown so much, he was now cemented as a core character, just as popular as Kermit, Fozzie or Piggy.

Strangely, as I was writing notes during a re-watch for this, this was the only note I had written down. I don’t know why, to be honest. It’s not like I dislike the film. The twin brothers gag never gets old to me (I’m willing to bet that Jerry Juhl came up with that), the songs are absolutely fantastic – “The First Time It Happens” and “Couldn’t We Ride” being some of the most beautiful songs ever made. Charles Grodin and Diana Rigg are probably the best human co-stars a Muppet movie has ever had.

Of the three movies, I think it’s fair to say, this one is the most fun and comedic of them all. The Muppet Movie had some incredibly moving moments, and while there are still some here, it’s mostly the Muppets having fun in their own movie, and it’s a comedy first. It’s definitely the most fourth wall breaking of them all, too. Muppet movies are known to break the fourth wall with the characters usually acknowledging they’re in a movie. I think this movie does that more than any other in such a wonderful way. My absolute favourite line has to be when Lady Holiday suddenly starts giving Piggy an unprompted character description of her irresponsible parasite of a brother, when Piggy asks her why she’s telling her this, she simply replies: “It’s plot exposition; it has to go somewhere.” Still cracks me up to no end.

For whatever reason though, during this re-watch, I found myself enjoying this one the least of the three films. That will probably change in future watches. I know I never felt that way in previous ones.

I can only imagine the disgust on Philip’s face as he realizes something negative about The Great Muppet Caper will be published on his site.

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

If I had to mention one thing I know I don’t like about Caper (Sorry, Philip) it would be the lack of Scooter, Rowlf and The Electric Mayhem. I much prefer it when the whole family of Muppets have big parts to play for the whole film instead of being mostly supporting players to Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie and Gonzo. Of all three films, I feel like this one really does present the Muppets as a family more than the others do.

Right from the beginning, we see them performing a show together for their college graduation. When the idea comes up of putting the show up on Broadway and realizing the alternative is going their separate ways and saying goodbye to each other, they immediately jump at the chance to try and make it in the big city.

They’re a family right from the start and have been united as such for a while instead of meeting for the first time and eventually coming together like the first two films. I just love that there’s more of a big Muppet family feeling straight away.

I promise this will be the last time I use the word term “Muppet family” in mentioning this, but this would also be the last movie with the original Muppet family together. Sadly, Jim Henson and Richard Hunt passed away just a few years later and as a result, some of their characters would either be retired or silent in the next movie and would remain so for quite a while. Thankfully, in recently years, the characters have come back and been recast and are now being brought back to the fore again, which I couldn’t be more thrilled about. Though it’s still arguably the biggest role Scooter, Rowlf and The Electric Mayhem have had in a Muppet movie.

Certainly the best use of Scooter in this. Here, he almost shines as he gets more to do (in the first half anyway) when he convinces the rest of the gang that it might be best to go their separate ways and make it on their own. Not the best decision, granted, but his heart is in the right place. He’s no longer that teenager using nepotism to get a job at the Muppet theatre. Here he’s now a young adult showing some leadership qualities and giving a vibe of second in command.

If you compare Scooter’s voice in the first season of The Muppet Show to this film and further projects down the line, it really does feel to me that Richard had (possibly consciously) been aging him.

I also look at this as Rizzo’s breakout movie. Here he’s given his first major role. He appeared in the last season of The Muppet Show and briefly in The Great Muppet Caper, but he’s finally the wiseguy rat we know and love today. Hard to believe he’d be given a lead role with Gonzo in the next three movies!

Of the three films in the Jim Henson era, this is the only one I grew up with. This one does have a more nostalgic feeling for me. It’s impossible not to feel it once “Together Again” plays right at the start. I grew up mostly watching Muppet Babies. I think I did see Christmas Carol and Treasure Island before seeing this and it confused my child-like brain as to why Scooter, Skeeter and Rowlf seemed to disappear completely. I assumed Muppet Babies was canon (and there was some sort of canon with the Muppets) and the movies and The Muppet Show were created and took place after Muppet Babies.

I remember suddenly seeing this film from out of nowhere on a VHS tape I was watching. Whatever I was watching had finished and jumped to a recording of the film. The first five minutes had either been recorded over or missed, and I remember the first thing I saw was the gang in their lockers. I never knew of the film’s existence and was totally surprised and shocked to suddenly see an adult Scooter. I think I assumed that like Skeeter and Nanny, he was a character only seen on that show. Also imagine my further surprise when the Muppet Babies scene comes on! I think that was how I made the previously mentioned assumption. Either that or it cemented it.

Kid Me was very stupid. Thank god I’m the intelligent adult I am today.

I thought I’d end this on a few more observations and thoughts I wrote down that if I was a better writer, I’d manage to fit into this more deftly:

– Kermit’s faith, determination and optimism after the crushing blow of months of rejection and now losing his friends is such a great moment. He’s not going to give up, determined that the frog is staying, and going to be on Broadway with friends! Heartwarming and the most endearing thing about him.

– “Rat Scat” is one of my favourite things ever. Amazing puppetry and like many songs with Steve Whitmire, his vocal skills just make it for me.

– Maybe it’s just me, but the mugger who grabs Piggy’s purse kind of looks like Richard Hunt on steroids.

– Gil sounds quite close to Steve Whitmire’s Kermit, don’t ya think?

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