You have to hand it to Jim Henson, the guy was a genius. Who would have thought that puppets could become as recognizable characters as has his Muppets. I almost hate to say this, but what are essentially toys have gotten to the point where they are seen as real as you and I. That is the way Disney treats them, anyway, but then again, they think Mickey and Minnie Mouse are real. It is taken a step further with the Muppets. What started off as bit parts on other shows, became regulars in the late 1960s on Sesame Street (1969-present), and then rolled into their own primetime television show, an Emmy award winner, no less. It goes to show you how as long as you have a dream and you keep working at it, it is possible to succeed at almost anything. Put differently, if getting people to accept a talking frog as being on the same level as Leonardo DiCaprio is not a measure of success, then I am in some trouble. These early triumphs were translated into the first of what would be many films featuring Kermit the Frog (voiced by Jim Henson) and the gang, the first being the original The Muppet Movie (1979).
You have got to love when the movie starts with Statler (voiced by Richard Hunt) and Waldorf (voiced by Jim Henson) arriving at a film studio for a private screening of the movie you are about to watch. They are the cantankerous, old pair who hurl barbs at the raucous group of Muppets, who are all gathered for the same showing. After a brief, and often interrupted introduction from Kermit, the show begins. The opening shot finds Kermit in his natural swamp habitat, sitting on a log and playing a tune on the banjo. The peaceful scene is disturbed by a man rowing a flat-bottomed boat, clearly lost. As it happens, this is Bernie (Dom DeLuise), a Hollywood talent agent who shows Kermit a newspaper ad from a studio (the same pictured earlier in the movie, which kind of gives away the ending) that is looking for performing frogs. After a moment’s hesitation where Kermit ponders whether or not a life in motion pictures is right for him, he decides to pack his bags, jump on his bike, and head west. His initial choice of vehicles does not last that long, unfortunately, and he takes refuge in a shady nightclub called the El Sleezo Café. This brief pitstop is important for two reasons. One, it is where Kermit meets Fozzie Bear (voiced by Frank Oz). Secondly, when Kermit steps in to do a song and dance number with Fozzie to help the furry, but flagging entertainer, their performance is noticed by Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), the Colonel Sanders of frog leg chain restaurants. He wants Kermit to be the face of his new ad campaign, and is unwilling to take no for an answer. Kermit is understandably perturbed by the notion of filling such a role, no matter the money, and with Fozzie’s help and his Studebaker, escape into the night. The two agree to head to Hollywood together, but Doc follows them every step of the way. In order to try and lose their pursuers, they stop at a church in the middle of nowhere and find Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, a Muppet band with Animal (voiced by Frank Oz) as the drummer. With the help of the musicians, they paint Fozzie’s Studebaker in a riot of colors in hopes of disguising it. It is not enough. Their next idea is to trade-in the car for another, which is made all the more pressing of a task when they collide with Gonzo’s (voiced by Dave Goelz) truck full of chickens. They are able to make a nickel on their trade, and head off once more towards their destination. One of their stops takes them to one of those quaint local fairs, at which is being held a beauty pageant. With Kermit looking on, we see that the winner is none other than Miss Piggy (voiced by Frank Oz). When she spots Kermit in the crowd, it is love at first sight, and now their party has grown by one pig. Following successfully tracking down Gonzo, who had floated away with balloons, Kermit and Miss Piggy enjoy a romantic dinner with Steve Martin as their server. In the course of them sharing some “fine” Idaho wine, Miss Piggy receives a phone call from her agent. Kermit is left to wait for hours until he learns that Miss Piggy had been abducted by Doc Hopper. When he goes to save her, he is captured too, and is about to be brain washed by a devise invented by Professor Max Krassman (Mel Brooks). They are saved when Miss Piggy goes berserk. The next issue to befall them is when their car breaks down in the desert the day before they are supposed to arrive at the studio. What saves the day this time is the timely intervention of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, who learned of their location because they read the script. Their route takes them through a dusty old town that happens to by the home of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew (voiced by Dave Goelz) and his assistant Beaker (voiced by Richard Hunt). It is here that they make their final stand against Doc and his minions. Instead of it being Kermit, bedecked in cowboy boots with spurs, and corresponding hat, it is Animal that scares off Doc and company by ingesting a number of Dr. Honeydew’s insta-grow pills. They are now free to meet the studio executive (Orson Welles) and sign the standard “rich and famous” contract. Doing so, they make a miniature version of the film just seen, only to have the set completely fall apart. This is essentially where the whole movie ends as well.
In the introduction to this review of The Muppet Movie, I talked about the way in which the characters are taken as being real. To that end, it is fun to watch a movie like this one. While doing so, I often wonder what the live actors are thinking (or more pointedly, seeing) while they are doing their scenes with the Muppets. Because you know (or, at least I hope you do) that there are puppeteers below them articulating their movements, you can usually spot the devices that are used to keep the human performers hidden. What makes it enjoyable are the times when they have bits where it is apparently the puppet moving of its own volition. This usually involves the character’s legs. There are some cool ways they play with these techniques. My favorite is when you see Kermit apparently pedaling his bicycle. It was temporarily marred when I spotted the wires used to keep the bicycle upright. Otherwise, they did something to make the frog’s legs appear to be pumping the pedals, and his head moves around as he goes down the road. It is moments like this that almost make you wonder if the Muppets are real.
Clearly, Kermit is the star of The Muppet Movie. I hope this does not offend Miss Piggy. As a practicing Catholic, I love Kermit as a character. He has an unassuming air about him, which is not solely because he is a simple frog. God uses those we assume to be weak to humble the strong. There is a grace in such realizations. A great testament to his humbleness is the scene where he helps Fozzie at the El Sleezo Café. Kermit did not previously know Fozzie. He saw a “person” facing the slings and arrows of an outraged mob and stepped in to help. It reminds me somewhat of what Jesus did for the woman accused of adultery. Granted, Fozzie’s only crime is telling bad jokes, but doing so is enough for the bar’s patrons to begin booing and throwing things at him. The woman caught in adultery was brought out for a public stoning. Jesus’ intervention led to everyone dropping their stone’s and walking away. While those witnessing Fozzie and Kermit’s act did not stop throwing detritus on stage, Kermit’s actions were of the same spirit. It takes boldness to come to the defense of another, and whether we are talking about Biblical characters or Muppets, the lesson is the same.
Having said mostly glowing things about The Muppet Movie, it should be noted that it is a musical. It is well-document that such productions are not my jam. If you are in agreement with me, then stick around for some classic Muppet humor. It is also good sport to spot all the celebrity cameos in it. If you do like musicals, then so much more the enjoyment for you. Either way, it is a perfectly acceptable movie for any audience, and gets a full recommendation.