Rule of Three: 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 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

Rule of Three: The Muppet Movie (1979)

So! Rule of Three. This something that I’ve been meaning to start as a complement to Trilogy of Terror. In that series we look at three related horror films in the runup to Halloween, so I thought Rule of Three could serve as a nice balance in which we look at comedies. Like the Trilogy of Terror selections, these could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really. The title Rule of Three refers to the comedy theory that if you say the same thing three times, Beetlejuice will appear.

Anyway, I had a few ideas for how to kick off this series, but, really, there’s only one way I knew I’d be happy with: by looking at the three Jim Henson-era Muppet films.

Well, the theatrical ones, anyway.

…and not Follow That Bird.

And…you know what? It’s The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Now leave me alone.

I’ve been running this site for around five years, and I’ve still, somehow, never properly covered a Muppet production. That’s…kind of crazy to me, and I have genuinely no explanation for that. But now, just as we’ve said goodbye to several thousand weeks of ALF reviews, I think it’s right to celebrate the much better puppets, much stronger writing, and much more effective characterization from the mind of Jim Henson.

These reviews won’t be unbiased. I mean, they can’t be, since I’m one man sharing my opinion on another man’s art. So, y’know, if you’re looking for unbiased reviews of anything you’re in trouble. But what I want to say up front is this: the Muppets mean something to me. They mean kind of a lot to me, actually. So much so that I can’t watch anything Jim Henson did without misting up a little bit, as every bit of footage he left behind reminds me of the profound loss that was his death.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

Henson passed away in 1990. He was 53. I was nine. His death was the first that ever affected me. I hadn’t lose any family members before that. Or any friends. Or any pets. But I lost someone whose death, I truly feel, hit me as hard as I could possibly have been hit at the time.

Had I lost a family member or a friend or a pet, I would have been sad. I would have been overcome with emotion. I would have been inconsolable for some period of time. But with Jim Henson, I didn’t just lose someone I was close to. I lost someone who created worlds for me to inhabit. Places that felt like home. Multitudes of characters I loved and cared about.

At nine years old I wasn’t close enough to anybody to feel the true sting of their death. I absolutely felt it for Jim Henson’s, though, and I still feel it today. He was a visionary who, in large part, shaped the world for me. Made it seem less scary. Created an environment of limitless magic, imagination, and camaraderie. To this day, writing about his death is one of the most difficult things for me. I never met him, but I knew him. He never met me — or so many fans like me — but he did so much for me.

Watching The Muppet Movie as an adult, though, it’s not only a reminder of the great creative mind we lost; it’s an acknowledgment on his part that he knew what he accomplished. And that’s tremendously reassuring, as the only thing that would make Henson’s death sadder would be the suspicion that he wasn’t aware of how much he meant to so many people.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

I feel comfortable saying this, because The Muppet Movie is framed as a sort of loose autobiography. By Kermit, of course, but also by Henson behind him. And it says a lot that, in both Jim’s case and Kermit’s, when they’re given this platform with which to tell their stories, they decide instead to tell a lot of stories. Not just about themselves, but about everybody who helped them get there. Kermit may have started out on his own, with a little bit of talent and a genuine desire to make people happy, but he ends the film with a legion of enthusiastic collaborators that accomplish so much more together than any of them could have accomplished alone.

The same goes for Jim. He may have been the center of these productions, but he was never the center of attention. They were group efforts. Ensemble pieces. Everybody got a spotlight, and nobody was any more or less important than anybody else. There’s very little ego in The Muppet Movie. There’s no room for it, because it’s much too full of love.

Early in the film, Kermit’s nephew Robin asks if this is how the Muppets really got started. Kermit replies, “Well, it’s sort of approximately how it happened.” And, just like that, Kermit’s biopic becomes Jim’s as well. (Or…vice versa?)

The Muppet Movie, for better or worse, is largely plotless. But what it lacks in narrative it makes up for in charm. Whether or not that’s a fair exchange, though, is up to you. For me…well, I like The Muppet Movie, but I think I respect and admire it a bit more than I actually enjoy it. It wouldn’t be until the troupe’s next theatrical outing that I really think they struck gold, but that’s a story for next week.

This film’s plot is admirably meta, if not necessarily complex. I mentioned the dual, fictionalized biographies of Kermit and Henson, but even if you discard that entirely and focus only on what we actually see, we’re watching a movie in which the Muppets made a movie about how they met in which the Muppets make a movie about how they met.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

Parsing that sentence is more difficult than parsing the actual film, so that’s good, but The Muppet Movie definitely delights in poking fun at its own recursive narrative structure. The most notable meta gag is probably the one in which Kermit and Fozzie give The Electric Mayhem a copy of the screenplay so that the band can catch themselves up on the story without boring the audience. And the gag becomes an actual plot point when The Electric Mayhem show up later in the film to help Kermit, being able to find him by reading ahead in the script.

That’s a cute enough moment in itself, but my absolute favorite thing about it is that the screenplay is clean and crisp when the band first gets it, and dog-eared and doodled-upon when it turns up again later. It’s a completely unnecessary weathering of the prop that makes the entire production feel more real, even as it draws attention to its own artifice. (The screenplay reminds you, after all, that these are characters going through a scripted routine.)

It’s also an example of the kind of thought that goes into a great Muppet production from all angles, and it’s a layered instance of why the characters resonated (and continue to resonate) with so many different audiences and age groups. The smallest children enjoy the novelty of seeing puppets and listening to their silly voices. Older kids enjoy the coyness of the meta joke. Adults, and those who have seen the films multiple times, are rewarded for paying attention to detail.

The experience unfolds on several levels, and I don’t think that’s by design; I think that’s a natural outcome of having so many people involved with the production that genuinely enjoy what they’re doing. The more the filmmakers have fun, the more opportunities for the audience to have fun.

The Muppet Movie begins when an agent notices Kermit strumming his banjo alone in the swamp. The world’s most beloved frog is perfectly happy to stay just where he is. Maybe he’ll catch a movie now and then. Maybe he’ll match wits with a passing fisherman. But, on the whole, this is his life, and he is content.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

He doesn’t want fame, or fortune, and the agent (Dom DeLuise, in the first of the film’s many great cameos) can really offer Kermit only one thing: the chance to make millions of people happy.

Kermit’s trip to Hollywood isn’t one of greed (like Piggy’s) or opportunity (like Gonzo’s). It’s just a way for him to bring joy to countless people he will never meet. That gives his life meaning. And that’s what gets him moving…the knowledge that he can help people just by being himself, but only if he gets out there and does it.

I don’t know how much The Muppet Movie syncs up with Henson’s own personal journey to stardom, but I do get the sense that Jim had a very similar desire. He had, as Kermit puts it at one point, “the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with.”

The Muppet Movie, 1979

Admittedly, I don’t seek out scandalous information about celebrities, so I’m not the guy to say this conclusively. But I’ve read enough about Jim Henson through the years that I doubt he was motivated by fame, money, power, or anything along those lines.

His collaborators loved him. His family loved him. His fans loved him. He was, so far as I’ve ever known, a humble guy who worked incredibly hard to make a lot of people happy. And that was, also so far as I’ve ever known, enough for him.

I know also that Lew Lord (Orson Welles, in the last of the film’s many great cameos) gives Kermit his big break just as Lew Grade gave Jim Henson a real-life big break by commissioning The Muppet Show. But between those bookends, I think it’s less of a matter of mapping the biographical touchpoints than it is relishing the journey.

Sure, we know that there are general similarities between Kermit’s experience and Henson’s. We know that at some point Jim would have linked up with collaborators that each brought something unique to the team and therefore helped to define the Muppet experience as we know it. But try as I might I can’t seem to find any information about a villain who stalked Henson with the intention of eating his delicious, delicious legs.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

As you see, I keep drifting away from describing the plot, and that’s because the film really plays like a feature-length episode of The Muppet Show that happens to take place outside the theater. (Or, well, in a different kind of theater.)

The Muppet Movie is a celebration rather than a story, a kind of victory lap even before its parent show drew to a close. (The Muppet Show would continue until 1981. Specifically it would end one month after I was born.) It even retains that show’s loose variety format, though it does its best to mask it.

Each character (or group of characters) gets some opportunity in the spotlight. Then we get a musical number. Then we get some winking feat of impressive puppetry. A famous face shows up to lend an air of legitimacy to the silliness. Then we cycle back through those things, not necessarily in the same order.

This can make for a fairly odd viewing experience, as it’s somewhere between sketch comedy and a road movie, without really being either. But if you’re willing to surrender to the scattershot format and ignore abrupt segues — such as when Kermit goes from singing with a piano playing dog to being enthusiastically tortured by Mel Brooks — there’s a lot to enjoy.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

The Muppet Movie needs to be appraised a series of scenes rather than as one coherent experience, and that makes me wonder how newcomers must feel seeing it. As an introduction to the Muppets, it’s probably pretty lousy. As a chance to spend an extended amount of time goofing off with them, though, it fares much better. I do have to admit that I’m in the camp that prefers the stronger narrative of The Great Muppet Caper, as I feel that the jokes land better when there’s some kind of identifiable plot behind them.

None of which is to say that the jokes in The Muppet Movie don’t land. It’s more, though, that they take the form of zingers and one-liners…comedy based in the moment rather than in the character or the larger situation. They’re jokes that play just as well on paper as they do in performance, because there’s little to them beyond the joke.

That’s due to the screenplay being written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl, two of the head writers for The Muppet Show. On that show, the jokes came fast and needed to register quickly, as no one skit got much breathing room. Subtlety was uncommon, and wit was paramount. Puns were often the order of the day, as those could be counted on for some kind of reaction, even if it was just a groan or a chuckle of recognition.

It worked on The Muppet Show (I mean…obviously now…) but I do think that films benefit from a wider comic perspective. We’re spending more time with these characters and in these situations, after all. The jokes have room to breathe; it’s just a matter of whether or not a writer takes advantage of that. Burns and Juhl for the most part do not, and that’s fine; The Muppet Movie is funny enough as it is. But the shift in approach for The Great Muppet Caper was, for my money, an improvement that better served the big screen format.

So that’s the writing, the performing, and the variety format from The Muppet Show accounted for…and that’s not all. When Henson celebrates, he invites as many people along as possible. That means we spend time with some human Muppet Show veterans, and it’s time well spent for sure.

Madeline Kahn, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and Edgar Bergen hosted the show and cameo here. The film is also dedicated to the memory of the latter. (Bergen died not long after filming his scene.) The Muppet Movie is therefore tribute paid to one important puppeteer by another, keeping the spirits of both alive for new audiences.

Paul Williams also hosted The Muppet Show and cameos here, and was even invited to compose the soundtrack. You have him (and Kenneth Ascher) to thank for “The Rainbow Connection,” “Movin’ Right Along,” and “I’m Going to Go Back There Some Day”…three of the best original songs the Muppets ever had.

But the best human in the bunch?

The Muppet Movie, 1979

Steve Martin, who hosted the show in season two, shows up here as a brilliantly irritable waiter. There’s just something about the way he delivers innocuous lines like “May I help you?” and “Thank you” that manages to suggest an entire, hilarious character that we barely get to see.

I can’t overstate his impact. Martin is perfect, working so much comic business into such a small (and, strictly speaking, unnecessary) role. His demeanor is so rude and dismissive that he almost seems bigoted against pigs and frogs, and resents having to serve them on principal. (Something made a hundred times funnier by the fact that neither Kermit nor Piggy seem to pick up on this.)

It’s the careless way he tears the foil from the bottle of wine. It’s the way he tastes it and immediately spits it on the ground. It’s the way he announces Kermit’s selection as “one of the finest wines of Idaho.”

It’s just…funny.

And that’s where The Muppet Movie both lives and dies. It’s either funny enough that we’re along for the ride, or not quite funny enough and we start wondering where we are in the plot, or trying to remember what these guys are even trying to accomplish.

But I’m not here to pick at the flaws. And, hey, even if I did, I’m sure someone else would disagree. A scene that leaves me largely cold could be somebody else’s highlight. Or a cameo that means almost nothing to me could hit somebody else in a way that I’ll never know. (Richard Pryor smoothly selling Gonzo an excessive number of balloons was an unexpected highlight from my most recent viewing, though I’m not sure I ever even laughed at that moment before.)

The Muppet Movie, 1979

If I did have a concern worth discussing, it would probably be Doc Hopper, who doesn’t register as much of a villain. I hate to keep talking about The Great Muppet Caper ahead of its actual review next week, but a character like Nicky Holiday — nuanced, conflicted, willing to engage with the Muppets rather than endlessly push against them — really shows how to do a foil to these guys correctly.

Charles Durning does well enough, but I think Doc Hopper is just too relentlessly and transparently evil. It’s hard to care much about who he is when he’s hiring assassins to shoot Kermit through the brain, and while the basic idea of tempting Kermit to betray his species is an interesting one, it’s pretty clear that Kermit would never be tempted by that in the first place.

And indeed he isn’t. Hopper attempts to tempt Kermit with something Kermit would never want, so it’s a bit deflating to that entire plot. Hopper is less Satan on the mountaintop telling Jesus “All these things I will give you,” and more some guy at the bus station asking if you want the pickle he found under the bench.

I’m really not sure why Hopper’s scheme wasn’t finessed in later drafts into something a little more interesting, or at least more difficult for Kermit to outright dismiss. Where’s the conflict?

The Muppet Movie, 1979

It’s odd that Hopper is so one-dimensional, especially since none of the other characters are. That goes all the way down to Mel Brooks cathartically playing a gurning German scientist, Bob Hope getting an awed smile from Fozzie Bear, and Milton Berle trying to sell the gang a lemon with “detachable fenders, for narrow garages.”

There’s character in these characters, however small or thankless their role could have been. And that makes Hopper stand out in unfortunate relief.

And that’s without even looking at our Muppet characters. Henson, obviously, does incredible work as Kermit, selling every ounce of his pie-eyed confidence, and selling it even more effectively when that confidence falters, and he begins to wonder if a setback means he’s let everybody down.

Frank Oz does predictably solid work as Fozzie and Miss Piggy, two of the richest characters in the Muppet arsenal. Well-rounded and perfectly defined, with absolutely zero overlap between them, either in how they act or how they think, and that’s always been deeply impressive to me. (Eric Jacobson, I feel compelled to add, does an incredible job of keeping those characters, as well as Oz’s others, alive and with perfect continuation of their personalities. Jacobson is stellar at not just nailing how they sound and how they act, but what makes makes them who they are.)

Jerry Nelson (Floyd, Robin) and Richard Hunt (Scooter, Beaker) don’t get to do as much, but Dave Goelz as Gonzo gets an incredibly moving and unexpected spotlight. In fact, it’s probably the highlight of the entire film, which is pretty surprising as it’s just Gonzo singing about some balloons.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

…okay. It’s not just that at all. And that’s what’s so wonderful about it.

At one point in the film, Gonzo gets swept away by the breeze while holding his balloons. It’s a nice bit of puppet stuntwork, there’s a brief encounter with Doc Hopper, and then Gonzo falls down and the show (literally) gets back on the road.

It’s nice, but not much different than any other death-defying antics Gonzo got up to on The Muppet Show.

Except for one detail: something clicks for him. Something feels right. Something feels…almost like home.

And then the balloons pop, before he can finish his thought. The movie goes on, and Gonzo keeps whatever awakening he’s had to himself. Until the car breaks down, and the gang is forced to spend a quiet night in the desert.

He says, “I wish I had those balloons again.” And if we don’t understand what he means by that — what he really means — he elaborates in song.

Rowlf plays a gentle harmonica. Fozzie strums a ukulele. Gonzo sings “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.” The entire song is a tangle of half-formed thoughts expressed earnestly…a character struggling to find words for something he can feel, but can’t explain. It’s heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time…a doomed attempt to describe an emotion too complicated for the singer to even fully comprehend.

But he sings anyway. And somewhere between the lines, we know what he feels.

Of course we do.

We’ve all felt it, too.

And it’s here that Gonzo, of all characters, occupies the emotional core of the entire film.

He doesn’t get to do much after “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.” But, well…what could he possibly do after that?

The Muppet Movie, 1979

The Muppet Movie may or may not be a great comedy film. I don’t know that I’d call it one. But I’d absolutely call it an invaluable document.

It’s a record of something we had, too briefly. A glimpse into a universe Jim Henson wove together from nothing, with the help of friends and colleagues who understood his vision and each, with their own voices and talents, brought it successfully to life.

It’s a silly movie about a frog who meets a bear and a pig and a whatever and a dog and a bunch of other things and brings them to Hollywood, but it’s also, itself, evidence of the fact that somebody did that in real life, too. One guy who wanted to bring a little more happiness into the world, surrounding himself with those that could help him do it, and bringing them all along for the adventure.

The Muppet Movie is overflowing with love. With gratitude. With appreciation.

And when we lost Jim Henson, we lost a man who put so much of those things into everything he did. We lost an artist who cared. One who changed the world several times over. One who could have kept changing it. Kept bringing happiness. Kept making life a little brighter for those who needed it.

I’ve said before that I owe my creativity to Jim Henson. I’ll always stand by that. I grew up, after all, watching his productions. Watching him take pieces of felt and ping pong balls and glue them together to make something that was alive. I watched a man of profound imagination bring the things he imagined into the real world. Where they really existed. Where they’d continue to exist long after he was gone.

He didn’t care if you saw the rods moving the arms around. He didn’t care if a puppeteer’s head popped into frame. He didn’t care that you could see the seams.

He knew that a character’s life was deeper than that. It wasn’t on the surface, in the object; it was in what you brought to it. He had the not only the gift of imagination, but the ability to bring the things he imagined to life.

And that’s the word I’d use to describe his legacy. Imagination.

He showed me what imagination was, and then taught me countless times over what I could do with it. He taught me that imagination had value, and then you didn’t have to be afraid to share it.

I was watching a man bring his ideas to life. He made me think, for the first time, that I could do something, too. That achievement was not out of my reach.

Like Kermit, he believed in himself. He didn’t think he was fated for anything, or that he even deserved anything. He just worked hard and surrounded himself with people who understood. Little by little, the world opened itself up to him.

Who better to follow?

The Muppet Movie, 1979

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