Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Well, we had to talk about it sooner or later…

In July 1991, Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure. For a children’s entertainer, that’s understandably a death knell. But it was also — let’s be frank — kind of bullshit.

Reubens, as we all now know, was evidently pleasuring himself in an adult theater. Police raided the theater and made arrests as they saw fit. By Reubens’ account — which I find pretty believable — once they realized they had caught a celebrity, the police were not as interested in the rest of the culprits. They had Pee-wee Herman. Who else mattered?

Reubens — also by his account — volunteered to do charity work for children, in character, in exchange for keeping the arrest quiet. However seriously it might have been considered, that ultimately didn’t come to pass. Reubens’ mugshot was all over the news, and he became the butt of jokes for talk show hosts, standup comedians, and sketch comedy shows overnight.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse had already completed its run, which I didn’t realize as a kid. Reubens’ arrest made for exceptionally poor timing, because it was easy to conclude that CBS cancelled his show in response. In reality, they just stopped airing reruns. The net effect was the same, however; Pee-wee Herman was dead, and Reubens no longer had a career.

I’m making sure to talk about this, because it was one of the formative moments of my childhood.

When this happened, I was 10. I didn’t understand it, mainly because I had no concept of adult theaters or masturbation, let alone what that kind of social fallout would mean for a celebrity.

All I understood was that one week I could watch Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and the next week I couldn’t. It was over. Pee-wee wasn’t moving to a new show or a new movie or anything else. Pee-wee was gone. A character I loved — who gave me countless hours of joy and entertainment — was never coming back.

I wasn’t alone. Pee-wee meant a lot to many children at the time. Looking back, to be totally honest, I believe I owe a huge amount of my creativity — and my understanding of its importance, and my desire to nurture it in myself and others — to the shows I watched growing up that embraced and actively glorified the power of imagination.

I had Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, with a whole Land of Make Believe. I had Muppet Babies, in which the toddlers had exciting adventures in exotic locales without ever leaving the nursery. I had Pee-wee’s Playhouse, in which even the most mundane things — a globe, a clock, a chair — were enthusiastic friends and companions.

Imagination mattered. Hell, according to those shows and so many others with which I was surrounded, imagination was everything. Take it away and…what are you really left with? A rich inner life was as important as — or more important than — anything we could desire externally. Imagination mattered. To me, possibly because I had it reinforced so deeply, so firmly, so repeatedly in my early years, it still does.

Reubens’ scandal came as a severe blow for that reason. Pee-wee’s Playhouse wasn’t just a show I liked to watch; it was part of who I was. The scandal represented a sharply, cruelly revoked promise. It was a reminder that we couldn’t be kids forever; that reality was going to intrude. And when it did, we wouldn’t like it. We would lose things that were important to us. There would be no going back.

I believe Reubens’ arrest marked the day a lot of children lost their innocence. It was a turning point. Something that had brought us so much joy was suddenly a source of embarrassment.

And yet, especially now, I can’t look back and make any more sense of it than I could then.

Sure, I understand that openly pleasuring one’s self in an adult theater would be considered public indecency. That in itself doesn’t bother me; I’ve never attended a pornographic film and I can’t imagine I ever will.

But, accepting that it is illegal, I don’t know why adult theaters are allowed to operate. Why else would somebody go? It doesn’t seem to me as though they serve any purpose other than providing a context for people to pleasure themselves or others…either case being illegal.

The police made an easy bust that day. Perhaps they had some quota to meet. Perhaps they just felt like being dicks. Certainly once they had Pee-wee Herman in handcuffs they felt like being dicks, focusing their attentions on him and actively deciding at some point that they’d prefer to ruin his career than keep it quiet. Instead of accepting an offer to make some needy kids happy, they turned the arrest into a spectacle that robbed kids across the country of happiness that was rightly theirs.

Reubens’ treatment may have been just, but it certainly wasn’t fair. Those who knew him — including his previous costars, such as Valeria Golino who played Gina in Big Top Pee-wee — spoke out against his treatment. Viewers and parents wrote tens of thousands of letters of support to one show (A Current Affair) that covered the scandal.

But it didn’t help. He was unnecessarily demonized, and his legacy was tarnished forever.

And that was it. For years, Reubens didn’t work.

He eventually started popping up here and there in small roles. I distinctly remember him showing up on Murphy Brown as one of Murphy’s secretaries. A running joke in the show was that the title character couldn’t keep a secretary, either due to their outlandish quirks or something she herself said or did, and each week we’d see a new one. Except for Reubens, whose particular secretary character stuck around.

I suspected that was Candice Bergen choosing to sacrifice one of her own show’s most famous jokes for the sake of giving her friend some steady work. I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it’s something I choose to believe.

Reubens himself was probably doing okay. I never heard about him going broke or being homeless or anything like that; it’s just that his future roles (and any royalties he expected from reruns of Pee-wee’s Playhouse) dried up overnight.

Maybe one day Reubens would be back, but Pee-wee surely wouldn’t.

And then…times changed.

People grew up.

Those making decisions about television shows and films were no longer the ones who turned their backs on Reubens. Rather, they were increasingly those who grew up watching Reubens, who felt that his treatment was uncalled for.

What’s more, the public perception of sexual indiscretion had changed. When a huge cache of hacked, private celebrity photos was released a few years back, how many of the victims faced any kind of fallout for the sudden publicity of their sex lives? There’s even a route to stardom seemingly available to those who knowingly leak their own sex tapes.

It’s not the career killer it once was. And 28 years after Big Top Pee-wee, we saw an official appearance by the character again. Not as a special guest, not as a cameo…but as the headlining star of his third film.

I have to admit, I never saw that coming.

Here’s what I saw coming even less: it was worth waiting for.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is, against all odds, a delight. An incredible late-game reemergence from a character that, by all rights, probably shouldn’t work as well as he still does. It’s funny. It’s sweet. It’s thoroughly charming. And I honestly couldn’t be happier with it.

Bringing characters and shows back from the dead is often a fool’s errand. It may well make money, but it very rarely pleases anyone who loved the original incarnations. Here you just have to look at my reviews of Project: ALF, Red Dwarf, or Arrested Development. Elsewhere you’ll hear endless (though probably well-deserved) griping about the Gilmore Girls revival, or the Sex and the City films. The various revivals of Futurama all have their detractors, and while I’m probably more forgiving of the show than most, I can see their point.

Something gets lost in the revival. Actors age. Or die, or are no longer available, or are not interested in returning. Writers very rarely return for various reasons, and are too often considered expendable, as nobody would visually notice they’re missing. Networks have new expectations that a revived production may not know how to meet while maintaining its earlier level of quality.

And, perhaps most frustrating of all, we change.

We get older. Our tastes evolve, and hopefully refine. Something that we once enjoyed a show for doing no longer interests us. If the revived show tries to do it again, we feel bored. If the revived show does something new, we complain that it doesn’t feel the same as what we remember.

We can reunite The Beatles, but we can’t make them write another “Hey Jude.” It’s a no-win situation.

Except, of course, for those glorious few that do manage a win.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is one of them. Nobody is more surprised by that than I am.

The film walks a line so fine it’s often difficult to believe it exists: a perfect balance between appealing to nostalgia and providing something new. In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of revivals that manage it better than this film does.

Let’s not go nuts, of course; Pee-wee’s Big Holiday isn’t a great film. It is, however, a surprisingly good one, which merits celebration in its own right. And it does so much so well that it deserves to be studied as a kind of template for those looking to revive properties of their own.

For longtime fans, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday offers some cute little nods (Pee-wee’s hatred of snakes, a character referring to him as “rebel”), but they’re not barricades to the enjoyment of new audiences. It borrows the feel of previous Pee-wee outings — mainly Pee-wee’s Big Adventure — but doesn’t actually repeat jokes or setpieces.

When I say it mainly borrows from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I mean it. It’s another road movie. It’s about Pee-wee heading from some indeterminate location to a fixed destination (Texas there, New York here). Along the way he mixes it up with colorful characters and gets into and out of scrapes. The stakes are comically low (a missing bike there, a birthday party here).

I can’t blame Reubens for taking the character back to a formula that he knows worked. At the same time, though, it’s a worrying impulse, as it invites immediate and likely unflattering comparison. “So, he made Pee-wee’s Big Adventure again? Only worse?”

What rescues it is the fact that the material within that framework is entirely unique. Pee-wee doesn’t run afoul of a motorcycle gang, or get mistaken for making out with a woman in a big dinosaur, or sing folk songs with a boxcar hobo, nor does he experience direct equivalents of any of those things. America is a big place, and Pee-wee (via Reubens) takes the opportunity to see and have very different experiences on his second outing.

Of course, it’s not the second outing for this Pee-wee. Once again the character is an entirely new incarnation. This time, he’s a friendly chef at a diner in a small town he’s never left. In fact, we learn that the one time he tried to leave, he was involved in an accident that resulted in him needing a metal plate in his head. Since then, he’s never attempted to venture further than Fairville’s limits again.

Early in the film we get our equivalent of the breakfast machine from the first film, only this time spanning the town. Pee-wee wakes up, is launched from his bed, skiis down the roof, plops into a tiny car, and so forth.

And here it has its own kind of thematic resonance. In the first film it was a joyous, playful sequence that showed us just how many toys (of all kinds) Pee-wee had, and how much he relished just having them. This sequence, however, shows us how well Pee-wee knows his town. Where everything is, where everybody will be, how everyone and everything will react to him…so perfectly does he know this that he can turn his little corner of the world into its own Rube Goldberg machine. It’s one thing to be able to set one up in your living room, and another to know your surroundings so well that you can use them instead.

Pee-wee’s happy in Fairville. He’s comfortable. He’s secure. But he’s also, on some level, bored.

We don’t see it — at least not overtly — but it’s there. It’s even what drives the opening dream sequence, which is also probably the funniest moment of the film: we see Pee-wee bidding farewell to an alien friend. The alien invites him to come, but Pee-wee can’t. “I want to go,” he repeats almost tearfully, over and over, “but I can’t leave home.”

It’s a funny sequence if only because of how silly it is, and it’s also a pretty great opening feint. It makes sense as a dream sequence, but do we immediately assume it is one? We haven’t seen Pee-wee in almost thirty years, after all; why couldn’t he have made an alien friend in that time? One who departs just as we tune back in to see what’s going on?

At work that day, he meets another new friend. Human, this time, but one who just as overtly suggests a world of adventure beyond the horizon. It’s Joe Manganiello, playing himself, and who immediately establishes himself in Pee-wee’s eyes as “triple cool.”

That much is believable. I mean, look at the guy. He’s pretty effortlessly awesome. He’s handsome. He’s famous. I think it would be pretty difficult to make a milkshake for that guy and not envy him.

But it’s not envy that we see here. What we see instead — surprising both of these guys as much as it surprises us — is camaraderie.

The two turn out to have a lot in common, which is a pretty hilarious conceit just from looking at a screengrab.

They both like stupid jokes and wordplay. They have a mutual favorite treat in rootbeer barrels. (Which they each drink with tiny straws.) They each just…get each other. And as comically unexpected as that is, it also turns out to be pretty believable.

I’d actually never seen Joe Manganiello in anything before this. Within the film he credits himself as having been in True Blood and Magic Mike, which…good for him, I guess. But I don’t think you need to recognize him in order to get the joke…the fact that this gorgeous, famous, swarthy hunk finds his soulmate in Pee-wee Herman.

The two of them bond — sincerely bond! — over Pee-wee’s detailed model of Fairville, and Manganiello feels bad that Pee-wee’s never left town. Never had an adventure. Never gotten a chance to grow up. In an offer that’s both narratively efficient and unexpectedly touching, Manganiello invites him to his upcoming birthday party in New York.

On one condition, of course: that he makes the trip by road, and not by air. “A few days on the open road is worth a lifetime in Fairville,” he says. “The way I see it, Pee-wee Herman, you’ve got a choice to make. Stick around here, or live a little.”

And we’re off. The film is officially in full swing, and it’s impossible to ignore how easily, how perfectly, how magically Reubens slips right back into the Pee-wee persona.

He looks and sounds incredible, as though 10 years at most have passed. I’m sure it’s some fancy makeup work, but seeing Reubens look so much like the Pee-wee we remember is almost like being rocketed backward in time. It’s like finding a Pee-wee movie from the height of his popularity that is only now being released. It’s like sliding back into childhood, and finding things exactly as you remember them.

Aging happens. I sure wish it didn’t, but every time I find a gray hair in my beard (or more hair in my drain) I’m reminded that it does. And there’d be no shame in Paul Reubens looking like an old man. But, at the same time, it’s kind of a relief that he doesn’t. There’s always something sad about someone looking 30 years older while trying to inhabit, without alteration, a character they played 30 years ago. Nobody wants to see an elderly Pee-wee shuffling slowly down the sidewalk; yes, actors age, but by that point we’d just rather not see him at all.

But this isn’t elderly Pee-wee; it’s just Pee-wee. We see it in every interaction. We hear it in every line. And we’re treated to it in the way he bounces off of every new character he meets along the way. And, thankfully, those characters feel more like they belong in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure than they do in Big Top Pee-wee. They feel lived-in. They feel unique. They feel, largely, welcome.

The first companions he picks up are a trio of bank-robbers, among them the great Alia Shawkat, but all three of these actresses are fantastic. They play the crooks as the kind of hard-nosed young criminals you’d find in 1950s scare propaganda, warning parents about the dangers of letting their kids mingle with the wrong crowd. All of which is to say that they’re treated as menacing while coming off to viewers as quaintly adorable. (As is Pee-wee’s question after he picks them up. “Why are the cops after us? Are you guys witches?”)

From there Pee-wee drifts gradually eastward, not entirely convinced he’ll make it in time for Manganiello’s party. Like the quest for the bike, however, and completely in line with Manganiello’s advice in this film, the journey is the destination. And it’s a lot of fun.

Highlights are plentiful throughout. I especially loved Pee-wee’s visit to a Snake Farm…which is actually just a South of the Border-style tourist trap that sells tchotchkes and creates visual gags as opposed to housing actual snakes. A box of baby rattlers is really, for example, a box of baby rattles.

It’s an amusing subversion of expectations, made all the better by Pee-wee’s stubborn refusal to engage in any of the fun, despite the fact that dumb visual gags and wordplay are right up his alley. He’s simply unwilling to play along due to his repulsion to snakes, which is so strong he’s repulsed even by the idea of joking about snakes. It works on a few levels, and it’s very funny to see Pee-wee being the stick in the mud.

There’s even a great scene in which Pee-wee reenacts the classic scenario of the farmer’s daughter…only there are nine of them, and they literally descend on his room from all angles with — it has to be said — impeccable comic timing. After Big Top Pee-wee‘s idiotic romantic dalliances I expected this sequence to be far more problematic and infinitely less funny than it actually was.

Other scenes see him hitching a ride in one of the only flying cars in the world, piloted by Diane Salinger, who played Simone in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Then there’s the scene in Amish Country, in which Pee-wee slowly deflates a noisy balloon, which is easily one of the most successful examples of endurance humor I’ve ever seen.

It’s far funnier than it has any right to be, and its button (in which the Amish children are all excitedly deflating balloons of their own) is kind of wonderful. It’s nice that Pee-wee doesn’t annoy these peaceful, gentle people; the easy joke would be to have them turn and chase him out of town. Instead, they embrace him. Just as everyone else does.

I think that was one of my complaints about Big Top Pee-wee. Outside of the circus, everyone hated him. Wherever he went, people were condescending and rude. They treated him like an outcast…which sort of defeats the entire joke of the character. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure he was never treated that way, in spite of how incongruous he was in every situation. They just treated him like a person. Big Top Pee-wee‘s cast wanted him drawn and quartered, and that just wasn’t as much fun to watch. It was made even less fun by the fact that it was never resolved; they didn’t come around to loving him…they just ate magic weenies and shrunk.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday sees people falling in love with Pee-wee wherever he goes. From the Amish to doorbell heiresses to Joe Manganiello. People like him, and that makes the movie more fun to spend time with. In fact, rewatching it for this review, I was struck by just how comforting the entire thing was. Nobody’s at each other’s throats; everybody’s just plugging along, hoping for the best, having fun whenever and wherever they can find it.

One of the characters Pee-wee hitches a ride with sells little joke items, such as a fake grocery bag to stick to the roof of your car. In reality, traveling around from business to business trying to sell junk like that would be a miserable existence. In Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, the guy is having a blast, loving life, not at all struggling for dollars the way we’d expect.

It’s a film in which there’s really nothing to worry about, but so much to enjoy. It’s a film in which the only tension is whether or not Pee-wee will see his new friend again…but we know that, even if he doesn’t, he’s making dozens of new ones along the way. It’s a film in which we’re never asked to invest in the journey, but always welcome to take pleasure in it.

And, you know what? I kind of love it.

If I made a list of the films that are the most important to me, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday obviously wouldn’t come anywhere near it. But if I made a list of the films I most enjoyed spending time with…well…

The soundtrack isn’t composed by Danny Elfman this time around, but rather by Mark Mothersbaugh, who really was the next best choice. He also has a perfect ear for Pee-wee’s antics, so while his work here isn’t nearly as memorable or iconic as Elfman’s was for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, it’s perfectly fitting and often brilliant. This is especially true toward the end of the film with a song that apes “New York, New York” from On the Town, sung by Pee-wee and Manganiello, their characters seeming to be just barely familiar with the source material.

It’s quite funny and a fittingly entertaining build to the climax, giving Pee-wee a chance to experience the Big Apple without having to spend too much time there (and thus upsetting the journey/destination ratio of the film). Pee-wee gets to visit Grand Central Station, shop for souvenirs, eat his first slice of pizza, and even see the Statue of Liberty!

Well, a Statue of Liberty.

It all builds to Pee-wee making it to Joe Manganiello’s building just in time for the party…except he falls through an open manhole and misses the whole thing.

That’s fine, of course. Pee-wee stuck in a sewer isn’t nearly as interesting as the rest of a film in which he trots from state to state with eccentric characters (GO FIGURE), but it provides an important reveal: as time ticks by and Pee-wee fails to show up, Manganiello starts to worry. He really did like the guy. So much so that not having Pee-wee at his party is heartbreaking to him.

As much as Pee-wee (rightly) saw in Manganiello, Manganiello saw even more in Pee-wee. He cared about him, and now he worries about him and his safety. He tried to send Pee-wee on a big adventure, but what if the guy got hurt? What if he just decided not to come? What if Manganiello didn’t mean as much to Pee-wee as Pee-wee meant to him?

It’s funny and effective. And, of course, Manganiello finds out about Pee-wee’s plight and fires a grappling cannon right to scene of the tragedy to pull Pee-wee out himself.

And, really, that’s the heart of the film, and it’s also why this film stands distinct from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. In that movie, Pee-wee himself learned very little. He was selfish and he wanted his bike back. So…he got his bike back. Sure, at the end it’s suggested that he’s a little more open to Dottie, and that’s nice, but it’s still only a suggestion, and it’s not a defining aspect of his journey.

Here, though, the journey is one of friendship. It’s one of honest and genuine connection between two men. It’s the most romantic platonic story I think I’ve ever seen, which is probably why it’s also so funny. The connection between Pee-wee and Manganiello is one of legitimate beauty…two simple people who find just what they need in each other, each of whom worries that it was only a fleeting fancy.

But, in the end, they reunite. And it’s not Pee-wee getting a bike back…it’s two lonely people finding someone, at last, who understands. For adults, that’s a nice, unchallenging bit of comedy. For kids, it’s an important lesson.

No matter who you are, what you look like, how you act, how isolated you may feel…you’re not alone. It may take you some time, but you can meet that person. Whoever it is. And when you do, you’ll do whatever you can to keep them.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a film that absolutely warranted a return of the character. It’s also, however, a sad reminder of what we’ve missed.

Reubens’ conviction wasn’t just the end of a career…it was the effective and untimely death of a beloved character. One who appealed to children and to adults in fairly equal measure. One who had so many more adventures to go on…so much more of the world to see…so many more people to entertain.

Big Top Pee-wee made a fairly convincing argument that there wasn’t much left to see, but Pee-wee’s Big Holiday establishes that film as the fluke. This is what we could have had. Here and there, bit by bit, Pee-wee could have been doing his thing. Making us laugh. Handing down passive life lessons. Reminding us that we are all, in our own ways, outcasts, and that it’s up to us to surround ourselves with people who won’t make us feel that way.

I don’t know if Reubens will make another Pee-wee film. If he does, I’ll watch it. And if he doesn’t…at least I know that Pee-wee never really goes away.

He’s just existing in some other incarnation. One we might not be able to see…but wherever he is…whatever he’s up to…we know he’s still worth watching.

Prior to this review, I had seen Big Top Pee-wee exactly once in my life. After this review, I can assure you I’ll never watch it again.

As we discussed last week, I loved Pee-wee. I loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. I loved Pee-wee’s Playhouse. And yet when Big Top Pee-wee came out, I had no desire to see it at all.

You’d think, maybe, that I had tired of the character or his antics, at least to some degree. But I know for a fact I hadn’t. Big Top Pee-wee came out in 1988, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse was still on the air until 1991. I watched that show until the very end, and was surprised and disappointed when it didn’t come back for another season, so I’m sure I didn’t suffer from Pee-wee fatigue.

And I know that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was still in our regular movie rotation. Many of my friends had copies, and we’d still pop it in and watch it. I remember this because one of my friends — only one — also had a copy of Big Top Pee-wee. And we never wanted to watch that.

I don’t remember much about the advertising for the film, but I have to assume something turned me off immediately. Sure, I was seven years old and couldn’t get to a theater on my own, but my parents took us to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Bambi, which were both in theaters at about the same time as this film, so I have to conclude that I simply didn’t want to watch it.

I should have wanted to see Big Top Pee-wee, but I didn’t. And when finally I did see it with my friend…man, we hated it.

Hated it.

Exactly as much as we loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Pee-wee’s Playhouse, we hated Big Top Pee-wee.

As I grew up and shared memories with friends in high school and college, I learned that they all had the same reaction. Pee-wee was great, but Big Top Pee-wee was unquestionably awful.

But here’s the thing: nobody brought up any specific complaints.

We could all bond over our favorite bits of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but nobody ever mentioned any particular reason that Big Top Pee-wee was bad. No quotes, no scenes, no sequences. And it wasn’t just my friends; Big Top Pee-wee was a film that nobody talked about. Ever. It was never mentioned as anyone’s favorite film growing up and never even mentioned as disappointing, outside of conversations that were already about Pee-wee.

It existed. We all saw it. But, like war, it was an experience we’d prefer not to discuss.

The closest thing to actual criticism I remember anyone having is that Big Top Pee-wee was a love story. And, yeah, sure. I’d buy that that was a problem. I was a stupid kid. I didn’t want to see Pee-wee fall in love; I wanted to see him talking to puppets and riding an awesome bike over a Godzilla set. If Big Top Pee-wee was about…ew…relationships, yeah, I could see myself tuning out. In fact, the one distinct memory of the film I had was Pee-wee strutting around in the dark, playing a love song on an accordion while a woman threw glass at him. The story checked out.

And, in a way, that was pretty good news. While I wouldn’t have had the patience for some sappy, boring love story at age seven, I sure as hell have the patience now. Revisiting a film that disappointed you as a kid only to find some real merit and heart in it as an adult is one of the great joys of growing up. About maturing. About understanding so much more of the world that you’re able to see beauty where you saw nothing at all before.

So I sat down to review Big Top Pee-wee. Not as a kid with a thirst for excitement and silliness and bright colors and corny jokes…but as a man. As a critic. As a grownup who understands that the most rewarding art takes its time and makes you work for it.

And fuck almighty does Big Top Pee-wee suck an egg.

Watching this movie through patient, receptive, adult eyes offers no insight whatsoever into what Paul Reubens — or director Randal Kleiser, of Grease and The Blue Lagoon fame — was trying to accomplish. It’s a trainwreck from beginning to end…the kind of film that starts off pretty bad and gets significantly worse almost every minute that follows. In fact, I’m writing the first draft of this review only a few minutes after watching it, and I wouldn’t be able to identify a plot arc to save my life.

Honestly, the most difficult part is figuring out where to begin. With Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I had to actively look for things to bring up as problems. (And here’s another one I forgot: the studio chase goes on way too long. But it’s pretty cool and Twisted Sister sings “Burn in Hell” so…yeah, still can’t think of much.) Big Top Pee-wee is the opposite; I’m afraid that once I start discussing its flaws, I’ll keep going until I’m dead.

Alright, I think I can say something nice, and I can do it by describing the basic conceit of the film. So, that’s good, and probably a fair place to start.

Big Top Pee-wee introduces us to a version of the character that runs his own farm. To go into any more depth about that would be to immediately start rambling about how terrible this movie is, so I’ll just skip ahead to the fact that a storm comes through, depositing a circus on Pee-wee’s land. To go into any more depth about that would also be to immediately start rambling about how terrible this movie is.

So, here’s what I like: each of the three Pee-wee films (and Pee-wee’s Playhouse) features a different incarnation of the character. They live in different places, they associate with different people, and while they’re largely the same in terms of how they think and behave, there are at least small differences in what they specifically want and what they specifically find important.

And I like that. I think it was a good impulse to not make this a sequel to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure so much as a successor. We don’t have to worry about where Pee-wee and Dottie end up as a couple, or what scheme Francis is cooking up to steal the bike again, or whether or not Amazing Larry will share his comments with the rest of us.

It’s wise to set a precedent for each Pee-wee production being a self-contained little world. They each get to succeed or fail on their own merits. We don’t go into them with any particular expectations, and we’ll have less of a temptation to measure them against each other. It also allows Reubens and company to take the character in unexpected directions without any necessary connective tissue. If Pee-wee is a private eye in one movie and an astronaut in the next, we never need to learn how he went from one to the other, because he didn’t. Pee-wee was always a private eye, and Pee-wee was always an astronaut.

So far, so good.

Where Farmer Pee-wee falls down is that son of a bitch does this movie stink.

Farmer Pee-wee just isn’t as…interesting. The Pee-wee we know from big adventures and playhouses was less a character than he was a presence. He didn’t grow or learn or change…he was just Pee-wee. He just existed. That was thrilling and liberating in its own way, but it also meant he could show us anything. Part of the fun of watching him was wondering where he’d end up next, and what he’d do when he got there.

Farmer Pee-wee, by contrast, wakes up and does chores. Sure, he’s still in his grey suit and red bowtie, but now he’s tilling land and tending animals and shopping for groceries. There’s a reason he didn’t do any of that stuff in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure or Pee-wee’s Playhouse: it isn’t any fun.

I get the feeling that Big Top Pee-wee is, in fact, supposed to be fun. Which is disappointing in its own way, because if the entire concept were that Pee-wee lived some boring life before the storm came through (see Dorothy Gale for the obvious template) and the circus taught him how to have fun, that would be a neat idea.

Instead, though, Pee-wee does seem to be already having fun. It’s just that the audience, to a man, is not.

Even the music — again by Danny Elfman — can’t seem to find any joy in the proceedings. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure it was positively bursting with creativity, incorporating and bleeding into sound effects and cues that came directly from the action on screen. That film’s soundtrack is catchy, memorable, and instantly made Elfman’s career as a composer. Here…well, there’s still music. But I sure don’t remember any of it.

I can’t blame Elfman for that, really. The previous film’s opening had Pee-wee’s incredible (and incredibly convoluted) breakfast machine as its centerpiece, giving Elfman a fun, silly, mechanical device upon which to hang all of his musical hooks. Wheels turned, robots swiveled, slices of toast were launched…Elfman had plenty to work with, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he started his original score duties with that scene and wrote the rest of the compositions from there.

Big Top Pee-wee, in stark contrast, opens with Pee-wee slowly harvesting vegetables by hand. And that’s just not as…inspiring. Especially to someone like Elfman, who thrives on outsized, bombastic quirk.

It’s a bit odd seeing Pee-wee so overwhelmingly happy in this film, at least somewhat due to the fact that there’s no clear reason for him to be. In the previous film, his house was packed with toys and games and candy and gadgets and magic tricks and everything else a little kid could want. Pee-wee, a little kid in an adult’s body, was understandably enamored with this life.

Here, he’s just in a house. A pretty boring house. On some pretty boring land. There’s animals everywhere, I guess, and that’s kind of cool…but Pee-wee waking up excited to get down on sustainable agriculture is not the same as Pee-wee waking up excited to crash a firetruck into Mr. Potato Head. It’s just not…interesting.

I said in my review of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that the film created a universe in which Pee-wee’s outlandish eccentricities fit. Big Top Pee-wee does the opposite, creating a universe in which Pee-wee’s eccentricities no longer fit the character itself. They’re just…there.

Pee-wee looks and sounds like Pee-wee, and often acts like Pee-wee, but he doesn’t seem to have any reason for being here. In fact, you could swap him out for any other vaguely dimwitted character of your choice, and the film would play out almost exactly as it already does. That’s something you absolutely, positively could not say about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Also, Big Top Pee-wee has a talking pig and fucking fuck the fuck on.

I…

Like, I honestly don’t even understand it. Why does this movie have a talking pig? I have genuinely no clue what they were going for.

Maybe that’s the quirk the movie thought it needed, but it feels entirely misplaced and unsuitably cartoony. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was a thousand times more cartoony than Big Top Pee-wee is, and a talking pig would have been out of place even there.

In fact, we can compare and contrast a bit. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, there’s a scene in which our hero calls Dottie from a payphone. She holds the phone out for Pee-wee’s dog, Speck, who grumbles and barks at his owner through the receiver.

Speck doesn’t hold the phone himself, Speck doesn’t talk, Speck doesn’t climb through the phone and lick Pee-wee’s face or any kind of crap like that. The dog just acts like a dog. Pee-wee jokes around with Speck, pretending they’re having an actual conversation and eventually asking him to put Dottie back on the line, but the joke is that they aren’t really having a conversation. That sort of goes out the window the moment the animal talks back, wouldn’t you say?

And as long as we’re making direct comparisons, let’s compare Pee-wee’s flames.

In a word, Gina in this film is no Dottie. In a few hundred more words, I’ll explain fully.

See, as with the talking pig, Big Top Pee-wee misses what was funny about the first film. It corrects for a problem it never had, cheapening the experience as a result. Here, it’s the spark of romance. And as with talking animals, the first film was funnier for not having one.

Dottie adored Pee-wee. That was clear. It was also the joke. Pee-wee…well, he’s Pee-wee. He dresses and acts like an idiot. He’s often selfish and always self-absorbed. He sees very little beyond himself or his most immediate need. He’s completely and totally disinterested in romance, to the point that his response to Dottie’s overtures is less a rebuff than it is a vacuum. Dottie gonna dote, and that’s funny because Pee-wee is both oblivious to and undeserving of the doting.

There’s also a classic moment in that movie in which a large man chases Pee-wee around huge, artificial dinosaurs, intending to bust his head open…because he thinks Pee-wee’s been smooching with his girl, Simone. The joke, of course, is that there was nothing romantic between Pee-wee and Simone. Simone may have had a little bit of a crush on him, but it’s only made funny by the fact that Pee-wee appears to be utterly sexless. Not only did nothing happen; nothing could have happened. He’s Pee-wee. He might as well be a Ken doll.

Big Top Pee-wee loses all of the comedy of these non-romances and introduces a profound new layer of discomfort by letting Pee-wee…erm…reciprocate? I don’t know; I’m trying to think of a better way to put it than “letting Pee-wee fuck.” But rest assured, this is the movie nobody asked for in which Pee-wee fucks.

And it’s not just the fucking. It’s the fact that Pee-wee is constantly horny. Long before he and Gina get Pee-wee Hammerin’ he’s drooling all over her, flirting heavily with her, making out with her by a waterfall. You know. All the stuff Pee-wee should never, under any circumstances, do. And earlier in the film he literally can’t control his urges, hopping on and dry humping his fiancee Winnie. It happens multiple times, and it’s really pretty gross.

That’s right; fiancee. It’s certainly bad enough that this incarnation of Pee-wee actively seeks to insert his penis into things, but it’s also problematic in his treatment of Winnie. Yes, he shrugged off Dottie in the first film, but the joke was pretty clearly two-fold: he was clueless, and she should have known better. Here he strings his fiancee along until he tires of her (because she won’t let him fuck her in front of a group of children…I shit you not), and then makes out with sexy trapeze artist Gina behind her back.

He doesn’t leave Winnie or put the breaks on with Gina; he just pursues both of them for no reason with very little consequence. (Winnie leaves him but they remain super awesome totally great friends, as you do after you’re exposed for actively cheating on your significant other.) He’s just kind of…awful.

Pee-wee is always kind of a dick. I know that. That’s actually part of what makes him funny, and oddly endearing. But here he’s just a sex-obsessed idiot, which is neither funny nor endearing…especially in a children’s film. And after Gina (rightly) dumps his ass for two-timing, he wins her back not with a grand gesture, not by saving the circus, not by doing anything in the least bit selfless, but by bothering her relentlessly, night and day, against her clearly communicated wishes, until she spreads her legs just to shut him up.

And they lived happily ever after.

Fuck this movie.

Well, I say movie. It’s certainly long enough to be one, but it doesn’t behave like one. For starters, there’s no plot. Sure, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure had a decidedly inconsequential plot, but there’s a big difference between “decidedly inconsequential” and “completely lacking of.”

Here, I’ll illustrate. We can easily identify the primary plot points of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and see that it’s a clear and natural sequence of events: Pee-wee loves his bike, Pee-wee’s bike is stolen, Pee-wee seeks his bike, Pee-wee finds his bike.

Now, Big Top Pee-wee: Pee-wee works on a farm, a storm puts a circus in Pee-wee’s yard, Pee-wee woos an acrobat, some old people shrink because they eat magic cocktail wieners.

Bet you think I made up that last one, huh?

I didn’t, and that’s the way the movie ends.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was relentlessly silly, but every sequence followed from the previous and led into the next. Part of the reason it’s such a watchable film is that it flows so naturally from beginning to end that it’s easy to get swept away by it, even at its most ridiculous.

Big Top Pee-wee just does something, then another thing, then something else, then it ends. It feels careless, as though it were assembled from outtakes from a whole slew of different Pee-wee movies, all of which were terrible.

Narrative arc, of course, is one thing, but character arc can and often does make up the difference. For instance, The Royal Tenenbaums lacks a strong narrative arc, but it makes up for it (and then some) with important, incredible, artfully explored, deeply intertwined character arcs. Try to tell the story of The Royal Tenenbaums and you won’t have much to say, but try to explain what the characters go through and you can spend hours without scratching the surface.

Not that I’m suggesting Big Top Pee-wee needs to have anything in common with that film or its approach, but it’s a useful example to keep in mind as we look at what this movie does, or fails to do. It has no discernible plot arc, and it doesn’t rely on inventive setpieces and wacky comedy like its predecessor…so does it go the character route instead?

It does not. Pee-wee makes no progress as a human being, aside from the rite of passage of losing his presumed virginity. Not that that actually registers as much of an event. It just…happens, and we move on. Gina likes him again, though, charmed forever by the Pee-wee Hardon. Pee-wee at the end of the film does do a brief tightrope walk, which fulfills his goal of participating in the circus, but it’s a goal that was mentioned exactly once earlier and which he could only have had for a few days at most.

So what about Gina? Does she grow or change or learn anything? Of course not. She’s there to be made out with and plowed. She fulfills both purposes and accomplishes (and wants) nothing else.

Winnie — an underused but reasonably game Penelope Ann Miller — likes Pee-wee and then leaves him to marry four different men at once. I don’t know what that is, but it’s certainly not a character arc. Maybe it’s a joke about how she wouldn’t give it up to him but is perfectly happy getting gang-banged. It’s unclear. I’m glad for that much.

Also she joins the circus because why the fuck not.

Then there’s ringmaster Mace Montana, played by an only partially drunk Kris Kristofferson. He gets a lot of screentime, but to no real end. He sets up his circus on Pee-wee’s land and kind of…walks around a lot, I guess? I don’t know.

He’s in a lot of scenes but I’d have a hard time telling you much of anything he said. At the end of the movie he puts on his circus for everyone, which isn’t much of a character arc as that’s, y’know, his job.

The minor characters are similarly wasted. For the most part they’re just standard circus freaks (a bearded lady, a two-inch-tall woman, a human cannonball, a…hermaphrodite…), but we get a few that seem to be more important and go just as nowhere.

Michu Meszaros — yes, the little fellow in the ALF suit — plays Andy, who has a good amount of lines but doesn’t seem to have been given a personality. It’s a little disheartening to see him in this film, because Reubens seems to think it’s enough that he’s small. Meszaros doesn’t get any jokes, say anything important, or do anything of significance. He just keeps getting trotted out like a freak, which is odd, because the film also suggests that circus folk deserve to be treated like actual people. (Spoiler: in the end, they still aren’t. The old people who hated them just shrink because they eat magic cocktail wieners.)

The dog-faced boy is played by Benecio del Toro in his first major role, and I assure you it’s no longer on his resume. He’s another character who gets a lot of lines but has no more significance than anyone else. At one point he makes dog noises, which I’m reasonably certain is meant to qualify as a joke.

Then there’s a mermaid and the acrobats who fuck Pee-wee’s ex and a clown named Snowball who Kristofferson calls Showball in what I’m certain was a blooper nobody was paying enough attention to reshoot.

I don’t care about any of these people. Ever. For any reason. None of them mean anything to me, whereas Pee-wee’s Big Adventure gave me a huge smile just by showing me Jan Hooks. Or by having Mickey the criminal praise Pee-wee’s film from a prison bus. Or by surrounding Pee-wee with Satan’s Helpers and letting him get out of his pickle in a uniquely Pee-wee way.

What I mean to say is that everything in that movie was a delight. It went from great scene to great scene, with so much to enjoy at literally every point. In Big Top Pee-wee I didn’t care once. It’s more than a step backward; it’s a fundamental disinterest in providing an experience of any kind. It’s just…there.

While researching a few basic facts about this film, I saw that, at some point while promoting it, Reubens said that the cast spent a year and a half going through circus training. Imagine if they spent a year and a half writing jokes instead.

In the end, I don’t care how well Pee-wee or his fuckbuddy perform stunts. If I want to see circus acts, I’ll go to the circus. There’s also the sad fact that while it might be impressive that Paul Reubens can briefly walk a tightrope after 18 months of practice, it’s not anywhere near as satisfying or interesting to watch as someone who has spent his life honing more impressive feats. Even as circus spectacle, it fails.

No, I didn’t want to see this circus crap. I wanted to see Pee-wee. I wanted to see comedy. I wanted to see inventiveness and creativity and giddy, silly fun.

But instead I got…nothing.

Nothing at all.

Just something that ate another hour and a half of my life, and didn’t seem to have any idea what it wanted to do with it.

And then Big Top Pee-wee just…stops, no wiser than I am about whatever it was trying to say, or accomplish, or make me feel.

I think that says something. Maybe it says everything.

In a nice bit of series continuity, we’re introduced to each film’s incarnation of Pee-wee in a dream. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, he dreams of winning the Tour de France on his beloved bicycle, tying neatly into the film we’re about to see. In Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, he dreams of saying goodbye to an alien buddy, setting up the main themes of the film: Pee-wee’s desire for close friendship and his reluctance to leave home. Great.

Big Top Pee-wee also opens with a dream, in which Pee-wee croons “The Girl on the Flying Trapeze” to an audience of fawning women. It’s very un-Pee-wee, and also doesn’t tie into the film at all. Sure, he eventually does fall for Gina, who suits the description, but his fantasy is about being a famous singer…not a guy who shuffles along a tightrope for a few minutes at the end of a shitty movie.

Like the film itself, it’s just…there.

There’s also a running joke about Pee-wee’s pig getting repeatedly violated by a sexually aggressive hippopotamus.

I could have left that out of the review pretty easily so…you’re welcome.

My dislike of the film is obviously not unique. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure made around six times its budget at the box office, turning it into a surprise hit. Big Top Pee-wee, by contrast, lost five million dollars…which was almost the entire budget of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, to put it in perspective.

It’s possible that we might have gotten another Pee-wee movie had Paul Reubens not run into legal trouble in 1991, but I think it’s fair to say that after Big Top Pee-wee, nobody was clamoring for another film. Possibly not even Reubens, who can’t have been ignorant of its commercial failure and toxic reputation.

But time passes. Nearly 30 years in this case. And we eventually did get a third Pee-wee film.

At this point, the record was split. One film timeless and thoroughly enjoyable, the other a joyless flop.

Which way would Pee-wee’s Big Holiday tip the scale?

We’ll find out next week.

Welcome back to Rule of Three, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related comedy films, weekly, beginning on April Fool’s Day. They could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really. It’s a spinoff of the Trilogy of Terror series, but with less disemboweling.

I started this series looking at three Jim Henson-era Muppet films, which was an easy choice for me, because the Muppets were and remain an important creative presence in my life. This year, I’m going to look at another of them: Pee-wee Herman.

I’m pretty sure that when I was a kid, VHS cassettes were still quite expensive. I have no idea how much my parents paid for our copy of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but I can assure you they got their money’s worth.

I loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. I don’t mean that I watched it a lot or enjoyed it or never really got sick of it. Those things are all true, but those things aren’t love.

And I loved this movie.

This was one I turned to again and again. One I’d watch with my brother. With friends when they came over. By myself if I was bored. And if I was at somebody’s house and they had a copy…well, we’d watch that copy, because a lot of people owned it and we all sure loved it.

Which is kind of funny, looking back, because the central joke of the entire film — the incongruous and absurd nature of Pee-wee himself — isn’t something I ever picked up on as a kid. Paul Reubens — who created and played the character — made Pee-wee seem so effortlessly fun to spend time with that we never questioned anything about his nature. About who he was. About how strange he was. To us…well…he just seemed like an exceptionally relatable adult.

And we loved him for it.

I distinctly remember catching Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on television at some point when I was in college. It was probably on Comedy Central, or something, and I tuned in at about the time Pee-wee hitches a ride from escaped convict Mickey. I sat and watched it, expecting to be embarrassed. Amused, maybe, but overall a bit ashamed at whatever silly nonsense used to appeal to me so.

I was a literature major at the time, and a philosophy minor. I was older. I spent my time reading great novels and writing worse ones. I still stayed up with friends late into the night, but instead of watching cartoons and playing video games we were studying and creating and having discussions. I had grown up. I had outgrown so much. Surely, clearly, I had outgrown this.

I didn’t. And I was shocked at just how funny Pee-wee’s Big Adventure still was to me. In fact, it was a better film than I ever remembered it being.

If you haven’t seen the movie since you were a kid, you’re probably questioning my sanity about now. So watch it again; I promise you, it’s worth revisiting through adult eyes. It will remind you of what it was like to be a kid, but it will also give you a chance to see just how infectiously charming a production it actually is.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was released in 1985. I had always thought it came after (or during) Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but that show didn’t debut until 1986. Pee-wee Herman as a character originated in the late 70s, but audiences didn’t get to see him in any major venue until 1981, when Reubens created a stage show for him. The show was moderately more adult-oriented than the later Pee-wee outings, but the character himself was more or less in place already.

So, what was the character?

It’s…hard to say, really. Pee-wee Herman himself is, at the very least, anachronistic. He’s like a 1950s toddler trapped in an adult’s body, though only rarely does anybody treat him that way. He seems to have a child’s mind and sense of humor, and certainly has a child’s concept of what is and is not important.

He’s a bit of a brat, a bit selfish, and comically oblivious. He also has a tremendous amount of energy, which is humorously at odds with his button-down appearance. He’s a circus clown perennially dressed for a job interview.

And that’s something I never actually noticed as a child. I don’t think I was old or perceptive enough to pick up on the fact that adults didn’t actually dress that way. To my uneducated eyes, Pee-wee checked out. Why wouldn’t grown-ups walk around in a grey suit and red bowtie?

Pee-wee never seemed ridiculous to me. How could he? He was living the life every child hoped to lead when he or she grew up. No job, plenty of friends, all the toys he could ever want…whether in his Big Adventure home or the Playhouse, Pee-wee seemed to have it all. Isn’t that exactly what we hoped getting older would entail? Sure, we’d have to go to school and get a job…but if it was all in service of us getting our own space to fill with any toy, game, or curio we wanted, wasn’t that worth it?

But then, you grow up. We all do. That’s every child’s tragedy.

Falling down and scraping your knee is replaced with losing your job. The squabbles you have on the schoolyard are replaced with betrayals that permanently end relationships. The hope that you get the popular new toy for Christmas is replaced by the worry that you won’t be able to pay the rent this month.

Your priorities change. Your focus changes. Your outlook changes. Your life changes, and, once it does — and it always does — you can never go back.

When I saw Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in college, I figured I might enjoy it, but I knew I wouldn’t love it. I couldn’t. It represented another, earlier version of me. One I literally no longer was. After all, if you traveled back in time and met yourself at age 10, how much would the two of you actually have in common?

A rhetorical question, obviously, but one which probably does have an answer: entertainment.

Not all entertainment, mind you, but the best films and television shows suitable for children also appeal to adults. That’s because nobody likes being treated like an idiot. Children are a bit more tolerant of it than adults are, but they prefer to be treated with respect. They prefer to be engaged with. They prefer to feel like they belong. And a film or television show that does that for a child will likely do it for an adult, too.

Pee-wee Herman headlined both a film and television show that did exactly that. They appealed to children without pandering, and was able to hold an adult’s attention as well. Children could laugh with Pee-wee, and adults could laugh at him. Parents and children were both enjoying the same jokes in different ways. Like the character, the comedy itself was a child dressed like a grownup. Suited to both audiences.

I could talk for ages about Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but I did that already. Instead, I’m going to focus on the film, and why that, specifically, holds up and succeeds.

Here’s why it, specifically, holds up and succeeds: the tremendous amount of talent that went into it.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure could have been nothing. A rambunctious, silly outing about some bizarre eccentric losing his bicycle and chasing it all over creation. I mean, reading that sentence, how could it not have been nothing? What I’m trying to say is that the film so easily could have lacked creative, artistic, and comic merit entirely, and we wouldn’t have a right to complain. When Beverly Hills Chihuahua got bad reviews, did anyone even care? What did people expect? Of course it’s bad; just look at it!

But Pee-wee’s Big Adventure knows better. It knows that no matter how frivolous, absurd, or uncomplicated your plot is, it — like your audience — deserves respect. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure could have been a longform experiment in anti-comedy, and nobody could possibly begrudge it for taking that approach. Instead, the creative minds behind the film took their decidedly idiotic setup and tried to figure out a way to make it good.

I don’t need to make a list of films that took the easiest way out, hoping to coast on a gimmick or a star or a license; you can already think of dozens. Many of them even had talent behind them. The problem was that the talent wasn’t used. It wasn’t deemed necessary. They decided that the film would be good enough without trying, so why try?

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure tries, and it answers that question: because the fruits of success will be so much greater.

Sure, it probably could have coasted on its quirk or the recognition of its title character. But by putting so much talent to use, the minds behind the film gave it life.

Enough dancing around it. Who is this talent?

There’s Paul Reubens, obviously. Reubens was — and remains — a talented comic actor, and by the time of this film he’d been performing as Pee-wee Herman live on stage for around four years. That gave him plenty of time to hone the character, to learn firsthand what did and did not work, and to get a deep sense of what audiences wanted from the Pee-wee experience.

Part of the reason I was so surprised to learn that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came before Pee-wee’s Playhouse is that the character here feels so…complete. It feels like something that had been developed and lived in and built from the inside out week after week for years. Sure enough, it was…just not anywhere I was looking.

Reubens faces a difficult balancing act with Pee-wee. The character has to register as annoying, but he shouldn’t annoy the audience. We need to be on his side, but he’s nothing like us or anybody we know. He needs to be somebody we’re interested in watching on screen, while he has neither any heroic nor villainous traits to speak of. The fact that Pee-wee was so popular for so long is entirely down to Ruebens understanding how delicately to work the controls. Push hard over here, ease up over there, let this moment ride for exactly this long…

And, unquestionably, Reubens derserves much of the credit for making Pee-wee’s Big Adventure work. But it’s also down to the material, which Reubens wrote with Michael Varhol and Phil Hartman.

Phil fucking Hartman.

I somehow never realized before writing this review that Hartman worked on the script. I knew he and Reubens were friends; Hartman played gruff seaman Captain Carl in both the live Pee-wee shows and Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and he appears in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure briefly as a reporter. But the fact that the late, immensely talented, much-missed, brilliantly funny Phil Hartman sat down at a typewriter and helped Reubens write the film goes a long way toward explaining why it works as well as it does. He knew how Reubens worked best, how the character worked best, and had a profound understanding of the nature and rhythm of comedy.

There was no better possible cowriter.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is remembered as a sequence of big moments and setpieces, but the most surprising thing when re-watching the film is just how memorable all of the moments and setpieces are. There’s no single showstopper and no real filler material; every scene is clearly, obviously crafted to be as successful in isolation as any other. Honestly, during this rewatch, I realized that I could have told you literally everything that happens in the film, despite having not seen it for years. I probably wouldn’t have gotten the order of the scenes correct, but I sure as hell remembered every damn thing Pee-wee did on his cross-country journey to retrieve his bike.

That’s the mark of strong writing; Reubens and Hartman made everything that happened memorable. Pee-wee being chased around the big dinosaurs at the truck stop. Pee-wee wrestling Francis in the massive bathtub. Pee-wee crossdressing to elude the law. Pee-wee singing with a hobo. Pee-wee hitching a ride with Large Marge. Pee-wee rescuing animals from a burning petshop.

In a film so impressively, defiantly committed to a plot that doesn’t matter, everything feels like it matters.

And, of course, I can’t neglect to mention the rightly revered “Tequila” scene, in which Pee-wee angers a bar full of bikers and wins them over with an impromptu dance to the classic Champs song. (The bikers are part of a gang called Satan’s Helpers, which I didn’t remember and which made me laugh quite hard this time through.)

It’s such a famous scene that if you Google “Pee-wee shoes” you’ll find the platform footwear specifically from this scene — despite the fact that he only wears it for a few minutes and it isn’t even his. I’d even wager that this film is the only reason many people my age know “Tequila.” (It’s certainly the reason we know there’s no basement at the Alamo.)

I actually remember the first time I heard “Tequila” on the radio, when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I was in the car with my parents and my mind was absolutely blown. It was a real song? To this day I can’t hear it without thinking of Pee-wee’s desperate, silly dance, and while my tastes have matured this is still one of my favorite musical moments in film ever.

So we have the leading man and the script…but that’s not all that makes Pee-wee’s Big Adventure great. There’s also the direction, which is bottomlessly inventive, colorful, and confident…playing the silliness straight without losing an opportunity to lean into a great visual gag.

Who directed it? Tim fucking Burton.

Of course, at the time Tim Burton was a fresh-faced nobody. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was his first serious gig. If he was going to go anywhere, this was likely his one chance to make an impression, and he sure as hell did.

Everybody who’s seen the film remembers his touches. They remember the way he shot Pee-wee’s elaborate breakfast machine, despite the fact that it appears only in the film’s opening. They remember the terrifying closeup on the mechanical clown after the bike is stolen. They remember the stylized lighting and angles of Pee-wee’s recurring nightmares.

Reubens brought the character and Hartman brought the comedy but Burton brought the entire, unforgettable visual approach that makes the film what it is. I’d even say that the visual inventiveness is what made so many kids love the film in the first place. Before you ever get a handle on what’s happening, or the jokes, or the innate excitement of a roadtrip, you’re already drawn in by what you see. By the vivid and striking colors. By the artfully cluttered set design. By the hypnotic movements of spinning wheels and drinking birds and endlessly flipped flapjacks. Burton created not just a film, but a universe in which Pee-wee’s outlandish eccentricities fit.

It’s a beautiful film, impressively shot for what could have been a throwaway comedy vehicle. To cite just one perfect, tiny example, there’s the understated reveal that Pee-wee’s bathroom window is actually an aquarium…a sight gag so natural that all it takes is a goldfish swimming into view to make it work.

Burton’s one-two punch of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beatlejuice established him very deservedly as one of the most inventive and creative directors working at the time. Studios were so impressed with his work that for his third major film he was handed the reins to Batman.

When you see people disparaging Burton’s latter-day output, this is why. He began his career by excitably tearing into the film industry and making each moment so distinct, so personal, so unique…and seems to be intent on ending it with predictability and hollow quirk. The man who upended patterns has settled into one of his own, and that’s disappointing. But go back to his early career, and you’ll see true genius at work.

Then — oh yes — there’s probably the single best thing about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure: the score by Danny Elfman.

Danny. Fucking. Elfman.

See? I was not kidding about the talent involved with this movie. As with Burton, this film was Elfman’s first big opportunity as a composer. Prior to this he was best known for his band Oingo Boingo. After this he’d be a strongly sought-after musical talent that composed immortal themes and other tracks for The Simpsons, Batman, Beetlejuice, Tales from the Crypt, Chicago, and much, much more.

Be honest: you can hear the score to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in your head right now, can’t you?

It really is brilliant. So unnecessarily loud and bombastic…a serious orchestra playing carnival melodies…silly compositions played with incredible drama and import. It’s the perfect soundtrack to the outsized importance of Pee-wee’s quest for his stolen bicycle, and Elfman didn’t just write some great pieces and move on to his next project; he actually tailored bits of his compositions to precise moments in the film. He ends one song on a note that falls exactly as Pee-wee licks butter from an oversized novelty knife. Much later he integrates the sound of the spurs from Pee-wee’s cowboy costume into the rhythm of another song.

Twice he actually builds pieces around sounds that are happening on screen. The first is when Pee-wee is singing an improvised tune on his bicycle in the park, and the second is when he’s pounding on his rival Francis’ door. In print that doesn’t sound like much, but knowing Pee-wee you can imagine how irregular these things might be. Pee-wee himself isn’t musical, and when he knocks he doesn’t do so with a clear or predictable pattern. Nevertheless, Elfman composes around these moments, and it helps to establish the soundtrack as being the genuine musical accompaniment Pee-wee hears in his head every day of his life.

There’s little negative that I can say about the film at all, to be honest. Perhaps the one criticism I have is the least important one: as much as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure feels like…well…a big adventure, the scope of the film may actually be quite small. Before he leaves home, Pee-wee gets a fraudulent tip that his bike is in the basement of the Alamo, so he heads right to Texas. Then he finds out that a child actor in Hollywood has it, so he goes there instead. And…that’s about it.

What’s more, we don’t know where Pee-wee starts his adventure. Sure, it could be Maine or something, which would imply a true cross-country trip even if we don’t see most of it. But since Pee-wee visits the Cabazon Dinosaurs in California before he gets to Texas, it’s possible that he started in California anyway, meaning he didn’t do much other than go to Texas and return.

But, come on, even I know that’s not a criticism, and Pee-wee Goes to Texas wouldn’t have been nearly as gripping a title. The fact is that the film feels larger than it really is, and that’s precisely the achievement that any work of art reaches for.

However much or little ground Pee-wee’s trip actually covers, it’s the experience that matters, and the experience is enhanced immeasurably by the bit characters he meets along the way. Reubens may have had all the time he needed to hone Pee-wee himself, but even the minor characters in this film feel complete and lived in. I can’t watch the scene in which Pee-wee visits Mario the magic shop owner without believing whole-heartedly that the two have known each other for years, and have amused each other with props and tricks longer than we’ll ever know. That one scene implies an entire, believable friendship.

Then there’s Mickey, fleeing the cops after cutting a tag off of a mattress. (“I got a real bad temper,” he explains.) He’s played by a guy with the excellent name Judd Omen, who’s had roles in just about everything. Mickey is the first new face Pee-wee meets on his journey, and the interplay between the hardened criminal and unapologetic manchild is some of the funniest stuff in the movie. Funnier, of course, is the fact that Mickey doesn’t tire of Pee-wee, even after the latter drives his car off a cliff. Rather, Mickey likes Pee-wee so much that he needs to leave him behind. “Look kid, I like you. I like you a lot. That’s why I can’t drag you into this,” he apologizes.

The best of the supporting characters is the Alamo tourguide, played by the also-dearly-missed Jan Hooks. It’s what should have been a thankless part, but Hooks finds a way to bring it to life. In fact, the tourguide really only needs to annoy Pee-wee by taking too long to bring the group down to the basement. She just needs to drone on and be boring, and that would sell the joke.

But Hooks, wisely, doesn’t take the character there at all. That would have been the easy way out, and Hooks goes for something far more rewarding. Her tourguide eats up plenty of time, of course, and gets right under Pee-wee’s skin as she must, but she’s actually never boring.

Hooks taps instead into a kind of relentless sunniness. The tourguide smiles widely and incessantly, chews gum, launches enthusiastically into long discussions about things that aren’t interesting at all. Her delivery of, “Yes, there are thousands and thousands of uses for corn, all of which I will tell you about right now,” belongs in a dry comedy hall of fame.

All she had to do was stand in Pee-wee’s way, but instead Hooks crafted a complete character. Someone who loves her job a little too much, and finds pride and pleasure in the mundanity that so many others overlook. (The fact that she works for San Antonio Parks and Recreation makes it very easy to see her as an accidental precursor to Leslie Knope.)

A lesser actor would have taken a Ben Stein approach, leaning into the obvious monotony. Jan Hooks, by contrast, chews gum and lights up the scene with her big, smiling eyes…which only needles Pee-wee more, and makes the sequence far funnier as well.

Then there’s Elizabeth Daily, who plays Dottie.

And, man, I love Dottie. I always have. She’s just so…wonderful. So understated and adorable. And while I never paid much attention to it as a kid, the running joke of Pee-wee utterly ignoring her romantic overtures is deeply funny to watch.

It’s only this time around that I noticed that after Pee-wee ignores her hug to fawn over his bike, Dottie turns her abortive gesture into a kind of awkward stretch. It’s so perfect and well-played.

Dottie is just a delight. While writing up this piece I wondered if she’d done much after this film and, sure enough, she has, mainly as a voice actor. She played Tommy Pickles in Rugrats, which is something else I watched endlessly as a kid and somehow never once realized. She also played the title pig in the sequel to Babe and continues to voice characters regularly in cartoons and video games. The oddest thing I learned is that she appeared on Saturday Night Live the year after Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came out…as a musical guest.

Dottie is also important for understanding how Pee-wee functions in this movie.

She cares about him, and not just romantically. She treats him with respect. She, like all of the other characters, either doesn’t notice his eccentricities or finds them passively endearing. Pee-wee is a force of juvenile energy and mischief, but she treats him the way she treats everybody else: fondly. The characters in this film, Dottie chief among them, are not only accepting of Pee-wee’s lifestyle, but are supportive of it.

However he lives, for whatever reason, he’s happy. And don’t we all deserve happiness, whatever it might represent for each of us?

The great untold joke of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is that you’d think the ultimate lesson is that Pee-wee is too naive. That his personal, sheltered view doesn’t align with the world at large. That, once he leaves his small comfort zone, he’ll learn the hard way that life isn’t what he thinks it is.

…but that doesn’t happen. People like Pee-wee. People reach out to help him. He wins over his initial detractors, ends the film with new friends from all walks of life, and even impresses Warner Bros. so much with his heartwarming tale of bicycle theft that they make a movie out of it.

Pee-wee is just Pee-wee. No, he’s not like anyone else. But, so what?

We’re all different, in our own way. Pee-wee just happens to have no interest in hiding it.

So, no. The lesson isn’t that we all have to grow up sometime. The lesson is the opposite. The lesson is to grow up when you want to grow up, or not at all. It’s your life. And you should enjoy it. You can play by your own rules. Be a loner. A rebel.

Pee-wee’s path through life is emphatically unlike anyone else’s — within the movie or without. And that’s okay. Because he is who he is. This is his life. And people treat him the way he should be treated. Not like a pariah or a weirdo or a dope…but like a human being.

So, yes, I watched Pee-wee’s Big Adventure endlessly as a kid. Looking back on it now, through adult eyes with adult expectations, I can conclude that, in this instance at least, my younger self had pretty good taste.

Of course, three years later we’d get a sequel, and I watched that one, too.

Once.

Tune in next week, when I’ll finally bring myself to watch it a second time.

…the things I do for you people.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

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

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

#NotMyKermit

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

Damn.

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

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

I mean Jesus Christ. Look at that.

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

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

But, okay. Okay okay.

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

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

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

Again, an absolutely perfect Piggy detail.

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

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

And that’s beautiful.

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

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

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

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

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

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

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

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

And he let us all come in, too.

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t possibly be more grateful.

The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

Oh, man. “The First Time It Happens.”

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

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

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

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

Maybe. But does it have to be today?

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

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

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

He grew up…just a little.

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t feel playful. It feels angry.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

…and she cries.

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

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

It’s brilliant.

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

And they feel awful about it.

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

It’s absolutely perfect.

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

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