Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

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

The World's End, 2013

While waiting for The World’s End, I watched Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz over and over and over again. They were great films, and they rewarded repeat viewings. I noticed something new or appreciated something more each time. They each retained, on the whole, their ability to surprise. They were — and are — finely crafted little puzzleboxes that allow you to respect the craftsmanship even after you think you’ve learned its secrets.

Then The World’s End arrived. I saw it as early as I could, and never wanted to see it again.

In fact, until this month I didn’t revisit and reassess it at all. Shaun and Hot Fuzz stayed in rotation, but I never felt compelled at all to attempt The Golden Mile again with the court of Gary King. There were a few reasons for that, and only some of them were were conscious. I understand my feelings a little better now, and having seen it a few more times I can say that I enjoy it more than I originally did, but The World’s End is, without question, the weakest of The Blood and Ice Cream trilogy.

Whereas the previous two films were tight, complex constructions of both writing and directing, impressive little gifts that seem to contain more every time you open them, The World’s End is all exposed plumbing.

It’s a mess that begins to unravel partway through the film and never quite stops. Its tonal shifts are abrupt and inelegant. Its echoes are (often) forced and without meaning. And the final half hour(!) is given over to a long-winded explanation of what we’ve just seen, heaping upon us a great deal of new information but failing completely to surprise.

It’s bloated, aimless, and can’t seem to figure out what its own message is.

But you know what?

The World's End, 2013

It’s still better than I gave it credit for being.

And while there’s a lot of fat just begging to be trimmed, there are also some truly great moments that more or less justify the missteps.

The central conceit this time around is that Pegg’s character, Gary King, rounds up four of his childhood friends for one more crack at The Golden Mile; a 12-pub crawl that they failed to complete back in June of 1990. This necessitates a trip back to Newton Haven, a town each of them was all too happy to escape.

While they’re there some bodysnatcher stuff happens or whatever. I’d explain it here but the voice of Bill Nighy spends 30 minutes doing exactly that and I wouldn’t want to steal his thunder.

The most basic disappointment for me is that The World’s End doesn’t quite manage to mesh its universes. The zombies in Shaun and the slashers of Hot Fuzz felt important to those films, but the bodysnatcher aspect of this film never quite gels with the pub crawl.

In fact, they actively work against each other at several points, and for the first time in the trilogy I started to wish Wright and Pegg just told a straightforward human story without any of that blended-genre silliness.

The World's End, 2013

That, of course, would go entirely against the ethos of the trilogy, but I still feel it would have given us a better film.

The best stuff comes at the beginning of The World’s End, which is incredibly strong. Gary narrates an extended flashback of the fateful night he and his pals attempted The Golden Mile, and a perfect bittersweet note is struck…the nostalgia one eventually feels for times that weren’t that great to begin with.

It’s a great little sequence that strikes an impressive chord. It understands exactly how we reflect on the past and cringe at who we were, wonder how we’re still alive, and yet…still miss it.

The sequence is set to “Summer’s Magic,” a dance track released in 1990 which is both the perfect soundtrack choice and a song whose title and release date are quite meaningful to the film. In fact, the soundtrack overall is something I take no issue with, with most of the songs being period-appropriate, many of them being quite good, and all of them commenting in some interesting way on the action.

Then the flashback ends and we get a legitimately painful contextual surprise: it turns out Gary was narrating his story not to us, but to a support group.

The World's End, 2013

It’s a truly dark twist that in a flash recontextualizes everything we’ve just seen, and, unfortunately, it sets the bar too high for The World’s End to really live up to. Nothing else in the film is anywhere near as clever — or affecting — as that reveal, and that’s a big part of the problem. The support group fakeout hurts. It takes the cheery narration and wistful footage and jaunty soundtrack and slaps it away with a brutal dose of reality.

The rest of the film, however, lacks that kind of twist. It presents itself…and that’s all it does. The masterful undercutting on display in that opening moment is absent for just about everything that follows. The World’s End is a disarmingly superficial film in that sense, made all the more frustrating because it started as a film that was anything but.

There’s no second layer to anything we’re watching.

Granted, Gary King views himself a dashing, irresistible figure…while his friends find him a bothersome nuisance. At no point do we suspect otherwise, though, and at many points the characters outline this precise dichotomy for us. There’s no twist to it and no surprise. Gary sees himself one way, the rest of the world sees him another, and that doesn’t really change. There’s no twist, and no surprise.

Similarly, for much of the film there’s an unspoken trauma in the group’s collective memory, and that seems as though it will pay off in some kind of interesting way, but it never does. I’m referring to the “accident” that caused Gary and Andy Knightley (Nick Frost) to part ways.

The World's End, 2013

We hear only passing references to this event, and it’s indeed an intriguing question. What happened? Gary might miss all of his friends, but it was Andy to whom he was clearly closest. It’s Andy that he misses most.

What exactly came between them? We know it was an accident, but that’s all we know. We want to find out more.

…and so we find out more. And we realize we knew enough already.

It’s revealed that Andy wrecked a vehicle — and was nearly killed — while driving an OD-ing Gary King to the hospital. After the crash Gary scampered away to leave Andy to deal with the fallout. Which, indeed, is pretty shitty, and exactly the sort of thing that would break up a friendship for good.

But does any of that change what we already knew? Do we reconsider anything? Does it change or enrich our understanding of the situation at all?

We know the details now, but there was enough context already (Gary’s hard-partying lifestyle, the fact that there was an accident, Andy’s disinterest in seeing Gary again, Andy’s tee-totaling) that we pretty much had the idea. It’s enough to know that Gary did a shitty thing to Andy; finding out what that shitty thing was fails to register, because it’s completely in keeping with what we’ve already assumed.

Additionally, late in the film, as Andy and Gary are brawling in The World’s End, Andy sees that Gary is wearing a hospital bracelet. (Reading — with a note of masterfully cruel irony — KING GARY.)

But, again, this is something we already knew. It lends a nice bit of retroactive weight to Gary refusing to show his arm in the smokehouse, but it’s something we already knew. We learn everything we need to know about Gary King in the introduction — and everything we need to know about his friends in their introductions — which leaves the film with such little room to surprise.

The World's End, 2013

Having said all of that, the scenes of the group reconnecting are pretty great. The first couple of pubs see the men catching up, realizing how much they’ve changed, and, slowly, slipping back into old jokes and dynamics. Their laughter feels warm and genuine, and they really do come across as people who became adults individually but remember what it was like to be kids together. It’s very well done, and unquestionably well acted.

The feeling of returning to one’s home town is also handled very well. I didn’t grow up in a town like Newton Haven, but the feeling I get from watching the gang revisit it is on par with the feeling I got when I returned home after nearly a decade away.

There’s some melancholy distance that Wright conveys so well I can’t even explain how he does it, the feeling that this was once part of you…and isn’t anymore. The feeling that you couldn’t wait to leave, but now it’s kind of nice to be back…even if you still can’t wait to leave.

The most affecting example of this is when, early in the film, a man who used to bully Peter in school borrows a chair from the gang’s table, and Peter immediately shifts back into feeling like a helpless child. Brilliantly observed is the fact that the most painful thing about his memories is that he’s the only one who has them. His tormentor doesn’t even remember him. All of it — every unforgettable nightmare he endured and the scars he still carries — stayed only with him. To this day, he remains the only one to suffer.

It’s a very realistic scene, and one of the few times in this film that we turn a human lens on someone who isn’t Gary or Andy.

The World's End, 2013

But the reconnecting goes only so far, because there’s another kind of story the film wishes to tell: one about bodysnatching. Unfortunately, it’s one that Wright and Pegg never figured out how to integrate naturally.

Instead of feeling like an organic part of The World’s End, the bodysnatcher plot robs the film of what should have been its most affecting moments, beginning with the scene in which that concept is introduced. Gary failing to impress a younger boy with his hard-drinking plans for the night — something that should register as a sad, aging man unable to cling to a popularity he never had — is rendered meaningless upon the reveal that the boy is an automaton.

It’s even less interesting when compared to a similar scene in Spaced, in which an almost identical exchange happens — right down to it taking place in a restroom — and which manages to feel both more affecting and more menacing. It’s a lesser shade of something we’ve already seen, and it’s lesser because it’s less natural.

And that ends up being the problem all around. Gary is frequently (and temporarily) deflated by the fact that so few people in Newton Haven remember him and his antics, but that means a lot less when it’s revealed that they’re all robotic replacements for the people he did know. So far from having to face the fact that he’s not the living legend he believes himself to be — which would have given his character some sorely needed growth — he gets to assign his lack of notoriety to the fact that these are all robots, and not the people who would remember him.

Part of what makes the film’s introduction work so well is that it spotlights, indirectly, how big the small things can feel to us. How massively important they are to us, while they mean nothing to anybody else.

The events of that night in 1990 meant — and continue to mean — the world to Gary King, but to anyone working at those pubs, drinking alongside the boys, or otherwise going about their business, it was just a night. The kids were just customers.

That’s the awakening Gary King should have…not the assurance that they would remember him if only they hadn’t been replaced by machines.

The World's End, 2013

Then again, the robots (or Blanks) are shown to retain the memories of the people they replace, so I’m not sure where the film wants us to land on that. It’s our explanation for why nobody in Newton Haven remembers them (which seems to be reinforced by the fact that those who haven’t been replaced, such as Mad Basil and The Reverend Green, do remember them), but the twins recognize Sam, and Mr. Shepherd remembers them even though he has been replaced, so I’m not sure there is a definite answer in there.

Even odder is the fact that the Blanks have such radically different responses to the boys. In the first pub, the barman doesn’t recognize any of them and is not interested in engaging with them. In a later pub, much of the dialogue from the first pub is revisited, with the barman (Spaced alum Mark Heap) making a big, friendly show out of recognizing and engaging with them. That’s odd because Heap’s barman is meant to clue you in to the fact that he’s a Blank, as that plot point was recently revealed to the characters. But the first barman was also a Blank; we just didn’t know it yet. So does a Blank want to wall Gary and company off from their pasts, or fool them into thinking they’ve found it again? If they’re meant to represent a unified “Starbucking” (as we’re overtly told they are), then why are their behaviors and intentions at odds?

Maybe it’s a plot inconsistency, or maybe I’m just missing something. Either way, it’s nit-picking I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t have a larger issue with the bodysnatchers.

So here’s my larger issue with the bodysnatchers: nobody flees.

The film does its best to give us a reason for that.

In fact, it gives us a bunch of reasons because it’s desperate to have us believe that these idiots will still try to finish the pub crawl: the buses have stopped running, there’s nobody sober enough to drive, they don’t have a car, nobody has a better plan, and so on.

All of which is fine. None of which convinces me that they wouldn’t make a break for it anyway.

Running might be a doomed idea, but aside from Gary I see no reason the others wouldn’t at least try…especially considering the fact that they weren’t having all that great of a time to begin with. They were already talking about ditching The Golden Mile and going home back when it was just a dumb social event.

Once the realize their lives are in danger, they for some reason feel less inclined to give it up.

The World's End, 2013

It’s a cheat. A necessary one to keep the film moving, but it’s only necessary because Wright and Pegg came up with lots of reasons the guys would stick together, and none of them are the right one. Gary King, I believe, would march stupidly into danger for the sake of finally completing The Golden Mile. I don’t believe that any of the others would push through as stupidly.

The danger simply isn’t handled believably to me here.

In Shaun of the Dead, Ed and Shaun fled the danger because it wasn’t safe to stay where they were…and they picked up the others because it wasn’t likely to remain safe where they were, either. Right or wrong, the impulse to find a safe place to hole up made sense.

In Hot Fuzz, Angel’s response was the opposite: he tackled the danger head-on, even when he knew he was doomed (see him attempt to place the entire NWA under arrest, alone), but that, too, made sense because of his unwavering commitment to justice. When the police joined him in his crusade, that also had a built-in explanation: they were the police.

In The World’s End, though, the characters’ response to the danger feels forced and manufactured, a product of the fact that the movie needs them to behave that way, and not because that’s who they are.

The bodysnatcher stuff does give the film some great moments, I admit. The scene in which the gang drunkenly tries to figure out what to call them is brilliant, and Gary’s “to err is human…” speech toward the end of the film is one of the best things in the entire trilogy. Ditto Nick Frost’s incredibly cathartic performance when he rips his shirt open and shouts, “I fucking hate this town!”

The World's End, 2013

But overall it just leads to some toothless commentary about Starbucking, and dull (and often humorless) fight scenes.

Shaun of the Dead had the good sense to keep its action either brief or funny. Hot Fuzz leaned on it a bit too hard, but still made Angel’s creative non-lethal takedowns interesting. (And, it must be said, still pretty funny.)

But in The World’s End they just feel tedious. Maybe it’s the silliness of the blue ink or the way limbs pop off and reattach like action figures, but something here just lacks weight, and I lose track of why I’m watching.

The first fight scene in the restroom uses one seemingly unbroken take (I don’t know for sure if it’s genuine or editing-room trickery), which may be technically impressive, but I don’t find it particularly engaging. It seems like something done for the sake of doing it, and not something done because that was the best way to shoot the scene. Compare it to Rope or the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas and you’ll get a sense of how hollow the gesture feels here.

A later brawl sees Gary’s drinking continually interrupted, and that’s decently funny, but otherwise it’s just the characters hitting people and getting hit in return. It gets old quickly and never complicates itself. The fight with the twins comes across as too Looney Tunes to even feel like it’s part of the same film.

In fact, nearly all of the bodysnatcher stuff feels like filler, and that might be because — unlike zombie films and cop movies — bodysnatcher films don’t have an established set of tropes from which to draw.

Both of the preceding installments in the trilogy hinged upon us knowing (at least in passing) the rules of the genres that they straddled. “Bodysnatcher” isn’t really a genre. Sci-Fi sure is, but it’s also much too broad. As a result, we’re left with a movie that doesn’t get to coast on an assumed level of familiarity as the last two did. It needs to introduce — continually — every one of its rules.

And, as a result, it feels like it’s putting forth a great deal of effort just to approach what the other two films achieved so naturally.

The World's End, 2013

But, mainly, there’s the fact that Gary King doesn’t change.

Nobody really changes. There’s an odd, unnatural stasis at the center of The World’s End, and I honestly don’t know how much of it is intentional, or what’s meant by it. It becomes particularly problematic at the end of the film, when Gary’s behavior and attitude (and reluctance to change or grow) results in global apocalypse and countless deaths. (Including his friends and loved ones, his own mother among them.)

What’s more, Gary causes this to happen.

In Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the danger springs up with no help from our protagonists. Shaun tries to beat it back; Angel successfully puts a stop to it.

Gary King, by contrast, triggers the apocalypse single-handedly.

And yet, nobody in the film seems to bat an eye. They just adjust to the fact that the planet is a desolate wasteland, and Gary leads younger, robotic versions of his friends from pub to pub.

That would be fine if there were a larger statement being made, but if there is I’d have trouble identifying it. I don’t even know what Gary’s ostensible purpose is, let alone the film’s larger, thematic one.

It’s not to get drunk with his young friends — he orders waters for all of them — and he knows he and his gang aren’t welcome, so I guess it’s just to start fights and be a dick?

It’s an oddly vague conclusion for a film that just spent half an hour trying to rigorously explain to us what we were watching.

The World's End, 2013

You know what, though?

There’s a lot that The World’s End gets exactly right.

As down as I am on it, and as much as I can pick it apart, there is a lot that I enjoy.

There’s the intro sequence, obviously. There’s the series of short scenes of Gary rounding up his old friends, in which Simon Pegg seems to channel a somehow-more-delusional David Brent. But the biggest achievement comes, again, from Nick Frost. He plays Gary’s most pained and hurt companion beautifully.

Andy, if anything, is too real.

His standoffish nature and refusal to engage is just…it’s brutal. It hurts to watch. And it’s not because he turns away from his friends, but because it’s so clearly a symptom of how much he aches on the inside.

He has his life together, but he’s unhappy. And when we learn later that his wife and kids have left him, it lands. It makes sense.

This is a guy who played second banana to someone who literally left him to die…and he scraped his life together as best he could only to have that fall apart as well.

It’s affecting, and it feels real in a way that Gary’s struggle — however we may wish to define that — does not.

The World's End, 2013

Andy has been beaten by life. His inner conflict doesn’t feel manufactured; it feels honest and sad. And when he punches his wedding ring out of a robot’s tummy, we get one of the few times in this film that the bodysnatcher aspect has legitimate resonance.

Ditto his fight with Gary toward the end, when he takes his frustrations out on his traitorous, selfish friend physically. There’s something deeply affecting about that. It’s inner torment made manifest. It’s two men who love each other trying to hurt each other, because that’s what they feel like they should do.

The conflict, sadly, doesn’t last. The floor of The World’s End descends and there’s no resolution to the confrontation between Andy and Gary. We’ve left the film about people, and shifted irreversibly into the film about alien bodysnatcher robot things.

The World’s End doesn’t know how to resolve the fistfight that the entire film has been building toward, so it — quite literally — just drops it.

That’s hugely disappointing, but I was talking about the things I liked, so let me shift tracks and say that I also love Paddy Considine’s turn as Steven Prince.

Steven is Gary’s put-upon and downplayed third banana, and he reconnects with his childhood crush Sam. Together they kindle a gentle romance as civilization comes crashing down, and while the romantic element if the film is far from one of its most important, it’s handled very well. Considine does fantastic work here, and I’m glad we got to see more of him after his great — but too-brief — turn as one of Sandford’s detectives in Hot Fuzz.

In fact, the casting is great all around, and the effects work is good as well…even if I do wish the film leaned on it a bit less.

But rewatching it (a few times) prior to writing this, I realized why I didn’t want to rewatch it at all.

At first, I just thought I didn’t like it as much. It wasn’t as funny. That kind of thing.

Instead, I think it’s just a little too hard to face.

The World's End, 2013

Gary King’s arrested adolescence is too well drawn. It’s too potent a reminder of…well, of all the stupid things I’ve done. All the crap I’ve put people through. All the times I hurt someone close to me, and never took the time to apologize or make amends.

I don’t look at The World’s End and see myself. But I do look at it and find unpleasant emotions triggered. See reflections of things I’d prefer not to remember. Realize that even now I’m not the person I probably should be.

That’s not the film’s fault. In fact, I admire how successfully it conjures those emotions.

It’s just frustrating that it doesn’t then know what to do with them.

The World’s End, through my personal filter, starts to look to me less like a bodysnatcher film and becomes more of a psychological horror.

The idea that someone like Gary King could exist…could continue to exist, as he is…could round up his old friends and interfere with their lives all over again…could end the film just as he always was, without the help he needs…could be left bounding unchecked through the world with no incentive to reconsider his place in it…

That’s terrifying to me.

If monster movies have you checking under the bed, this film makes me dread looking in the mirror, lest I see any part of Gary King staring back at me.

The World's End, 2013

It paints a man like Gary very well, and then doesn’t know what to do with him. The character — and the audience — are underserved.

If anything, the film’s biggest problem is how accurately and honestly it paints Gary. Because he’s not a caricature, and is instead a deeply hurting and dangerous man, he’s beyond the scope of the film. He’s too much for it to tame. He, by his own existence, raises questions and triggers concerns that the film isn’t capable of addressing.

But because it paints him so effectively, it can’t be a bad film. It’s disappointing, especially in light of the two that preceded it, but The World’s End hits some great notes along the way. It has interesting things to say about growing up, even if it can’t quite complete the thought.

And again, at its core, it’s the story of Pegg’s and Frost’s characters. This time around, though, it’s not about why they need each other. In fact, they don’t need each other at all, and they separate at some point before the end of the film to do…whatever it is they each do.

The emptiness of the ending comes from the confused story the film is trying to tell. Perhaps it was too ambitious for its own good. Or perhaps Wright and Pegg just got complacent. I certainly don’t know, and I can’t pretend to.

But I know that it’s worth watching, even a few times, because the lousy stuff makes you appreciate the previous films a bit more, and the good stuff is really good stuff.

It’s just that, for the first time, the balance seemed to really falter.

The World's End, 2013

That’s at least in keeping with the film, though.

You can get the old crew back together, but you’ll never manage precisely the same magic.

All you can ask is that you get some enjoyment out of it, before it’s all over.

Happy Halloween, everyone. Thanks for reading.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Like its predecessor Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz is a buddy comedy masquerading as a genre pastiche. But unlike Shaun of the Dead, it’s at times difficult to distinguish from the films that inspired it.

Whereas that earlier film built an entirely independent narrative about its characters that just happened to unfold alongside a zombie apocalypse — and whereas The World’s End built an entirely independent narrative about its characters that just happened to unfold alongside a body-snatcher invasion — Hot Fuzz is actually what it seems to be. Overall, it’s not a pastiche; it’s a film that has jokes in it, but otherwise fits snugly into one well-defined genre.

Which makes it feel like an outlier in the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy. It’s not a cop film that keeps encroaching on a smaller, more personal film; it’s a cop film. In fact, it’s a cop film that keeps getting encroached upon by a slasher film, a whodunit, and a film about a murderous cult.

Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End are both small, quiet films about characters coming to painful terms with who they are, told through the lenses of bombastic, apocalyptic tales that import familiar tropes and set pieces for our characters to trip over and butt up against.

But Hot Fuzz is a cop movie, through and through, and our characters don’t so much trip over and butt up against imported tropes so much as they incorporate them into their understanding of what’s going on. (They’re cops, after all. It’s what they do.)

All of which probably sounds like I’m coming down hard on Hot Fuzz, but I’m not. I’m a big fan of the trilogy, and, for my money, Hot Fuzz is the best of the batch.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Not my favorite, mind you. I won’t beat around the bush; that honor belongs to Shaun of the Dead, which I just find to be funnier and more charming overall. Hot Fuzz is the more accomplished work, and it hangs together more naturally than Shaun did, but I think those things come at the (relative) expense of the things I enjoyed most about Shaun.

With Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright made a great cop film. That’s an accomplishment, but with Shaun of the Dead he made a great film called Shaun of the Dead.

In that case, it was a movie in a league of its own, standing as a monument to its own accomplishments. In this case, Wright proved he could do what others have already done, and do it just as well.

Impressive, but that holds the film back from hitting the way that Shaun did. Its sights are set necessarily lower.

The World’s End, as long as we’re ranking, is easily my least favorite, so tune in for what’s sure to be a fair and balanced review next week.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

So, there, we’ve definitively and without room for argument ranked the films. Now we can actually start talking about this one.

Hot Fuzz again sees Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the lead roles, and — wisely — they both play very different kinds of characters than they played in Shaun of the Dead. This allows the film to feel less like a follow-up and more like something that should be judged on its own merits (for better or for worse). That’s as it should be, because wherever you’d personally rank it in the trilogy, it’s an exceptional and rewarding film in itself.

Pegg is again our protagonist. Here he plays Nicholas Angel, a restlessly devoted police officer whose adherence to the letter of the law costs him his relationships, his friendships, and — as the film begins — his job in London.

The London scenes are the most outright parodic, which definitely gets the audience laughing and receptive, but there’s still some nice world building that occurs here, particularly as Angel’s superiors (played in succession by Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy) are called in and dance around the issue a little less each time, resulting in Nighy coming right out and saying that Angel’s being transferred because he makes the rest of them look bad.

His new post is Sandford, Gloucestershire, a small village whose humble police force — to put it politely — Angel makes look even worse. Here he’s partnered with Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), a simple oaf who takes a fast shine to Angel’s professionalism and experience, and who becomes very quickly the only one Angel can rely on.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It’s a great setup, and Pegg and Frost inhabit their characters thoroughly. In spite of our memories of shlubby old Shaun, who needs the literal collapse of society to shock him out of his malaise, Pegg is completely believable as supercop Angel.

His youthful appearance might seem a bit out of place on box art and in stills, but in the film it serves only to heighten his talent and devotion to the job. He’s not a man who’s spent a full career becoming a great police officer; he was a born police officer, as we learn when he tells Danny about his police pedal car. This is his calling.

Which is also Angel’s problem.

In addition to the interference it causes with his personal life, Angel isn’t happy. He knows nothing of the world outside of policework, and can’t even say goodbye to his ex-girlfriend without slipping into investigation mode. (To be fair, they were at a crime scene at the time.) His life becomes painfully lonesome and empty the moment his shift ends, and when he’s on duty his talents go unappreciated, resulting in London shipping him off and Sandford tormenting and bullying him.

There’s only one thing he’s good at, and it’s something everybody resents him for.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Well, everybody apart from Danny, whose relationship with Angel isn’t just the centerpiece of the film, but its sincere, impressive emotional core. As great as Pegg is — and he is great — in this movie, it’s Frost’s Danny Butterman that stands out as the most impressive creation.

Shaun had more than a passing similarity with Pegg’s role in Spaced. They were both aimless slackers who had more ambition than they had motivation, and they were content, ultimately, to get older without necessarily growing up. Angel, obviously, is the exact opposite; he was born a grizzled professional, and couldn’t begin to imagine idle time. (Prior to meeting Danny, he ain’t even seen Bad Boys II!)

Frost’s character here, however, hearkens back to his character in Spaced: Mike Watt.

Both Mike and Danny are in some “lower” branch of service to their country (Mike in the Territorial Army, and Danny in a rural police district), but long to join the ranks of the big leagues (the real Army for Mike — who can’t enlist due to an injury — and the “proper action and shit” of big city police work for Danny).

And in each case, they’re disarmingly fragile, desperate for acceptance and respect.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Danny is far more than a re-painted Mike Watt, though, especially since Mike had friends. He’d still fall apart, but he had a group that needed him. He had a place. Danny does not. At least, not at first. And his growth over the course of the film — from ambling boob to hero who is willing to sacrifice himself — is easily the most significant growth experienced by any character in the trilogy. Danny’s arc is human, painful, hilarious, and adorable.

Danny growing from comic-relief-fat-guy to effective law officer would be enough, but what really gives it heft is the fact that it also tests his loyalty. He is, after all, the son of department head Frank Butterman…who clashes politely with Angel over his interpretation of a recent spate of deaths.

Angel feels they’re related homicides, but Frank reminds him that Sandford is a quiet town. Accidents happen. There’s no reason to jump to conclusions.

The rest of Sandford’s finest agree with Frank; they’ve worked here far longer than Angel, and haven’t seen any evidence that this is something to get worked up over.

Danny, however, listens to Angel. He helps him identify collections. He even spends his birthday combing through evidence with him (a more significant suggestion of Danny’s growth than it probably seems). And, ultimately, he sides with Angel over his father, culminating in what’s sure to be the most affecting homage to Point Break in film history.

Frank, it turns out, is the murderer. Kind of.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

The film takes its time getting around to the deaths, which works to its great favor. The overt parody of the early scenes give way to a fish-out-of-water (or big-cop-in-a-small-town) film in which Nicholas Angel must re-learn his role as a police officer in a context that doesn’t need — and is not receptive to — his heavy hand.

It leads to some great comedy, as you might imagine. His first night in Sandford sees him clearing a local pub of its underage patrons, leaving the owners to seethe at him while he enjoys a cranberry juice in their now empty establishment. It’s both funny and important to the way the plot develops.

While Angel adheres to the letter of the law, the pub owners appeal to the spirit. They argue that it’s better to have the kids in there, where they can be supervised, than out drinking on their own somewhere, causing trouble or getting hurt. In other words, they’re breaking the law, yes, but they’re doing it for the greater good. (The Greater Good.)

This is the conflict the film sets up; Angel’s unwavering respect for the law as written, and Sandford’s understanding of the law as a roadmap to a more pleasant society. Structurally speaking, Angel should end the film by learning to loosen up, and respecting the human element above legal mandates.

Instead, we learn that it’s not Angel who needs to loosen up at all; it’s the villagers, who dispose of or murder unsavory characters in order to preserve the respectable image of Sandford. The letter of the law is set up, initially, as the too-harsh avenue of interpretation, but the film shows us that it’s actually the other way around; respecting only the spirit of the law is what leads to atrocity.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It’s an exaggerated outcome, to be sure, but the fact that Hot Fuzz is a comedy means there’s no need to dismiss it as slippery-slope panicky nonsense, even if it does feature a bloodthirsty cadre that kills people for having annoying laughs or for thinking about moving away. Whatever larger points it’s making about the letter/spirit debate apply only to its own universe.

The killers in question are the Neighborhood Watch Alliance, operating under Frank Butterman. That’s the kind of reveal that requires a lot of misdirection, which Hot Fuzz manages to be both really good at, and frustratingly sloppy about.

I can sum up where it works in two words: Timothy Dalton. Admittedly there’s a lot of misdirection that the film handles well, but Dalton’s character is misdirection on legs, and he’s absolutely perfect at it.

He plays Simon Skinner, the owner of the local supermarket, and he introduces himself to Angel by saying he’s a slasher…of prices! From Angel’s very first day on duty, Skinner knowingly toys with him. He delights in it. He knows full well the oily, sneaky bastard that he is, and it’s an awareness that fills him with pride.

He loves being a shit.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

At first he’s likely just attempting to assert himself. He’s an important figure in the town, and he wants people to be so strongly aware of that that they cower from him.

In fact, we see that he has this exact effect on other characters in the film, in particular George Merchant and Tim Messenger, two of the NWA’s later victims. (The latter immediately deflates when Skinner enters the scene, and it’s such a perfect moment of acting for Adam Buxton, shifting from mindless, sunny reporter to beaten little brother in the blink of an eye.)

Skinner drives smugly by crime scenes, making sure Angel hears that he’s listening to music related to the crime. He drops knowledge he shouldn’t have. He winks and leaves Angel behind, knowing that he’s both piqued the young cop’s suspicions and also left him nothing to work with.

He plays a game during this section of the film — which drifts smoothly into legitimate slasher territory — and it’s a game he relishes.

Why? Because he knows he can’t lose.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Skinner sets himself up as the prime suspect, establishing himself in that role well before there’s even a death to investigate. And he does this for the purposes of misdirection. As long as Angel suspects him — and Skinner ensures that he does — the rest of the NWA is safe to carry out their business. And should Angel ever feel that he’s pulled enough evidence together to take Skinner in, as he does at one brilliantly handled point in the film, Skinner has his supermarket surveillance tapes to clear him of any wrongdoing.

He’s a decoy, and an incredible one. He’s involved with the killings, and indeed sets himself up to seem like the killer himself, which is ultimately what keeps him and the rest of the cult safe. The more he frustrates Angel, the less Angel has an idea of what’s really happening.

This misdirection comes to a head in the aforementioned arrest scene, which sees Angel laying out all of the evidence and connections he’s found, working carefully and deliberately through a complicated theory that positions Skinner as the one link between all of the victims, the single person who would benefit from their deaths, the only one in the entire village with the means, the motive, and the madness to pull it off.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

…only he didn’t do it.

Angel’s defeat is one felt by the audience, which makes it easy to miss the fact that Wright (and co-writer Pegg) spun not one but two satisfying mysteries out of the same set of clues and plot points.

The first is the false one that Angel outlines here. Every detail fits, and a shorter film could have ended with Skinner’s arrest without it seeming cheap. (That movie probably wouldn’t be as funny, though.) The only reason it doesn’t work is that the filmmakers say it doesn’t; information that is yet to be revealed will throw light from another angle over what we already know, and cause it to cast a very different shadow: Frank Butterman and the NWA are working together as a murderous team.

That’s impressive writing. Even the best mystery writers have difficulty making their own pieces fit together. Raymond Chandler was famously asked by the filmmakers adapting The Big Sleep who killed one of the novel’s characters. Chandler replied that he didn’t know.

So for Wright and Pegg to spin a mystery that doesn’t just add up but that adds up in two different ways…that’s a hell of an achievement.

But that’s also why Hot Fuzz is maddening. Two solutions requires two climaxes. Hot Fuzz has what feels like around 30.

It’s the kind of movie that ends again and again, but then keeps going. And while the first 2/3 of so of the film is tightly and intricately constructed, the final stretch feels loose and in need of editing.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It feels like Wright and Pegg wanted many things to happen in Hot Fuzz, and so spend their time building toward those things. That’s not a problem; in fact it’s impressive that — if this is true — the buildup was so masterful, and all the time spent sewing seeds was actually riveting and fun. But it does mean that their big set pieces toward the end don’t seem to have had as much thought put into them. Wright and Pegg worked hard to get us where we needed to go, but once we get there, there’s not much to see.

Of course, that’s an odd thing to say about a climactic shootout that spans the entire village and ends with Timothy Dalton piercing his jaw on a spike, but the problem is that there’s little else at play. It’s a shootout…and that’s almost all it is.

There are small touches (the villagers standing where Angel met them on his first morning; the fact that Angel uses creative non-lethal takedowns in every case), but we’re still just watching a shootout.

In Shaun of the Dead, we were never just watching a zombie movie, but Hot Fuzz definitely becomes an action film for a too-long stretch. And that’s disappointing, because this is a creative team that is fully capable of working on several levels at once. The slasher movie also being a cop movie is an example of how well they can handle tonal discrepancy, but here we slide right into action gear and…just kind of stay there.

It also doesn’t help that the film comes to a dead stop multiple times, with one character or another insisting that the action halt so they can deliver some kind of speech…only for the action to swell up again. In fact, three times Frank is the character who does this.

Hot Fuzz should be savvy enough to realize that this either needs to be undercut in some way, or rewritten entirely. Instead, it just lets it happen. Over, and over, and over again. An inventively shot and written film by an incredible team of talent suddenly, and disappointingly, decides that good enough is good enough.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

As a result, Hot Fuzz feels overlong, and it makes me pick at things I wouldn’t otherwise be very concerned with (such as the strangeness of the sea mine blowing up the entire precinct without hurting anyone inside). It also makes Danny’s sacrifice — taking a literal bullet for Angel — feel less potent than it should. As a mark of his growth, it’s great. As a potential tragic end to the film it’s quite moving. But as it stands it’s several endings too late and the audience is already restless. It still works, but it loses a good deal of its power.

Needless to say, Hot Fuzz isn’t much poorer for dragging its feet toward the end, and I admit that a sloppy landing does nothing to work against the mastery demonstrated by the rest of the film. It’s a great watch with a stellar soundtrack and an incredible cast, and, like Shaun of the Dead, it’s full of internal echo that you may not notice without multiple viewings.

It’s also got the strongest central relationship in the trilogy: that between Angel and Danny.

Evidently an earlier draft of the script had Angel falling in love with a woman in Sandford; when she was written out, many of her lines were given — unchanged — to Danny. This is likely why the scene of the two of them in Danny’s house seems to be building toward a kiss, but it’s also what gives their interactions such affecting power.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Had Angel been saying these things and opening up this way to a woman, it would have been just another movie relationship. But as it’s Danny, the only human being who treats Angel like a friend, it’s sad, and pretty touching.

These are two people who have each built lives for themselves, but who desperately want to connect. And when they do, it’s something a lot like love.

You know what? To hell with that. It is love. Not sexual or romantic love, but it’s love all the same.

Hot Fuzz is a love story about two men who each find what they’re looking for in each other. The fact that the film at no point plays this for overt laughs is an achievement of restraint, and one I think we could all learn from.

It’s a joyfully gory mystery wrapped in a buddy cop film, with funny things to say about the genre’s conventions and impressive insight into how even a lifelong putz like Danny Butterman can find a place for himself in the world.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It’s not as tightly constructed or surprising as Shaun of the Dead, but it’s impossible to overlook the many, many things that it does exactly right.

I can’t imagine many Shaun fans were disappointed by this one. If they were, I wonder what it was that they saw in Shaun.

It would be a long six years before we got our conclusion to the trilogy with The World’s End…an understandably divisive film that I look forward to discussing next week.

Well, I say I look forward to it. Let’s see how I actually feel when I write the damned thing.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

So! Trilogy of Terror, a new series that I’ll do each October, in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. They could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or any relationship, really.

I’m kicking it off this year with Edgar Wright’s Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy. (The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, for non-Americans.)

While only Shaun of the Dead is rooted in outright horror, both Hot Fuzz and The World’s End have horror-specific elements among their defining traits, so I’d argue that they qualify as well. Especially since all three films can be easily linked together to form one grander (if not necessarily cohesive) statement…but that’s probably a discussion for later.

I was surprised the first time I watched Shaun of the Dead. I remember seeing advertisements for it and…not being interested, really. I was a big fan of British comedy, but I hadn’t yet seen Spaced (which laid the groundwork for this film) so I missed out on the excitement that I would have otherwise felt.

To me, it just looked silly. There’s nothing wrong with silly, but there’s nothing rare about it either. Dumb comedies were — and continue to be — in ready supply, especially here in America. Importing another felt unnecessary. Seeking it out specifically felt absurd.

But then friends started to recommend it, particularly once it arrived on DVD. I figured that meant it was decently funny. Later on another friend — an independent film-maker that I respect greatly — recommended it, and I realized that it might also be good.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

That’s what I wasn’t prepared for…a genuinely good film underneath the gore and the silliness. Indeed, I’m sure that that’s what most viewers weren’t prepared for.

Great jokes are always welcome, but you expect to find those in a film that bills itself as a comedy. That’s where they belong. They’re why people turn to comedies in the first place.

But great acting, great directing, great film-making…those are less common. Shaun of the Dead gave us all of that instead of what could have been — and what I expected to be — some disposable bit of gory pap.

Watching it for the first time, I was impressed. 11 years later, I’m even more impressed. Shaun of the Dead is a nearly perfect movie in my estimation. It’s funny, it’s insightful, it’s well-made, and it’s confident. There are new layers and details that reveal themselves every time I watch it, and I’ve seen it at least a couple dozen times by now. Every element works, and they work so well that I’m still finding new intricacies a decade down the line.

But what is it? Is it a horror film? A romantic comedy? A parody? Yes, it is. And it’s a lot of other things, too.

Shaun of the Dead shouldn’t succeed the way it does. It really shouldn’t. It has too many things happening at once. It’s tonally all over the map. It mixes high social commentary with low slapstick and expects them both to land. It should be a mess.

But it knows that.

And that’s kind of the point.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

The film, ostensibly, centers on an ill-equipped man attempting to lead a group of survivors through the zombie apocalypse. The film also happens to be about that man getting his relationships in order, sorting his life out, and finding his place in the world. They’re two plotlines that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but for a comedy that’s a pretty daring blend, especially since neither plot seems especially tailored to humor.

Which is probably why Shaun of the Dead works so well. It’s a comedy, but not mindlessly so. It thinks its way through — and deeper into — its complications, because it has to. It sets itself an unenviable goal of spanning genres and delivering its impact on multiple fronts, so it had no choice but to be brainy about it. These things don’t just work together on their own; if they work, it’s because some group of artists worked together to make it work.

The film focuses on character and thematic resonance as though it were a drama. And while it has a slew of unforgettably funny moments, it’s also always — unfailingly — sincere. It’s a work of love, filled with respect and admiration for its source material, and an impressive ability to outdo itself, to keep layering, to dream up a great scene and then present it in some way that makes it better.

Which is what struck me the first time: the construction of the film. The way Shaun’s morning routine is urgently edited into a series of quick cuts, like an action montage. The way the sun rises on our passed-out hero like a floodlight snapping on. The way the aftermath of a fatal car wreck plays out in the background, behind an otherwise quiet scene of two friends reconnecting.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

Wright doesn’t shoot the movie like a comedy. He shoots it like a horror film, a drama, an action movie, and like almost anything but a comedy. Which, obviously, makes it funnier.

There’s great humor to be found in someone who takes himself seriously while saying and doing ridiculous things. In Shaun of the Dead, that’s a role knowingly filled by the director himself.

What’s great about that, and why this movie has staying power, is the fact that it allows you, in the audience, to do things other than laugh.

Even great comedies sometimes suffer from the fact that there needs to be space between the jokes, but the ones that take themselves seriously — and allow themselves to be serious not in spite of but in addition to the jokes — have an opportunity to fill that space creatively.

That’s where characters explore their own dynamics. That’s where themes emerge and the echoing of lines and scene composition pays off. That’s where, to put it flatly, we’re allowed to care about what is happening.

And that’s the ace up Shaun of the Dead‘s sleeve: it makes its audience care.

It’s a great trick, and by no means an easy one to pull off. Reel them in with the promise of hilarious knockabout zombie gore, and break their hearts as two men find their friendship threatened by the responsibilities of adulthood.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

It shouldn’t work, but it does…and it works because Wright and Pegg are in full command of their material. They know how they want the audience to react, and when, and they know exactly how to trigger it.

That’s why Spaced is a necessary part of this film’s pedigree. It goes deeper than seeing familiar faces and names plastered all over the film; it shares that show’s artistic DNA.

Wright directed Spaced in his own inimitable, inventive way, elevating a sitcom about two flatmates to levels of genuine visual art. And Pegg — who co-wrote and starred in both that show and this film — took a set of caricatures and allowed them to evolve into a group of rich human beings with a web of complex relationships between them.

Shaun of the Dead may have been born of one episode’s fantasy sequence (in which Pegg’s character fights back a group of zombies), but the show’s real echoes are felt throughout the presentation of the film, and the script behind it. It informs the film’s entire creative process, and its agenda.

It’s no surprise that the cast is padded out (in both major and minor parts) with Spaced alums; these are people who already knew what Wright and Pegg would need from them, and would have some idea of how the film would ultimately work. Which is good, because it would be pretty easy for an unfamiliar actor to read the scene in which the group bludgeons a zombie to death to the beat of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and get the wrong idea about how to pitch his performance.

Wright and Pegg’s masterful character work flows throughout the Trilogy, with an emphasis less on change than on the process of discovering who you already are. There’s still a kind of growth — and an important kind of growth — at play in each of the three films, but these are mainly voyages of self-discovery.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

When taken as a whole, the Trilogy doesn’t present a definitive “right” kind of person to be. That’s a convenient topic to discuss here, in the first film, as Shaun’s housemates foreshadow Pegg’s later roles, and provide a basic template for understanding them.

When we meet him, Shaun is caught in the middle between Ed and Pete, played by Nick Frost and Peter Serafinowicz respectively…both of whom are Spaced actors as well. Ed is slovenly, crude, and unapologetically aimless. He lacks all ambition and refuses to grow up. On the other hand, he’s there for Shaun when Liz breaks his heart, and does everything he can to hold his friend together. He’s loyal.

Pete, by contrast, is responsible and driven, interested in living a stable and secure life. He takes his career seriously and cares about the way he’s perceived. He’s also, however, humorless, and puts his own needs above other people’s feelings.

Pegg plays Shaun as being directly in the middle, frustrated with both of them, but envious of them as well. He tries to rise to his managerial duties at work and keep the survivors together later like Pete would, but he’s perfectly content to spend his life playing video games and hitting the pub with Ed.

Each of his housemates represents a possible direction for Shaun to take, but direction means commitment. And, as exemplified by his failing relationship with Liz, commitment is not one of Shaun’s strong points.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

Instead of becoming more like either of them, he keeps to the middle path. He veers closer to neither Pete nor Ed; he remains Shaun. And while it seems a bit odd from a character-arc perspective that a man who opened the film in the undefined middle ground remains in the middle ground at the end, there’s still growth that has occurred: the middle ground is now defined. Shaun knows it, and understands it, and — most importantly — is comfortable with it.

He didn’t pull himself together and solve everything, but neither did he fall apart and lose everything. He’s not the kind of person who will — or can — do either. He’s the kind of person that can make it through an ordeal, but he’ll do so in neither triumph nor defeat.

There’s a reason he replies three times to Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson, another familiar Spaced face and that show’s co-writer) that he’s “surviving.” It’s a contextual joke within the film, but also a reminder of where Shaun is, and always will be: the middle. He’ll neither succeed nor fail; he’ll survive.

He exists in the band between the two extremes. When the film opens, it upsets and disappoints him that he can’t commit to either direction. By the end he still can’t commit, but he realizes that that’s okay. That’s who he is. And he’s comfortable with that.

We don’t see a different version of Shaun at the end of the film; we just see one that’s come to terms with who he already is.

Pegg plays the other two extremes in the films to follow. Nicholas Angel of Hot Fuzz is a humorless professional in the vein of Pete, and Gary King of The World’s End is an aimless eternal youth in Ed’s tradition.

Shaun of the Dead might see our hero staying just where he is, but the rest of the Trilogy explores the other possibilities. We get no definitive answer and all definitive answers, which is part of why the films function so well together.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

Shaun of the Dead arrived at the front end of a resurgence of interest in zombies. While the image of the shambling corpse has been around for centuries, and was standardized back in 1968 by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, zombies by and large had lost their cultural cachet.

Shaun of the Dead helped to usher in an undead renaissance that continues to this day. It arrived on the scene in essentially the same wave that brought us 28 Days Later (2002), Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), and the first issues of the Walking Dead comic series (2003). These and Shaun all constitute legitimate cultural juggernauts that, in their own ways, each helped bring the monster back to life.

Horror icons and monster types throughout history have reflected the fears of the time that birthed them. Werewolves are easy to see as fears of pubescence, of males growing up too quickly to have control over their basest impulses. Dracula was a wealthy, powerful foreigner who seduced and sullied our women. And Frankenstein’s monster was reflective of a fear of advances in modern science…a “where will it end?” hysteria that later recurred in the mad scientist / giant monster movies of the 1950s, when nuclear paranoia was not coincidentally at the forefront of public consciousness.

So what is it about zombies that made them so appealing to audiences of the early 2000s? What is it that makes them so appealing still? What social fears of uniformity, of unstoppable viruses, of mob mentality are we articulating through these mindless hordes?

It’s a question that I find fascinating.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

I find it even more fascinating that the real danger in zombie media — almost always, going right back to Romero’s original film — comes from other survivors.

Are zombies actually what we fear? Or do we fear how the danger will change us? Do we fear how quickly and easily we will become the villains? How simply our best laid plans — dealing with Philip, picking up mom and Liz, holing up and waiting for all of this to blow over — will turn, in an instant, to a blueprint of our own destruction?

If we really are the danger — if we as people are the horror movie icon of our own generation — then that explains why there’s never been much interest in crafting a definitive, canonical origin story for zombies. Unlike the Wolfman, Dracula, or Frankenstein’s monster, there’s no one answer as to where they came from, how they behave, or how to deal with them.

Each of those three examples have seen variants through the years, but that’s just what they are: variants. In zombie media there’s nothing but variants.

They could be the result of voodoo, viruses, or radiation. They could be slow and lumbering or fast and ruthless. They could overwhelm you or outlast you. They could be mindless, or they could be corrupted shades of the people you loved.

Shaun of the Dead, wisely I think, doesn’t give us a definitive origin for its threat, which is a clue that zombies are not the important thing here; the story — no matter how big or dangerous or relentless the horde — comes from the characters…how they interact, what they decide to do, how their relationships grow and change.

This is a vagueness that both Hot Fuzz and The World’s End abandoned, opting instead for definite answers, and in those cases I think that it distracts from the power of each film…but we’ll talk about that in the coming weeks.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

One thing Wright and Pegg introduce here that does carry through the entire trilogy (together and separately, as it occurs in both the direction and the dialogue) is the concept of echo.

There’s an often-mocked film clip of George Lucas describing the prequel trilogy as being “like poetry.” It rhymes, he says. (And we all know what it rhymes with.) But that’s actually a good way of describing the films that constitute The Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy.

These do rhyme, both in ways that have overt payoffs (Ed’s “cock it” exclamation later becoming firearm advice) and in ways that simply connect disparate moments in artful ways (“What do you mean, do something?”).

At its best this repetition enhances the comedy, but even at its “worst” (a usage of the word that definitely requires quotation marks) it instills in the viewer a feeling of artistic purpose.

Sometimes there’s not much more to the echo than cleverness for the sake of cleverness, but that’s an important reassurance when your film relies on cleverness. It’s a way of cluing your audience in to the fact that it’s worth paying attention. That this is a film that will try to give you a little more. That if you treat what you’re watching with respect, you’ll it in return.

The echoes help to define Shaun as the confident piece that it is. It doesn’t seek to dazzle and distract so much as it does try to suck you into its universe, and erect boundaries between itself and any other horror comedy you’ve seen. While it slips into and out of outright parody territory (see Shaun and Ed singing “White Lines” with a howling silhouette), its foundation is laid firmly upon the complex workings and frustrations of adult friendship. Of group dynamics. Of basic humanity, and how it falters when social convention is violated.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

In short, it’s always real. That’s why the death of Shaun’s mother hits the way it does. That’s why Shaun and Liz leaving Ed feels genuinely sad. That’s why David being torn apart by zombies feels unfair, no matter how much of a shit he was.

These things hurt because they are the result of one genre encroaching on another…the horror triumphing over the comedy…the zombies forcing their way into our stronghold.

Which is evidence, if we need it at this point, that the zombies aren’t the important part of this film. They’re an obstacle. A problem unfolding in the background. A periodic danger that must be dealt with, unquestionably at inopportune times.

Like the later Her, Shaun of the Dead crafts a world in which something astounding and impossible happens, and then focuses all of our attention on how a small handful of characters deal with ancillary issues.

The zombies are just a method of advancing the plot…a way of forcing Shaun into action.

They’re symbolic of the world closing in on him, forcing him to do something…and that’s necessary, because Shaun is the kind of person who will choose inaction every time that inaction remains an option.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

It might take zombies invading his house to get him off his ass. And once he is off his ass he might realize that he enjoys sitting on his ass and slide right back into that.

But that’s okay. Because at least now he knows. He knows who he is. He had to lose a lot along the way to arrive at that conclusion, and it might be a conclusion he expected from the start, but that was still his journey.

A human journey.

A journey that ends in neither tragedy nor triumph, but with a man understanding, for the first time, that he’s okay with who he already is.

It’s horror, it’s comedy, it’s romance, it’s action, it’s drama, it’s social commentary, and it’s none of these.

It’s Shaun of the Dead, and for most of the world it was a promising and exciting glimpse of a strong, witty, intelligent new film maker.

If we classify Shaun of the Dead as a horror film — and I would, without question — I think it’s one of the best. I’d place it alongside The Shining and Psycho in terms of raw quality. The fact that it’s a comedy doesn’t diminish is impact; if anything, it allows it to resonate in unexpected ways in these savvier and less sincere times. It’s a horror film that appeals with good reason to the audiences of today, and one that has clearly learned from yesterday’s best.

We only had to wait three years for Wright and Pegg’s followup, but the moment it arrived people were already arguing about which film was better. The lack of a clear consensus speaks volumes about how great both films were.

Which do I prefer? You’ll find out next week, when we talk about Hot Fuzz.

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