Originally Posted November 23rd, 2011
Jim Henson’s iconic felt creations, the Muppets, skyrocketed in fame pretty much out the gate, going from sidekicks on Sesame Street to prime-time fixtures with a speed most meat-bag TV stars would envy, though in retrospect, it’s not surprising. If you’ve never seen The Muppet Show, you owe it to yourself to watch it, because it’s really something special. Wholly enjoyable for viewers of all ages, the show’s combination of brisk skits, musical numbers and special guests might not sound all that different from your average late-night show, but Henson’s secret weapon is all in the title, the Muppets themselves.
With a bench of great characters as deep as Disney or Looney Tunes, the show-within-a-show format made Kermit and company more relatable than you’d think possible for a bunch of puppets. The “let’s put on a show” mentality of the Muppets made them entertainers like Carson or Letterman, not just comic creations, and it's almost effortless to forget that you’re not really watching a fuzzy frog telling jokes or playing the banjo. Perhaps that’s why The Muppet Movie is such a joy to watch, because you get to see how all this wonderful silliness got started.
Well, sort of. True to the show, the film finds the gang watching a private screening of The Muppet Movie, which follows “approximately” how the Muppets came together. Opening with Kermit strumming away in a swamp to “Rainbow Connection”, the frog of many talents impresses a passing agent from Hollywood. That’s right, Hollywood! When Kermit hears there’s an open casting call at World Wide Studios for frogs looking to be rich and famous, it doesn’t take long for the little guy to be off on his way to California.
Now, despite how absurd a job opportunity that may sound and how vaguely untrustworthy Dom DeLuise is as the silver-toothed big-city man, the film from the get-go is unapologetically earnest and optimistic. Kermit, though initially reluctant to leave his happy existence in the swamp, can’t pass up the chance to make millions of people happy, and if that means taking your shot on an ad that sends you all the way across the country, so be it. Those hopes pay off early as it turns out, with Kermit making quick friends with fellow Muppet Fozzie Bear, whose rusty old Studebaker gets the pair’s road trip proper on its way.
The trail to LA is laden with most of the key Muppet performers, and it’s fun to see introductions that are on the nose (Ms. Piggy’s grand entrance is, of course, a beauty pageant) mixed with more absurd ones (Gonzo starts off a plumber dreaming of movie stardom...in Bombay). The checklist of character collection is solid structurally but the film’s middle can sag when the conniving Doc Hopper keeps popping up to try and capture or kill Kermit. Though watching Charles Durning play the Colonel Sanders of frog legs has its moments, his inclusion is mostly just to give the film a villain and a sense of danger.
It’s by no means stunt-casting though, as this being the first Muppet adventure set in the real world gives licence to empty the show’s exhaustive rolodex of guest comedians and celebrities that sets a high bar for cameo frequency, as well as quality. You get nice pop-ins from the likes of Bob Hope and Richard Pryor, in addition to more involved appearances, like Steve Martin as a short-tempered, short-short wearing waiter, and Mel Brooks throwing on his best silly accent as a mad German scientist who specializes in frog mind control (a very rapidly growing field). The capper has to be Orson Welles as studio exec Lew Lord, who has just one line of dialogue, but on a per-word basis, makes it one of the most memorable cameos ever filmed.
What’s most surprising is that despite being 30 years old, the script is exceptionally air-tight. There are plenty of great groaner puns, running gags and self-references, but the jokes from the actors (both fabric and fleshy) all still work because their routed in solid word-play and supreme comic timing. There’s also the Oscar nominated music that’s as infectious as ever. Though most remember “Rainbow Connection” as the film’s big number, Kermit and Fozzie’s practically life-affirming “Movin’ Right Along” will have even the most curmudgeonly audience members toe-tapping along with grins on their faces.
It’s just really hard to take issue with The Muppet Movie; its minor pacing issues are mostly ignorable thanks to a brief runtime, but you won’t even notice them with a cast of characters this loveable and a tone that inspires nothing but warm and fuzzy feelings. When what is ostensibly a kid’s movie finds equal enjoyment among adults, it's no small achievement, but for it to remain that way for three decades is something else entirely. This is the movie that will make you fall in love with the Muppets, though it’s not like that's ever been such a hard thing to do in the first place.
4 out of 5
Directed by James Frawley