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Welcome back to Trilogy of Terror, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. This is the first installment in our trilogy; the second will go live October 24, and the third on Halloween itself.

The films I feature in Trilogy of Terror could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really. This year I’m covering Christian horror. Which, evidently, exists.

Part of the reason I chose this theme was that I wanted to watch Harmless.

Okay, let me take that back, because that’s a lie, and we know where liars go. What I wanted to watch was “that movie about the haunted box of pornography.” That’s all I remembered…that unforgettable and thoroughly ridiculous concept for a film that really, truly couldn’t be anything short of hilarious in execution.

For a while, this movie seemed to be everywhere. Sites I frequented were writing about it and friends were sharing the trailer on Facebook. It looked like a riot. It was, so far as I could tell, a found-footage horror film about a man whose family is terrorized by the monster he let loose in their lives…which hitched a ride, apparently, in a box full of pornographic magazines.

I couldn’t remember its title, and I didn’t even know if it had come out…but I knew I’d seen the trailer making the rounds years ago, and surely it couldn’t take that long to make.

And, to be fair, while I had no faith (haha) in the film being good, it wasn’t necessarily doomed from the outset. Yes, it would be low budget. Yes, it would be preachy. Yes, it would be overacted.

But pornography addiction is a very real thing. It’s an actual problem, like any addiction is. And there could possibly be some twisted mileage to get out of turning it into a horror film, with the demon of addiction personified. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I can imagine it working. It would need to be self-aware and at least periodically humorous, but I can see the concept being conducive to exploring addiction — and the way it can tear families apart — in a memorable and interesting way.

After all, isn’t fighting addiction a lot like fighting demons? (The answer is “yes” because that’s exactly the idiom people use to describe that situation.) A movie can bring a demon to life and force the characters (and us) to look it in the eye. The fact that a spiritual filmmaker might see that demon as real and a secular one might see it as a useful metaphor is a big difference, but that shouldn’t in itself dictate how believable or enjoyable the film is.

Unfortunately, it looks like Harmless was never actually made. The trailer lives on, but evidently Rich Praytor — the film’s director — shot footage just for this purpose. They weren’t clips from a film he was making, but rather proofs of concept. I have to give him credit for that. It was a labor of love, and he edited this trailer hoping people would buy in.

I mean that literally. Harmless was a Kickstarter project that failed to meet its paltry goal of $12,500. It pulled in just under $600 in pledges before Praytor saw the writing on the wall and cancelled the campaign.

Of course, as someone who has his own failed Kickstarter behind him, I don’t see that as a specific reason for mockery. Praytor had an idea and he asked the world if it was interested. The world collectively replied, “Nah,” and he moved on with his life. All in all, that’s admirable.

That was in 2012, and as much as I scoured the internet in the hopes that Harmless eventually materialized in some other form, I found nothing. There are sites (including IMDB) that claim it was released, but there’s no evidence of it, the Kickstarter was cancelled, and there are other sources that indeed say the film never happened. The world is poorer for it.

And yet, in 2014, another Richard Praytor film appeared. This one was called The Lock In. And it was a found-footage horror film about teens who are terrorized by the monster they let loose in their lives…which hitched a ride, apparently, in a pornographic magazine.

Harmless may have died, but its spirit rose again in The Lock In. And thus we have this year’s Trilogy of Terror.

Unless it’s relevant to the film — or my reading thereof — I wouldn’t usually bring up outside details of a director’s life. But in this case, looking for Harmless, I came across a lot of information about Praytor. Not as a filmmaker, but as a stand-up comedian. You can watch the nearest thing to a highlight reel here. To his credit, he received an endorsement of his talents from Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series. To his larger discredit, the Left Behind series is by no means known for its quality and completely lacks a sense of humor, so these words of praise are exactly as relevant to his craft as they would be coming from his local butcher.

I’m mentioning this because…well, Christian entertainers gonna entertain Christians. I get it. But what was this tepid, family-friendly chuckle-slinger doing investing himself into two different horror movie projects? If Praytor’s gift is comedy, and that’s the talent he’s honed for over a decade now, and what he uses to speak what he considers to be the language of Christ, then why wasn’t he making comedy films instead? Especially as the premise of a spooky porno book would have to work far less hard to succeed as farce than it would as horror?

I honestly have no idea, and I’m baffled. Praytor’s comedy in that compilation isn’t the sort of thing that appeals to me directly, but there’s clearly room for it. I don’t find it especially smart or clever, but I can’t imagine there are many church-appropriate stand-up comedians jostling for the space he occupies. I’d be willing to believe he’s filling a niche. But having watched The Lock In, I’d be unwilling to believe it was directed by anyone with a single funny bone in his body.

The Lock In is terrible, but that’s not its crime. Many movies are terrible and yet compulsively, deliriously watchable. Mystery Science Theater 3000 launched a widespread appreciation of cheesy movies, and the genuine financial success of things like The Room and Sharknado proves that people don’t always need a movie to be good before they’ll devote their time to it…they just need to get some kind of pleasure out of it. Watching the wheels fall off an inept production does bring along with it a kind of thrill, and it’s one that sticks with us. We could watch hundreds of competent ballet performances, but we’re always going to remember the one in which the lead dancer tripped and fell over.

The Lock In, though, is neither competent nor is it humorously awful. It’s just a bad movie. It’s one that does nothing right, but also fails to do anything wrong in any interesting ways. It’s the kind of movie that might have been made by somebody who spent a few hours reading about what movies were, but had never actually seen one.

Praytor doesn’t seem to know enough about film to even attempt anything interesting, and so nothing in the film is. And when the central threat of your film is a pornography ghost, that’s both a real problem and a big missed opportunity.

The plot is simple enough. (Beware of spoilers for a movie you’ve never heard of and which isn’t available for purchase anywhere.)

On their way to a church lock-in, three friends stop to clean out their car. Justin is the one holding the camera, Nick is the nice one who has a crush on a girl named Jessica, and Blake is a prankster. Blake finds a dirty magazine in a dumpster, and thinks it would be funny to smuggle it into church.

He does, and strange things start happening, such as a garbage can falling over, and somebody off camera turning on a faucet. All of the other lock-in participants vanish, leaving the three teenaged idiots to be mildly inconvenienced in the least inventive ways imaginable. At one point they find another of the participants, but then she vanishes again, so there was really no point. The kids scream a lot, and eventually Praytor hits the 90-minute mark and the film ends.

If that sounds impressively unfun for a movie about a pornography demon, that’s because it is. At every opportunity, Praytor chooses the least interesting way forward. But he does — stopped clock that he is — hit upon a strong concept for the film’s presentation right out of the gate. It’s not original, but it’s appropriate, and it sets the film into a kind of identifiable logic that, sadly, falls apart the longer you look at it.

It begins with what should be a brief interview of Chris, a former youth pastor. I say it should be brief because it actually runs to nearly five minutes, which is a Hell of a long time for a character we don’t know to speak dead-eyed to the camera before the movie even starts.

Chris mentions that footage exists of the lock-in that made him resign from his position as youth pastor, and they’ve edited it down to just the highlights so that the church elders could see what happened. Then there’s a static title card that says:

The following footage is intended for review only by the church board. Any duplication or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

That’s good. It tells us immediately what kind of film we’re going to see (found footage), it explains why this footage happens to be the same length as a movie (it was edited to give a specific audience a beat-by-beat overview of what happened), and it makes us feel as though we’re going to see something important (we’re breaking the strict prohibition by not being a church elder / member of the church board).

That single slide does a lot of work setting the film into motion. Sadly, it’s about the only thing that works, but Praytor at least plays into the kinds of things you can do with the concept. By allowing some unknown editor within the world of his film to “edit” what we’re seeing, we aren’t subject to an hour and a half of unbroken footage directly from the perspective of Justin’s camcorder.

Instead, this was assembled after the fact, with the ostensible goal of providing as full a view of that night’s events as possible, Praytor lets his phantom editor splice in security camera footage, Chris’s interview, and, at one point, footage from a separate recording that has nothing to do with the lock-in but does provide further insight into what’s happening.

That’s all fine. In theory.

In practice, these aspects all fall short. The spliced-in separate recording (which we’ll discuss in greater detail later) doesn’t offer as much insight (or horror) as Praytor thinks it does. The security camera footage could provide a valuable outsider’s perspective, but all it really shows us is a second angle of kids walking down hallways. And nearly all of the film — and certainly all of the important moments — are seen through Justin’s camcorder anyway, usually in extraordinarily (and unwisely) long scenes that positively cry out for editing.

The fact that Chris opens the film telling us it has been edited to just the most important information becomes an unintentional retroactive joke; if you’re editing this down to show the elders that a pornography ghost stomped around their church when nobody was looking, why didn’t we cut out the long scenes of the kids waiting for each other to get ready, making small talk with parents, and sitting at traffic lights?

Admittedly, those are the things that can help with world building in film, particularly at the beginning, when audiences are still getting their bearings. But this footage doesn’t need to build a world; it occupies the same world as the elders who are meant to be viewing it. They know these places, know these people, and know these issues. All they have to see is what happened. Introducing this film as a piece of evidence for church investigation is smart, but incompatible with the actual content of the film.

Praytor seems to want to have it both ways. The scary Blair Witch Project / Paranormal Activity hybrid that traces a tragedy as it unfolds, and a believably mundane buddy film about three youngsters who meddle with things they shouldn’t. But the two approaches are at odds; The Lock In explicitly claims to be one thing, and then relentlessly positions itself as the other.

It’s strange, and the fact that there’s a didactic core to the film that insists viewers never look at pornography at any point in their lives doesn’t do it any favors. It can’t be too scary, because a wide audience needs to see this and be cautioned against the scourge of women who expose their nipples. The boys can’t be too realistic, because teenage boys curse and make crass jokes and do other family-inappropriate things. The Lock In works so hard to make sure it can appeal to everyone that it appeals to precisely no-one.

That’s a gap that all overtly Christian movies struggle to cross. (No pun intended.) Horror movies can’t be too scary, comedies can’t be irreverent, and tragic tales can only be so tragic. These are films pitched directly to the choir, which has always amused me. They aim to teach, but they’re written for those who are already taught. The final product has to be clean and acceptable enough to those who have already learned the lesson, preventing the lesson from reaching the wider audience that actually needs to hear it.

But…who needs to hear it?

In the case of The Lock In, I’m not entirely sure. People who like pornography, I guess. Or at least people who don’t actively hate it so much that they’ll dedicate months of their lives to making a film to convince others that they should hate it, too.

Which is…an odd lesson. If you are going to reach sinners and convince them not to sin, why is this specific sin the one you’re cautioning them against? Why a modern-day parable about the importance of masturbating less? A good number of the Ten Commandments are still pressing concerns for society…do we really need to focus on a deep-cut lesson like this that Jesus himself couldn’t have cared less about?

Once again, though, pornography addiction is a serious problem for those who struggle with it. But I’d argue — with confidence — that the problem is the “addiction” half of that phrase, and not the “pornography” one. Addiction to anything is inherently bad. Even relatively benign addictions sap us of our focus, our money, our time, and drive wedges between us and the people we love. Then, of course, you get into addictions to drugs and alcohol, which additionally sap us of our health and our lives. Further, addictive behaviors involving violence or non-consensual sex acts add direct consequences for others, beyond the addicted individual.

Addiction is absolutely a problem for many people. There’s certainly a scale upon which addictions can be ranked from bad to worse, but addiction to anything should be addressed.

The problem is that The Lock In isn’t about the evils of pornography addiction…it’s about the evils of pornography.

The kids with the dirty magazine don’t struggle with addiction. They just find some pictures of ladies with staples through their stomachs and barely look at any of it. Blake hides it in Nick’s bag as a joke. Nick’s crush Jessica finds it when riffling through his bag for cookies. They immediately get rid of it.

That’s not addiction.

And while the slippery slope possibility is in play — and largely born out by the separate footage we’ll discuss shortly — I don’t buy it. Yes, addiction often has roots in behavior that seems frivolous. It’s just a cigarette. One more beer won’t hurt. Yeah, I’ll pop a pill…everyone else is popping them and they seem fine.

But here, the kids don’t even demonstrate an interest in the magazine. And that’s the interference from the choir again. For these three modern-day Onans to show interest in pornography would be…well, that would be unseemly. And if we want to show this in church, or watch it with grandma, we can’t have that. So even if the kids are meant to represent the first stage of addiction, it doesn’t work. This is even sillier than a movie that shows alcoholism starting with one sip of wine…this is a movie that shows alcoholism starting with an accidental glimpse of the liquor aisle in a supermarket.

In fact, we don’t even get a glimpse of the pornography here, which breaks the reality significantly. Early in the film, the ‘Baters Three find the haunted pornography in a dumpster. Justin, the documentarian, films Blake and Nick as they look at it, but he never attempts to get into an angle that shows the material. Granted, I don’t expect a Christian film to include clear shots of Hustler spreads, but why is Justin filming anything if he’s not even interested in showing his subject?

Instead we see Blake and Nick poring over the magazine and making necessarily vague comments about it. (“Nice little magazine,” says one, referring to the pornography. “They don’t make them like that anymore,” replies the other, referring to the great advances in vagina manufacturing that had been made since the pornography was published.)

But Justin never shows us what it is, which is odd for someone who is meant to be documenting the experience. It’s like someone making a nature documentary by filming some scientists talking about their findings without ever turning the camera slightly so that they could actually film the findings. It goes against every creative and human impulse, and it makes the film feel unnatural. That’s a problem that’s even worse for found-footage films, when the entire thing relies on a feeling of worrying familiarity.

Of course, we could assume that Justin is a bit prudish himself, and wouldn’t want to personally see — let alone film — a dirty magazine. But we know this isn’t true, because at the very beginning and the very end of the movie, we see that he possesses pornography of his own. (Quite why he filmed himself flipping through skinmags at the start of the same tape he’d use to film the lock-in is beyond me.)

The fact that we don’t even get context for what the magazine contains, specifically, means it could be a Victoria’s Secret catalog for all we know. Which is a shame, because periodically The Lock In does bump up against some legitimate concerns.

For instance, Pastor Chris — upon discovering the magazine in the church — chides the boys for looking at something that degrades women, and there’s an actual discussion to be had there. The film doesn’t have it, but people are entitled to that opinion. I personally don’t have an issue with pornography as long as the participants know what they’re doing, are willing to do it, and have the right to say no at any point. If that’s how somebody chooses to makes his or her living, so be it. But I can understand the perspective of somebody who thinks it’s inherently demeaning. I don’t agree, but I understand, and they have every right to express their concern.

The fact that we don’t know what the magazine contains, though, works against that concern. Are we talking about some truly appalling smut? Or are we talking about the lingerie section of a Target flier? I keep referring to the magazine as pornographic, and that’s clearly the film’s intention as well, but its actual nature is never revealed. Pastor Chris could either be making a fair point about being respectful enough of other humans to look away from their bad choices, or he could be a Helen Lovejoy, howling with dismay that somebody modeled a swimsuit.

We don’t know, and without knowing, it’s difficult to invest. There’s clearly a vast spectrum between those two extremes, and without defining the specific point on that spectrum Pastor Chris and the Three Jacks are referring to, we can’t share in either their response or their concern. The underpants catalog can’t be met with the same degree of indignation as the snuff film. So where do we start reacting? Where do we start pushing back? To what degree do we fight to keep it out of our lives?

Whatever the nature of the porn, the kids have to speak with Pastor Chris. He lectures them for a while about how looking at these things is like driving to somebody’s house and spying on his wife through the window, which is objectively wrong in every possible way.

Then he teaches them a lesson by rolling it and making them smoke every last bit of pornography.

Frankly, I think Harmless was the smarter idea for a film. It still would have been terrible, but I can see it making some kind of point. The demon that terrorizes that protagonist’s family could function as a metaphor for the way pornography addiction could (figuratively) tear his family apart. The Lock In doesn’t have those kinds of consequences at its core. Nobody’s in danger, aside from the kids who broke the rules in the first place.

With Harmless, you’d have a family of innocents paying for the sins of the father. The stakes are naturally higher, because they don’t deserve whatever evil or turmoil the patriarch brought into their home. On some default level, you want him to atone for what he’s done and for everyone else to make it out unscathed. Here, in The Lock In, once things go wrong, literally everyone else is whisked away somewhere safe. The three boys are left alone in the church, and anyone who isn’t involved is sealed away somewhere that the bad things can’t get them.

That’s a serious miscalculation. Without innocence, there is no horror. There’s nothing at stake. The kids who walked into the meat grinder get ground into meat. That isn’t scary…that’s just a process.

Of course, this opens up a further discussion of its own: horror films are often morality tales, which you’d think would lead them to fit quite well with a didactic, Christian approach.

But innocence is relative. In a horror film, a character may be killed because he or she is guilty of a number of infractions. Having sex, disturbing a spirit, or even just walking into a room they were told not to enter. A knife comes down, fake blood spurts up, and we’re on to our next victim. The specific morality changes from film to film (and from villain to villain), but nearly always the punishment comes as a direct result of something the victims did. The killer didn’t like that they did it, and so he or she exacts revenge.

Rarely, though, will those in the audience agree with the killer’s sense of morality. I’m having trouble thinking of an example of a horror film in which the audience is morally aligned with the killer’s perspective. We may well agree that the teenagers shouldn’t have snuck into the woods to have sex. We may well agree that the shifty guy shouldn’t have stolen the idol. We may well agree that the moron shouldn’t have gone into the basement. But in each case, the brutal reprisal is likely far beyond what we would consider fair. These characters aren’t chided for their perceived misdeeds; they’re decapitated, disemboweled, flayed alive.

The horror lies in that moral gulf. If the punishments were fair, they wouldn’t be scary. They’d be just.

Therefore it’s important that however the villain’s moral compass is calibrated, it’s not in alignment with a representative member of the audience. If it were, well…they wouldn’t be a villain. (And even less would they be a monster.)

Do you see the discrepancy? In a Christian film — one which operates under the rule of the Christian God — we don’t have a crazed man in a hockey mask. We have The Lord Above. There’s still a moral code by which the characters are judged and punished, but those punishments can’t be unjust, because they’re meted out by God Almighty.

The Christian God is fair, the Christian God is loving, and the Christian God forgives. If the Christian God punishes you, it’s because you deserve punishment. Exactly that punishment. There’s no room for discussion, because the Christian God is perfect. When Jason hacks you apart, you don’t deserve it. When God does it, you definitively do.

As with the meat grinder, it’s just a process. Horror films nearly always feature a psychopathic presence or force carving its way through people who don’t deserve to die. God — from the perspective of a Christian director and Christian audience — can’t possibly be viewed through that lens. That’s not what He is, and a film meant to bring others to Him can’t — and by no means should — portray Him as a crazed, vindictive killer.

Which means that there is no innocence here. The sinners get exactly the punishment in line with the degree of their sin. That’s not my personal opinion or reading of the film; that’s what it has to be, because the punishment comes directly from God. It must be right. It must be fair. Therefore it must not be horror.

It’s interesting, the fact that two kinds of morality tales turn out to be entirely incompatible. I’d honestly have expected horror to be a fairly useful vehicle for proselytizing before The Lock In convinced me otherwise.

In fact, injecting the actual Christian God into the film — as opposed to, say, some undefined force of goodness — becomes more problematic the longer you think about it. Perhaps the most amusing wrinkle is that of Pastor Chris, whose interview at the beginning of the film occurs at some point after the night of the lock-in, and Chris talks about how shaken up he was by everything Justin captures on film.

Of course, those words turn out to reveal Chris as one hell of a wimp, as the scariest thing in the footage was a garbage can falling over. But before we get to any of that, Chris spells out the fact that what happened was so horrifying, so soul shattering, so disturbing that he had to retire from the church immediately.

Which is the sort of thing that would be fine in a normal horror film. A docent quits his job at a museum after a night of being tormented by ghosts. A gravedigger flees and becomes a shattered hobo after seeing a skeleton claw its way up from the ground. A nurse can no longer bring herself to work with sick people after barely living through a zombie epidemic.

Fine. Your life is one way. Secure, stable, and predictable. A night of terror throws everything out of whack, and you’re unable to find balance again. That’s okay. That’s human.

But it doesn’t work in a Christian film, with a pastor, because you don’t get to run from spiritual warfare. You are called and commanded to fight. That’s why it’s called spiritual warfare, and not a spiritual scuffle happening across the street that you should probably just ignore. It’s “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” not “Quick, Out the Back Door, While Satan’s Not Looking.”

The Christian God commands us to stand firm in the face of the devil. Of temptation. Of evil itself. Both testaments of the Bible are littered with the corpses of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of their faith. They were taunted. Tortured. Killed. They are presented not as fools for clinging to their faith even when it meant their lives, but as heroes. As martyrs. As examples to be followed. Instead, Pastor Chris followed the example laid out in this classic hymn: “When danger reared its ugly head / he bravely turned his tail and fled.”

I know he might have been afraid of dying, but that’s literally what you’re supposed to do for your faith. You can’t even make the argument that by surviving he is able to reach more people, because he stopped being a pastor!

Pastor Chris, from a narrative standpoint, is meant to frame what we’re about to see. He’s a much more easily shaken Rod Serling. Praytor needs him to be so frightened that he quit his job to sell insurance — and cut off all contact with the kids he used to mentor…the children who relied on him…including those who had nothing to do with what unfolded that night — because we in the audience need to grasp the severity of just what went down.

But, from a Christian standpoint, Pastor Chris doesn’t get to do that. He isn’t allowed to see the fiery eyes of the dark lord and flee for his life. He must fight. Must stare the devil down. Must protect his charges. That’s what he’s there for, specifically. Instead, we are left with the mental image of Pastor Chris scampering away to the tune of “Yakety Sax.”

Pastor Chris’s response means he can only function as a comic character, but this isn’t a comedy, and nothing is funny. It also means that he can’t be the wise and honest man of great integrity that the film needs him to be. If he is, then he was a shitty youth pastor. And if he’s not, then his film-opening cautions against what we are about to see are meaningless.

And, again, please remember that what he was shaken up about was footage of a trash can falling over.

I don’t mean to keep harping on that, but for a horror movie, in which a demon is awakened, in which teenagers ostensibly fend for their lives, in which evil itself is on the prowl, and which lasts an hour and a half, you’d expect something more to happen. You really would. And it doesn’t. It’s a movie about haunted pornography, and a trash can falling over is its moneyshot. If that’s not a missed opportunity, I don’t know what is.

In fairness to the film, other theoretically spooky things do happen. Everyone vanishing, for instance. Doors locking of their own accord. The church being thrust into literal darkness. Though Satan, terrified of being cited for yet another OSHA violation, makes sure to keep the fire exit signs lit.

But those things are more for atmosphere (darkness is scary) and logistics (there isn’t a movie if the kids can open a door and escape). In short, those aren’t the scares…they set the stage for scares to come.

And come they don’t.

A few attempts at scares are made, such as when the kids find an irrelevant little boy crouched alone in a room. They go up to him, he makes a demon face, and that’s that. He factors into nothing, let alone any conceivable theme in the film, and doesn’t have anything to do with what came before or what follows.

Strangely — but not surprisingly — the other scare pulls the exact same trick. This time it’s a man in some interview footage the kids find in Pastor Chris’s office. The man speaks about his addiction to pornography, and we get as close as we’ll ever get to the film addressing a real-world consequence of looking at too much porn. In fact, it almost sounds as though this guy is reciting the elevator pitch for Harmless. Might as well stick it somewhere, I guess.

The guy tells his sad tale of addiction and of a sense of creeping horror in his home that he feels while cranking one out to www.actualphotosoffemaleshoulders.com. At some point during the recording, Pastor Chris gets up and leaves the room. (Which seems to be his way of dealing with any spiritual struggle.) The guy makes his own demon face at the camera.

Boo!

It’s not scary — it’s pretty funny — but all the scene did was make me wonder why Pastor Chris filmed this to begin with. What’s he going to do with footage of a parishoner describing his sad masturbation sessions? It’s strange. And didn’t Pastor Chris look at the footage later and see the demon? I don’t get it. What was it for if not for reviewing later? The demon face wasn’t even an illusion that the kids saw; it was actually in Pastor Chris’s film, as evidenced by the fact that we don’t see it through Justin’s viewfinder…it’s spliced in from the original source.

At one point the boys find Jessica shrieking in a closet, which comes as some kind of relief to them, but then she gets abducted by an unseen pornography goblin, or something, and none of them bat an eye. In fact, they later perform some kind of strange puppet show with paper cups to amuse themselves (a cuppet show?), which certainly goes a long way toward convincing me they can’t possibly be in any danger at all. I wouldn’t put on a puppet show after finding out I lost a $20 bill, let alone after I saw my girlfriend get dragged screaming into Hell.

It’s easy to figure out that Jessica is there (“left behind,” to use a term I just invented) because she also touched the magazine. But that’s more than a little unfair. She pulled a paper bag out of Nick’s backpack because she thought there were snacks in there. The moment she noticed it contained pornography, she shrieked and reared back, as all soldiers of Christ are commanded to do. She even got on the phone to complain to some unrelated peer that a guy she knows has gazed upon a woman’s flesh.

So why is she being punished? That…doesn’t seem just. Does God (as viewed by Praytor) insist that you don’t gaze upon pornography with lust in your heart? Or does He insist that you don’t even accidentally touch it with the back of your hand? Poor Jessica.

The three boys are then picked off one by one, with the exception of Justin, who stumbles around alone for a while, and then finds himself back at the beginning of the night, as the lock-in begins. Everybody is safe and accounted for, Pastor Chris is giving the same little “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do” speech he gave at the start of the event, and nobody believes Justin when he starts describing the crazy things that happened.

Which in turn makes him regret that never thought to film the entire thing hey waitaminute…

Justin never gets the idea to grab Pastor Chris by the neck and say, “Look, Bozo,” and replay the footage — the evidence — that he’s literally holding in his hand. He doesn’t do anything with it.

Think about that. He has an actual, physical recording that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the God they are told to worship and the demons they are told to fear are real. He has proof. He can save every soul in that room just by pressing “play.” He can save every soul in the world by uploading this to the internet. Hell, at the very least, he can claim his one million dollars from The Amazing Randi.

At this point, Justin is an actual prophet. He should be coming down from the mountain with his hair white, preaching the word of God. He should be the modern-day Moses…one who’s actually in a better position, because he was allowed to bring his GoPro up Mount Sinai.

Instead he just shrugs and goes home, amazed nobody else remembers what happened.

And, again, this wasn’t an illusion; it did happen, which is why the footage is being submitted to the church elders and Pastor Chris is selling insurance out of the trunk of his car. This is real. God and Satan revealed themselves to Justin in turn, and allowed him to film their arm-wrestling match. Mere moments later, he rides silently in the back of his friend’s car, on the way home to throw out his pornography.

The ultimate cosmic truth was revealed to him, and him alone. He also has it documented. The fact that he uses this profound, urgent knowledge to give up wanking would be comical if The Lock In had any degree of self-awareness whatsoever. Instead it’s like a man developing super powers, but only using them to warm up his coffee.

The Lock In doesn’t just fail at making its point…I think it unmakes other points. It’s a damp squib when it should be a sensational blast. It’s a can’t-miss premise for a legendarily bad movie that misses the mark of fun entirely. It’s the anti-masturbation screed the world never needed, told through an illogical format and unwatchable clumsiness.

It’s difficult to fault the actors. They’re asked to scream and run in circles far more often than they’re asked to recite lines, and the lines they do recite are clearly not of their own making. (The teenagers all speak like what a 40-something Christian humorist assumes teenagers must speak like.) Their hearts aren’t in this, and I’m proud of them for that. They don’t even get credited in the film, and I’d be shocked if they got paid for it.

Whoever they are, I hope they make to Heaven. The ridicule they’ll receive from their peers until the day they die for starring in Don’t Touch Willy: The Horror Movie is punishment enough.

Note: Due to the nature of this year’s theme, please keep comments relevant. Discussing the ways in which these films handle theology is appropriate, but bashing or preaching outside of that context is not. Let’s talk about what the films get wrong. Let’s talk about what I get wrong. Let’s not talk about what Christianity, or any religion, gets wrong. There are places to do that, but this is a place where I say bad words at movies.

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?

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

Let’s not mince words. Of the classic Muppet films, The Muppets Take Manhattan is my least favorite. I know, I know. I’m an awful human being who hates fun. But I think part of the reason this one leaves me cold is that it sits between two of the best things Jim Henson and his collaborators ever did: The Great Muppet Caper, which is the Maltese Falcon of movies staring piles of colored felt, and Follow That Bird, which I won’t be covering here, but which I assure you is brilliant and which you need to watch even if you think you’re way too old for it.

The Muppets Take Manhattan is just…strange. It doesn’t feel like the Muppets to me. Or…well, scratch that. It absolutely does feel like the Muppets, but only intermittently. When it does, it’s great. But when it doesn’t, which is most of the time, I find myself tuning out. My eyes wander. I look for interesting background details or try to figure out how much of a given street or park was blocked off for filming.

In short, I stop paying attention. And how in shit’s name is an amnesiac frog and a psychotic pig trying to make it on Broadway incapable of holding my attention?

Speaking of which, maybe I just missed them, but I can’t find many interesting background details. Forget the mass of Muppet cameos at the end; those are great, but minor character crowd scenes are a given for a film like this. I’m talking about things like the Rev. Harry Krishna sign in The Muppet Movie, or Nicky Holiday’s door reading IRRESPONSIBLE PARASITE. Little flourishes that end up populating the background because there’s no space for them in the zippy dialogue.

For a Muppet film, I guess, The Muppets Take Manhattan just doesn’t feel especially inventive. And perhaps the reason jokes didn’t bleed into the background is that there was enough space for them in the dialogue, which doesn’t pop the way it does in the previous two films.

Here there are long, talky stretches that don’t manage to be funny or interesting. The previous films were so heavy with gags that they kept coming through the end credits. This one doesn’t seem to have enough laughs to go around, so it pads out a lot of space between them.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

I hate to say it, because it’s not as though the actors are to blame, but I think this is due to the fact that so much screen time is given over to Kermit’s waitress friend Jenny and her father. Neither of them really get any punchlines or zingers, but they get an awful lot to say, which makes the film feel empty, at times seeming like a drama that forgot the emotion even more than it feels like a comedy that forgot the jokes.

Again, the actors are fine. Jenny is believably sweet and a nice, unintentional foil for the volatile Piggy, while her father is just some slightly batty but good-hearted sitcom Greek. They do what the film asks them to do, but, unfortunately, the film doesn’t ask them to do much. In fact, toward the end they both wink completely out of existence, making me question their utilities as characters in the first place. Like their dialogue, these two themselves feel like padding.

It’s especially weird since Kermit’s grand gesture at the end of the film is to invite everyone up on stage with him, including three new coworkers he doesn’t actually know and some unemployed penguins. But Jenny and her dad? Nah, to hell with them.

Seriously, that’s not Kermit. Those two gave him a place to stay, food to eat, and a source of income when he had nothing at all. Now he just says, “So, hey, thanks for putting my life back together when I had nobody, but now my real friends are here so you’d better go back to your failing restaurant”?

#NotMyKermit

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

At the very least, I should explain the plot. The Muppets Take Manhattan is the story of that time all the Muppets were homeless so they broke up and lived alone in constant grief. What a riot.

The project that ruins their lives is a musical called Manhattan Melodies, which they wrote for a show in college and which they spend every cent they have trying to bring to Broadway. As a result Piggy gets mugged, Gonzo gets mauled in a boating accident, and Kermit gets his skull caved in.

Damn.

Again, The Muppets Take Manhattan is weird, and there’s something uncomfortable about watching them squirm their way through these particular dire straits.

In The Muppet Movie they had to deal with unreliable vehicles and — indirectly — a lack of finances. In The Great Muppet Caper Gonzo had to freelance to pay for dinner and the gang had to lodge at the rundown old Happiness Hotel. So, okay, it’s not as though we’re used to the Muppets sitting pretty.

But The Muppets Take Manhattan feels too squalid. The poor guys have to sleep in lockers and go hungry. There’s even a scene in a montage that catches them staring hungrily through a window at somebody else’s sandwich. We’ve seen the Muppets weathering tough times, but I don’t think we’d ever seen them slowly starving to death in the streets.

It’s oddly horrifying. Henson and company spent many years bringing this strange troupe of magical creatures to life just to have them perish in a Manhattan gutter. It’s so sad that by the time Kermit is struck and nearly killed by a taxi, it barely even registers as anything out of place. That’s just New York, baby.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

I mean Jesus Christ. Look at that.

The Muppets Take Manhattan is bleak, but it’s not exactly a dark comedy. It’s more of a dark tragedy. I don’t need my laughs to be light and without consequence, but I do need laughs of some kind.

I’m exaggerating, though, of course. The movie has its moments, and it has some great ones. But they tend to either come too infrequently, or have black undertones of their own.

For instance, the scenes in which the Muppets write to Kermit, describing their individual journeys, are pretty funny. Scooter works in a theater, which is cute. Gonzo performs stunts for disinterested audiences, which makes for several of the film’s biggest laughs. (Cutting to the guy in the chicken suit, who Gonzo then calls Margaret, is the single best gag in the movie.) And The Electric Mayhem learns the joys of prostituting their talents in exchange for a paying gig.

So far, so good. But then there’s a scene in which Rowlf, off on his own and trying to make a living, manages a kennel. It’s a funny idea for the character but it pivots on a dime into a room full of dogs howling and crying that they want to go home. Rowlf joins them, because he wants to go home, too.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

It’s painful. And a scene in which a lonesome Fozzie pines for Kermit when he’s supposed to be hibernating is only less painful by comparison. On its own it’s heartbreaking, too, because we know how much Kermit meant to him.

I think that’s part of what gives The Muppets Take Manhattan its own weird atmosphere; it wants to Muppets to be sad. They aren’t having fun. They’re struggling to sell their show to Broadway, then they’re struggling to not tear out each other’s throats, then they’re struggling to stay alive. This isn’t a Muppet adventure, this is a Muppet scramble for a crust of bread.

And that affects the viewing experience for me. I can take sad Muppets — and I like sad Muppets! — but I can’t take hopeless Muppets, which seems to be what this film is most interested in exploring. That’s a suspicion upheld by the fact that the one song that seems to have any real feeling in it is “Saying Goodbye,” a sorrowful farewell sung by each of the characters in turn as they say goodbye to Kermit, each other, and any hopes they might have had for the future.

It’s so dismal and sad that it’s easy to doubt that any of the characters believe their own lyrics. “Somehow I know,” they sing, “we’ll meet again. Not sure quite where, and I don’t know just when.” They’re trying to convince themselves that this isn’t over. That, in spite of everything, things are going to work out after this one unfortunate detour.

…and then they all slide off into the lives of sadness they knew they should have expected all along.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

It’s a great song, and an effective sequence. And when you watch it knowing full well that several of the singers are no longer with us — Jim Henson, Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson — it becomes tremendously sad. It’s written and performed so well that it becomes almost too real, and difficult to watch.

But as far as the music overall goes…well, have at me, because I don’t really think there’s much else worth salvaging here. (And for a movie about a Broadway musical, that’s especially unfortunate.)

“I’m Always Gonna Love You” is pretty cute, as we witness the (thankfully not literal) birth of the Muppet Babies. And “Together Again” borders on memorability. But that’s it. I just watched the movie and I couldn’t tell you how most of these songs went, with the compositions unraveling to the point that characters are just tunelessly speak-singing by the end of the film.

Composer Jeff Moss is no Paul Williams, but few people are, so that’s fine. The weird thing is that he is a Joe Raposo. Like Raposo, Moss wrote a wealth of great songs for Sesame Street. These include “The People in Your Neighborhood” and Oscar’s signature song, “I Love Trash.” For crying out loud, the guy wrote “Rubber Duckie”! So why his compositions fall so flat here whereas Raposo’s songs for The Great Muppet Caper were some of the best things he’s ever done, I have no idea.

It’s possible that they suffered due to the extensive rewrites the script went through. Perhaps he didn’t have much to work with at the time they needed the music, or he had to write general songs without a sense of where they’d actually fit in the story. I honestly don’t know much about it, but I do know that Frank Oz rewrote a large portion of the script that Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses turned in, and that there were additional rewrites due to certain actors and cameos dropping out just before production.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

I don’t intend to speculate out of turn — I genuinely know very little about the creative struggles behind the film — and by no means do I intend to lay any blame at the feet of Frank Oz. Oz also directed this film, and it’s gorgeously done. Shots are framed beautifully, the colors on the Muppets are striking in ways they weren’t in the previous two films, and there’s a sense of a real, living New York going on in the background, even though we know we’re looking at a sea of paid extras.

So Oz definitely gave that side of the production his all, for sure, and his performances of Fozzie, Piggy, and Animal are all on point. Did his meddling cripple the script? Maybe, maybe not. I can’t say. It’s just as likely that Patchett and Tarses turned in a dud to begin with. Or that losing Jerry Juhl — who wrote for the previous two films and The Muppet Show — meant the script simply couldn’t keep up with the rapid-fire comedy of its predecessors.

Of course, it’s also possible that watching the Muppets die miserable and penniless in the world’s shittiest city just wasn’t all that conducive to comedy. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO KNOW.

But that’s just my experience with The Muppets Take Manhattan. I’ve heard from others who say that it’s their favorite of the films. I can’t fathom that, personally, but they probably can’t fathom my personal love for The Great Muppet Caper. (The insane idiots!)

I always invite comments on these articles, and I genuinely look forward to them any time I post something. (Whenever a piece gets no comments I sing “Saying Goodbye” as I tearfully ride away from my life on the back of a flatbed truck.)

But here, especially, I’m looking forward to hearing from folks who do love the movie. I know my review sounds harsh, but it’s not so much that I want to change your opinion as it is that I want to explain mine, and then hear yours.

If anyone can help me enjoy The Muppets Take Manhattan as anything other than a puppet snuff film, believe me, I’d love to hear from you.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes, bitching about the ways one puppet movie isn’t as good as some other puppet movies.

Another way this puppet movie isn’t as good as some other puppet movies is its cameos. Again, evidently some big names were attached to The Muppets Take Manhattan, and for one reason or another they dropped out. I don’t mind that, and I don’t even know if that’s especially relevant. All that actually matters is what made it to film, and…the cameos leave something to be desired.

The Muppet Movie had Orson Welles, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, and too many other huge (and game) names to list. The Great Muppet Caper had John Cleese, Peter Falk, Peter Ustinov, and…I can’t remember. I feel like the guard that hates pepperoni was somebody famous. But, okay, the point is, they were all awesome, even if there were fewer.

The Muppets Take Manhattan has plenty of actors who do the best with what they’re given, but on the whole they don’t get much. Art Carney, Liza Minnelli, and Brooke Shields are all completely wasted. Dabney Coleman and Linda Lavin each get some good lines, but, come on, it’s Dabney Coleman and Linda Lavin. You don’t even know who those people are. I could have made them up! You have no idea!

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

There are two redeeming cameos, though. Pairing Miss Piggy with Joan Rivers, for instance, is genuinely inspired, and I adore the way Rivers helps Piggy cope with her broken heart by clowning around with makeup. It’s such a perfect little sequence that taps very believably into the way a little bit of silliness between friends can help us make it through difficult times. It doesn’t solve Piggy’s problems — nor should it — but it works exactly the way it should, and I love it.

The other great cameo is Gregory Hines, in the only sequence that could have sat comfortably in either of the previous films. He plays a guy in the park who gets roped into mediating a lovers’ spat, and he clearly relishes the opportunity to occupy some part of the Muppet universe.

Hines loves what he’s doing here, vacillating between supporting Kermit and supporting Piggy, consoling each of them as necessary, and, ultimately, realizing he’s never getting his roller skates back, leaving them to figure things out for themselves.

It’s adorable, and I honestly wish Hines got to do this in a better film. As it stands, he’s this movie’s Steve Martin or John Cleese, and that’s great company to be in. He manages to be an exceptional cameo in a film that clearly has no idea what to do with them.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

But the real problem with this movie, I think, is that it’s a Muppet movie without the Muppets.

It has a Muppet. Kermit, of course. The rest of the gang spends the beginning getting antsy, and turns up at the end, of course, but otherwise, they just about disappear. It’s not The Muppets Take Manhattan. It’s Kermit Hustles His Way Through the City For a While, with Special Guests the Muppets.

They each have their solo stories (which are really more like abbreviated solo chapters) but they’re so segmented. I don’t know. I guess I don’t really care for finding out what Fozzie gets up to, or Scooter, or Rowlf. What I care for is finding out what Fozzie and Scooter and Rowlf get up to together. They’re Muppets, for crying out loud. They’re a motley crew of bizarre characters that work best when there’s lots of them bouncing off of each other and interacting.

The Great Muppet Caper had the perfect balance, I think. No, Sam the Eagle and the Swedish Chef and Janice didn’t get to do much, but they were always there, part of the group, and got to pipe up when they had something funny to say. It worked well. We got the sense that they were always part of the proceedings, even when they might as well not have been.

They didn’t splinter off just to appear in a brief, solo segment to deliver their one joke. They were part of a team, however loosely, and that meant something. It was especially meaningful toward the end, when Fozzie got them all to band together. They meant something to each other, and to their cause, even if we only heard from them when it was their turn to deliver a line.

Here we need to shoot off to another time and place to hear from them at all…something which is such a narrative and logistical hassle that we barely bother doing it.

And I never thought I’d have any reason to say this, but, man, there is just way too much Kermit.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

To paraphrase my review of the Muppet Movie, Kermit was always the center of the production, but not the center of attention. Here he definitely becomes the latter, and as much as I love him, as incomparable as Jim Henson’s performance is, as endlessly charming a character as he will always be…man oh man do we start to realize how important variety is in a Muppet production.

Separating Kermit from the other Muppets for so long is like stranding the Stooges in three separate stories. It’s like sending Stan Laurel on one adventure, and Oliver Hardy on another. Or like a Monty Python film in which we follow Terry Jones doing something alone for 70 minutes, with the rest of the cast appearing only in brief inserts.

It gets tiring. And, worst of all, it gives me no pleasure to report, it gets dull. The Muppet Show may have felt, at times, like The Kermit Show, but it never actually was. And The Muppets Take Manhattan makes it very clear how much less enjoyable (and memorable) The Kermit Movie would have been.

And also regarding the ending: what the fuck is up with the ending? I get that the Muppets finally get to mount their Broadway show, but…then what?

They’re not poor anymore? Where do they live? What do they do next? Now they’re just famous and never have to worry about anything again?

And I really don’t understand why the movie ends with Piggy tricking Kermit into marrying her during the play. I feel like that ties up one very specific concern that one very specific character had, but not the movie we’ve been watching.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

But, okay. Okay okay.

This is a wedding. This is supposed to be a happy occasion. So let’s say some nice things.

Which, to be honest, despite everything I’ve said above, is not actually very difficult at all. The Muppets Take Manhattan might be my least favorite of these, but that doesn’t make it bad. At worst it just makes it disappointing, and it’s only a disappointment because the previous two movies set the bar so high. If, say, Project: ALF (which was a load of shit) had even a fraction of the heart, humor, and charm of this movie, I’d have done a cartwheel.

The Muppets in this film are still the Muppets. Their characters are true to who they are. Sure, I might not want to see Rowlf howling in anguish because he misses his friends, but that doesn’t mean I doubt he’d do it. Watching the Muppets here isn’t a betrayal of who they are…we just happen to catch them at their lowest points, like watching the Beatles in Let it Be. They’re still who they always were…they’re just not the way you usually see them. Or might wish to see them.

And even though I think there’s too much Kermit once the gang splinters, it’s nice that Rizzo is already a resident of Manhattan, as he gives the film some sorely needed variety during that stretch. It’s also, of course, great that Piggy only pretends to leave with the others. What an absolutely perfect Piggy detail.

I’d still like to see more of her, and I wish her one-sided rivalry with Jenny disappeared for a stronger reason than the fact that the script says it disappears, but she, too, offers a nice reprieve from the frog-centric story.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

Throughout Piggy gets some great moments. We’ve talked about her scene with Joan Rivers, but immediately before that she quietly stews over finding Kermit and Jenny together on a bench…until she breaks and madly assaults a trash can with a pipe. And later on when she spies them in the park she jogs after them, and immediately starts wheezing and doubling over.

Again, an absolutely perfect Piggy detail.

There’s also the “Rat Scat” sequence, in which Rizzo and his tiny little puppet pals man the kitchen and prepare breakfast. It’s adorable in a slightly nauseating sort of way, and an impressive feat of puppetry several times over. I can’t even describe this one…you really do need to watch it, and it’s absolutely a highlight of the film.

In fact, Rizzo in general is a highlight, and it’s nice to see Steve Whitmire getting so much to do. Rizzo’s presence is also a chance for Frank Oz to solve some logistical puzzles as a director. When you have, for instance, Rizzo, Kermit, and a human sharing the screen, that’s three different scales. Their sizes are all different, and you can’t show the puppets from the bottom, or cut off the tops of the humans. How do you shoot them?

Oz comes up with several solutions that are so natural you won’t even notice unless you’re looking for them, and I love that. The Muppets Take Manhattan doesn’t give me as much enjoyment, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to appreciate.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

That’s my my opinion, though. And the nice thing about Henson’s body of work (okay…one of several hundred thousand nice things) is that different people connect with different projects. The Muppets Take Manhattan might not be the film I turn to first, but it is that film for somebody else.

I love Muppet Babies, but I know that others found the show annoying and embarrassing. I’ve only seen a few episodes of Fraggle Rock, but others grew up with it, and it was their Sesame Street. Some people prefer the electrified insanity of The Muppet Show, and others prefer the slower films. There are those who love Labyrinth and those who prefer The Dark Crystal. And we’re just scratching the surface here. There are others whose favorite Henson production is something I haven’t even mentioned.

And that’s beautiful.

Henson’s work in general, and the Muppet stuff in particular, was always about inclusivity.

However different we might look, or sound, or behave…however different we are…can’t we all be happier together?

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

As Kermit put it two movies ago, in words that succinctly explain everything Henson ever did, that’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with.

Jim Henson and the rest of the writers and builders and puppeteers and everybody else involved celebrated difference. Embraced difference. Created characters who were proud of their difference. And then brought them together anyway. Because being part of a group didn’t mean that you had to forget who you were, or become somebody else. It just meant that you could accomplish so much more. That you could be part of something bigger.

And that you could make a lot of people very happy.

I don’t know how consciously Henson wished his works to be a social statement. To be honest, I’m not sure he did think much about it. I get the feeling that it just came naturally to him, and to the people he worked with.

He created a universe that was better — objectively better, safer, more accepting, more tolerant, more encouraging, more caring, more loving — than the one he inhabited.

And he let us all come in, too.

His characters may have just wanted to get to Hollywood. Or catch those jewel thieves. Or stage their play on Broadway.

But the impacts they left on people — on children especially, but on people in general — were much larger and deeper than that.

Jim Henson changed lives. And he changed them in so many ways, through so many projects, that it doesn’t matter if The Muppets Take Manhattan wasn’t for me.

It was for somebody else who really needed it. And that person — those people — got their message from him, too.

I couldn’t possibly be more grateful.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

My trademark griping about things I love aside, The Muppet Movie is wonderful. Maybe not the film I’d like it to be, but if you do the math Jim Henson was slightly more of a successful artist than I am, so it might be worth deferring to his judgment now and again. It was sweet. It was funny. It had incredible music. What more could you want?

I’m glad you asked! Because The Great Muppet Caper provides my answer: The Great Muppet Caper.

Everything good about The Muppet Movie is, simply, better here. And any niggles I have with The Muppet Movie are entirely erased. The Great Muppet Caper is sweeter, funnier, and features even better music. The one area in which the first film might edge this one out is its sheer volume of great cameos. The Great Muppet Caper has admittedly fewer, but it does have the single best Muppets cameo ever…and we’ll get to that in due time.

My love for The Great Muppet Caper probably doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s a common reference point for me, and I bring it up a lot. Not just because I think it’s a good children’s movie and the best Muppet film, but because it is genuinely one of my favorite movies. Period.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

I adore The Great Muppet Caper. From beginning to end, top to bottom, line to line, song to song…every moment speaks to me in ways that few films do. The hour and a half I spend each time I watch it is like catching up with an old friend. You slip into inside jokes and references only the two of you will understand. You feel the comforting weight of a shared history. You remember something you had…something you might not have any more, but the memory is enough. It’s enough to know it happened.

I had The Great Muppet Caper on video when I was a kid. I watched it endlessly. To this day I’m not sure I’ve seen any other film a greater number of times.

And that’s an admission I’ll make now: as much as I love it, it’s possible that it’s only my favorite because this is the one I had. Had I owned The Muppet Movie (or, God forbid, The Muppets Take Manhattan) instead, maybe I’d be balancing these reviews differently.

But I don’t know if that’s true. It’s possible, but not likely. Again, this isn’t just my favorite Muppet film; it’s one of my favorites overall. It rises not just to the top of one list, but to the top of the list. And I think that says something.

We only had a few movies growing up. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is also one of my favorites today, for many of the same reasons that I love The Great Muppet Caper. (Look for a Fiction Into Film on that eventually. It’s a given.) We also had Yellow Submarine, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, and a handful of others. And while I hear echoes of my childhood whenever I watch those other films, The Great Muppet Caper is my childhood.

It’s a part of who I was, and who I became. It was a movie I enjoyed as a kid that I appreciate as an adult. It grew up with me. It can engage with me as I am today, and it can remind me of who I was a lifetime ago. It was released just a few months after I was born. For all intents and purposes, we are the same age. It’s my peer. It’s the one friend I’ve had for my entire life.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

If The Muppet Movie laid the basic groundwork for Muppet films, The Great Muppet Caper showed what I think they should be.

Muppet films fall into one of two camps. There are movies about what the characters are up to (The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppets), and movies that treat the characters as a troupe of players that can be plugged into one-off stories (The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island). In other words, the former category treats them like characters, and the latter treats them like actors.

I prefer the second approach, to be honest. (That’s the closest thing you’ll ever see to a kind word about The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.) I think that television, on the whole, is better suited to checking in with characters around on a longterm basis, while film is better served by bigger, singular stories. Exceptions abound, of course, but comparing The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper doesn’t shake my convictions.

It doesn’t hurt that The Great Muppet Caper weaves an original story around its general crime fiction framework, which, to my mind, gives it an inch more merit than the Muppefied adaptations of other stories that followed. It’s nothing especially remarkable in itself — Kermit and co. track down and capture a jewel thief — but it provides a sturdy (well, sturdy enough) narrative throughline that its predecessor and successor both lack.

This helps the film to feel much less like a loose collection of skits and setpieces, as every scene advances or comments in some way upon the greater plot.

It also doesn’t hurt that the jewel thief is playing fucking brilliantly by Charles Grodin, who gives himself over completely to the insanity.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

Whereas the first film’s Doc Hopper was a bit too evil to be interesting, Grodin’s Nicky Holiday is rich, nuanced, and an absolute blast to spend time with. Charles Durning, to me, didn’t seem like he had much of a handle on his character beyond a desire to enlist Kermit as his spokesfrog by any means necessary. In stark contrast, I believe Grodin knows everything there is to know about Nicky Holiday…a belief that seems to be upheld by the fact that we often see him doing things other than reacting to Muppets.

In fact, we see him go through several distinct phases, only one of which has anything to do with the Muppets. This rounds him out, and gives us reason to believe that he is a character. We see him as the dangerous, calculating thief when the film opens, but later when he’s with his sister (and victim) he’s a clowning buffoon. He’s a slimeball, but one that revels in slime. He has fun with what he’s doing…toying with her and everybody he meets, playing the part of a helpless idiot so that he’ll never be a suspect. There’s even some hilarious drunk acting in the scene at the Dubonnet Club which feels just artificial enough that it’s believable misdirection on his part.

And then, most significantly, there’s the phase in which he meets and falls for Miss Piggy.

He reconsiders what he’s doing. He thinks twice. Victimizing his sister comes naturally to him, but when it comes time to frame Piggy, he has a twinge of something a bit like conscience. There’s real conflict there…one born of a kind of emotion he never expected to feel. In a lovely, artful touch, he finds Piggy on the dance floor during “The First Time It Happens” precisely as the singers croon “Just when you thought you forgot how to care…”

He still goes through with it, of course. “I’m a villain,” he explains. “Pure and simple.” But the glimpse of something beneath his evil exterior makes a world of difference. His reluctance defines him as a character…the psychological equivalent of the pair of flowered socks he wears beneath his dress pants. (An incredible little wardrobe detail that in itself contains more character than Doc Hopper ever did.)

Nicky Holiday is a true rarity in a Muppet movie: a human character every bit as well-defined as the puppets. And while I’m fully aware of how much some readers might like to read that as an insult, man, these are some great puppets.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

The Great Muppet Caper was released a few months after The Muppet Show aired its final episode, which allowed a few faces from late in that show’s run to put in an appearance here after missing The Muppet Movie. Those include Pops, Beauregard, and — most interestingly — Rizzo the Rat. I love both Pops and Beauregard, and they both get some very funny lines in this film, but it’s amazing to remember that Rizzo wasn’t there from the start. He seems like such a natural part of the group now. (He was also the breakout character for puppeteer Steve Whitmire, who eventually went on to fill Henson’s very big shoes as Kermit the Frog.)

But it’s the core quartet that really gets the focus in this one, and that works in the film’s favor. Rather than trying to spread its attention over dozens of characters, we really only spend significant time with Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and Miss Piggy. The others just get a spotlight moment, and spend the rest of their time in the background, which I think works quite well. Zoot admits to owning only one pair of pants. Rowlf convinces some guard dogs to stand down. (“It helps to know a second language.”) Sam the Eagle pops his head out from his room to dismiss the other Muppets as weirdos.

And that works. Giving each of the minor characters only a joke or two is successful because they’re memorable jokes. They’re good lines. They’re funny. Rather than trying to cram multiple threads and spotlights into a single film, they’re sprinkled around the main plot like garnish, or seasoning. It means the jokes are always coming, but the story doesn’t have to slow down and wait for them.

It’s a very effective way for the film to have its cake and eat it, too, and the writers deserve recognition for that. Jerry Juhl returns from The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie, but he’s assisted this time by Jack Rose (who wrote for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, among others), Jay Tarses (with The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show under his belt), and, funnily enough, Tom Patchett of ALF fame. They’re a great team, and I can honestly say that the screenplay for this film is tighter, punchier, and more clever than The Muppet Movie‘s.

The dialogue isn’t the only kind of writing that improved, though: the soundtrack is also a nice step up.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

I imagine I’ll get some pushback for this, but I don’t mean to imply that the Williams / Ascher songs from The Muppet Movie weren’t great. I mean only to say that the songs Joe Raposo wrote for this film are better.

That may have something to do with the fact that Raposo was no stranger to composing for Muppets; he was probably best known for writing tunes for Sesame Street, including its legendary theme song. He knew Henson’s creations well. He knew how they sounded, how they acted, and how to craft a perfect song for them that would appeal to children without boring (or irritating) adults.

He wrote far too many songs for that show to list them here, but to give you an idea of just how deeply he understood the Muppets, he wrote “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green.” That immediately became — and still remains — Kermit’s signature song.

Raposo was an absolute treasure, and an invaluable asset to Sesame Street, and ceding the score to him here gave us some of his best compositions. (Why he didn’t also provide songs for Follow That Bird in 1985 is a mystery to me, but the songs in that movie are also great so let’s not worry about it too much.)

“Happiness Hotel” is a cynical, snappy paean to the film’s dingy central setting. “Hey, a Movie!” is an infectious celebration of Hollywood magic in general. And “Steppin’ Out With a Star” is an absolutely charming tune that feels like it was dug out of a forgotten 1930s songbook. But “The First Time It Happens”…

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

Oh, man. “The First Time It Happens.”

What a gorgeous, incredible song. It’s an absolutely beautiful composition. Moving, sweet, memorable…a genuinely lovely track that by no means feels like it was written for a pig and a frog, and therefore helps to elevate the sequence (and the pig and the frog) to something more general, more relatable…something we’ve all felt, however briefly. Something we remember. Something we reflect on. A perfect moment that just feels right before life gets in the way, time runs out, and we’re back where we were.

That song was actually nominated for an Academy Award, and the fact that it didn’t win invalidated the Oscars for the rest of time.

Look, I like The Great Muppet Caper, but even I’ll admit that a movie about some puppets beating the shit out of Charles Grodin didn’t deserve a set of songs as catchy, as funny, as sharp, or as beautiful as what we got. And I doubt there have been many composers in the history of film that could have pulled it off.

But Joe Raposo, clearly, was one of them. And I can’t imagine what the film would have sounded like without him.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

One other way that The Great Muppet Caper improves upon The Muppet Movie is its portrayal of Fozzie Bear. In the first film, he’s just a not-very-good comedian. Which is true to the character, for sure. But there’s more to Fozzie than that. Specifically, there’s his fragility.

In fact, I would argue that the two traits are deeply related. Fozzie may struggle to make others laugh, but, really, his jokes are no worse (and no more hacky) than anything the other Muppets sling out. So why does he bomb so notably and so often? His lack of confidence. Fozzie feels like a failure, and his audiences pick up on that. The other Muppets don’t feel that way, so they don’t receive the same kind of scorn.

Fozzie’s constantly thwarted standup aspirations might be his main character trait, but it’s his fragility that explains it. And The Great Muppet Caper gives that important side of him — the self-doubt, the anxiety, the worry that he’s going to do or already did something wrong — some very effective breathing room.

That’s something that The Muppet Movie largely ignored. It was a comedy at all points, with only a handful of introspective scenes throughout the entire thing. (Gonzo singing in the desert, Kermit asking Doc Hopper who his friends are, and…actually, that might be it.) But The Great Muppet Caper finds room for both, and that’s important. It gives the entire film an identifiable emotional center.

There’s a great moment around the midway point when Kermit is getting ready for a date with Piggy (who he believes is Lady Holiday, the woman he’s come to England to interview). Fozzie preens alongside him and offers advice for their date…until he’s told that he’s not invited.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

And, son of a bitch, if you’ve ever wanted to see a puppet’s heart break, that is the moment for you.

It’s a childlike misunderstanding. In Fozzie’s mind of course he’d go with Kermit. He always goes with Kermit! What makes tonight any different?

We know. And Kermit knows. And Piggy knows. But Fozzie doesn’t. And when Kermit tells him he can’t come, he’s quietly devastated. He doesn’t understand, but he respects Kermit’s decision. At some point, after all, won’t Fozzie have to live his own life?

Maybe. But does it have to be today?

It’s a gorgeous little moment, and it’s perfectly acted. It also sets up the great punchline to the scene: Kermit lets Fozzie come anyway. He knows it’s inappropriate. He knows it could put a damper on the evening. But he also knows that Fozzie’s feelings matter. And if he has to whiff on a date with Lady Holiday to avoid hurting his friend (and colleague, and identical twin brother), he’ll do it.

It’s a sweet resolution that becomes a comic one when Fozzie excitedly invites the entire Happiness Hotel to join them. Once again, The Great Muppet Caper has its cake and eats it, too. It gets to be both heartfelt and funny.

And Fozzie’s emotional arc culminates in a great speech toward the end, in which he chides the other Muppets for backing out of the plan to catch the jewel thieves. Fozzie’s still scared, but he’s going to do it. And he rallies the troops on his friend’s behalf…something he could not have done any earlier in the film.

He grew up…just a little.

In fact, The Great Muppet Caper gets to be both heartfelt and funny throughout, as exemplified by the movie’s best scene, which brings meta comedy to the fore, and spotlights the film’s artifice at precisely the same moment that its emotions turn real.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

The scene is a deceptively complicated one. The Muppet Movie toyed with meta comedy (most notably by having its own characters read the screenplay to solve problems), but The Great Muppet Caper takes the joke even further.

It opens with the characters in a hot air balloon commenting on credits they shouldn’t even be able to see. (In a sweet joke to set the tone for the entire film to follow, Fozzie asks, “Nobody reads those names anyway, do they?” Kermit replies, “Sure. They all have families.”)

Later, when Kermit’s boss asks him why he thinks he’ll get another chance after botching the story about the jewel heist, the frog replies that if he doesn’t, “it’ll be a real short movie.”

And later still Kermit has to shoo a rambling Peter Falk out of the scene so they can shoot the rest of the film. (Falk’s role, by the way, sees him delivering a masterfully dry shaggy dog story, and it’s the second best cameo in the movie. Which says something, because in any other movie it would easily be the best.)

But the big meta moment…the perfect meta moment…one of my favorite moments in any movie ever…comes when Kermit confronts Miss Piggy about her deception: she’s not Lady Holiday. She lied to him. And he’s hurt.

He spurns her at the park, and refuses to listen to her explanation…at which point she picks up on something. He’s not just angry; he’s jealous. She danced with Nicky Holiday, and it upset him.

So she prods. And he walks away. And she prods some more until he lashes out by insulting her acting ability.

Not Piggy the character…but Piggy personally. She gets hurt, and lays into him personally as well. They break character. She threatens to walk out on the film. They shout at each other. They fight.

It doesn’t feel playful. It feels angry.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

…and she cries.

And he realizes he hurt her feelings. Her real feelings. And he feels terrible.

He apologizes. She’s sorry, too. And they slip right back into character…the fight and the apology working also to address the problem the characters were having in the film. An apology for hurt feelings in real life doubles as the apology for deception in the film.

It’s brilliant.

In that moment we slide out of one layer of fiction and into another, and then back into the first without missing a beat. The fight works because it’s the real Kermit and Piggy who are upset with each other, behind the scenes, which is why it matters. They first argued in the second layer of fiction and it didn’t hit us the same way, because we know they’re just playing characters. But when that particular reality breaks, the emotion is real. And they hurt each other.

And they feel awful about it.

They feel so bad about it that they stop dead where they are, and they apologize. As they make amends, so do their characters.

It’s absolutely perfect.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

I’m calling attention to Kermit’s relationships with Fozzie and Piggy not just because I enjoy how they’re handled here, but because they’re crucial to understanding Kermit and who he is. They’re the two most important relationships in his life, and while they may both frustrate him, he cares deeply about them both, how they feel, and their happiness. And, ultimately, they care about the same things for him as well.

It’s interesting, because both Fozzie and Piggy were played by Frank Oz, one of Henson’s earliest and strongest collaborators. Their real-life friendship and shared experiences informed the way these pairs of characters interact, because as well-drawn as many of the other Muppets are, it’s difficult to imagine Kermit being this close to Gonzo or Scooter for instance.

There’s an element of sincerity between Kermit / Fozzie and Kermit / Piggy that I don’t think someone other than Oz, no matter how good the performance, could pull off. It comes from a real place. A place that can’t be faked.

It’s also observable in Sesame Street. Most notably there’s the Bert / Ernie dynamic, a contentious but clearly loving relationship, but we also see it whenever one of Henson’s characters interacts with one of Oz’s in a non-standard pairing. See, for instance, the times Kermit hangs out with Cookie Monster, or Grover. In the latter’s case, especially, there’s an awful lot of hugging, and one imagines that if Kermit were primarily a Sesame Street character that Grover would have been his Fozzie Bear.

Character relationships like this are what make Muppet productions what they are. They’re not just movies and TV shows about puppets doing puppety things. In fact, the things I love most about them don’t require them to be puppets at all.

I like it when they talk. When they argue. When they apologize and come back together. I like it when they interact, and tell silly jokes, and support each other through difficult times. I like Gonzo pontificating in the desert. I like Piggy and Kermit breaking the fourth wall with their strained relationship. I like Scooter getting his radio frozen to his wrist.

These are all things people could do, which is part of what makes the Muppets real. They’re not all that far removed from human characters at all.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

And The Great Muppet Caper has the best human characters as well, including, of course, the film’s absolute best cameo: former Muppet Show host John Cleese. (Also, he was apparently in some other things, but I’m sure you haven’t seen them.) Cleese’s scene is a perfectly pitched, perfectly dry comedy of dullness.

He and his wife (played by Joan Sanderson, his problem guest from the “Communication Problems” episode of Fawlty Towers) make distracted small talk while Piggy sneaks around their home, waiting for Kermit to turn up. That’s just about all that happens, but Cleese and Sanderson play off of each other very well, either mishearing or outright ignoring what the other says, while feeling obligated to keep some kind of conversation going. (“And the butler’s dead?”)

Then the doorbell rings, and Piggy seethes as these two then start talking about how nobody visits them, who should answer it, and so on. She gets more and more frustrated until she breaks, standing up and shouting, “I’ll answer it!”

It’s a great moment, and afterward Cleese stalks Kermit and Piggy through the house with a fireplace poker…just to put it away when he finds them and offers a restaurant suggestion.

It’s exactly the kind of scene that could have fit into The Muppet Movie — it is, after all, very much a self-contained comedy sketch — but it feels of a more natural part with The Great Muppet Caper. It doesn’t seem at all like an excuse to have a funny guest star do funny things, even though that’s exactly what it is. It feels like a very deliberate part of a very particular film, and that’s how all of The Great Muppet Caper feels. It feels cohesive. It feels complete. It feels like a movie that knew exactly what it wanted to be before it ever started shooting.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

Whenever I think about these characters, it’s this incarnation I land on first. Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, Gonzo…they’ve been many places and they’ve done many things, but the group of silly, well-meaning misfits that they play here, who travel around to make things right, to band together, to catch the bad guys red handed…these are the ones I believe in.

It’s a shame to me that The Great Muppet Caper never really set a precedent for films to follow the way it could have. Sticking these guys into a new, original adventure every few years could have brought us to a lot of fun places, especially while Jim Henson himself was still alive to guide them.

But I can’t complain. Or, at least, if I can complain it’s only because I want more of this.

The Great Muppet Caper is one of my favorite films. It holds up. It’s every bit as funny today as it was when I was a kid, even if I’m laughing at different things.

Very early in the film, Kermit tells the audience, “I wish I were you people, seeing this for the first time.”

I’m with him on that. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s full of great surprises, excellent gags, and joyously sweet moments. It is itself a celebration of film, of entertainment, and of imagination.

And it’s my favorite of the many gifts Jim Henson left us.

Each of us finds that one Henson project that resonates most deeply with us, and we each find it in our own time. It comes to us when we’re ready, and it stays with us forever.

Nobody can tell you ahead of time which one it will be, but the first time it happens, you’ll know.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

The Muppet Movie, 1979

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.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

Henson passed away in 1990. He was 53. I was nine. His death was the first that ever affected me. I hadn’t lose 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.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

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.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

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.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

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.”

The Muppet Movie, 1979

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.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

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, 1979

The Muppet Movie needs to be appraised 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?

The Muppet Movie, 1979

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 principal. (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.”

It’s just…funny.

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.)

The Muppet Movie, 1979

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 attempts 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?

The Muppet Movie, 1979

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.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

…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, 1979

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?

The Muppet Movie, 1979

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