“Dad, what’s a muppet?
“Well, it’s not quite a mop and it’s not quite a puppet but man.. HAHAHA… so to answer your question I don’t know”
Whatever the hell they are, I love the freaking Muppets. I’m pretty sure that ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ is one of the best movies to come out this year but unfortunately I saw it long before I started writing my critically-acclamed reviews.
So over the last 2 weekends I’ve had the pleasure of going back to where it all began. When adults were for some reason supportive of the Muppet community without (to my knowledge) the aid of hallucinogenic substances.
The Muppet Movie (1979)
It seems so long ago that a camera panned down onto a swamp and the banjo-playing frog that called it home – but for some reason there’s also an agent down there in a rowboat who tells Kermit he should go to Hollywood… because that’s what you do.
One thing I can say quickly about (for the most part) all three of these films is that there might be a whole multitude of celebrity appearances I never picked up on, and still haven’t, because I’m not 100 – but they’re irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong I recognised Steve Martin in this and Joan Rivers in the third but apart from that…
What follows is a movie not unlike the Blues Brothers or any other ensemble piece that requires a bunch of misfits to be brought together through random circumstance and establish a lifelong connection – but with puppets.
There’s the failing bear comedian who seemingly faces possible death every night, there’s the pig that wins a beauty contest against some highly attractive human females because… that’s what happens in country towns – and it’s THE ONLY FILM where you get even a rough idea about whatever the hell Gonzo is supposed to be (he’s essentially just a tap/faucet with legs). You meet the Electric Mayhem – a collection of musicians that are so obviously on psychedelics you’re amazed that they’re able to jam so seemingly well. Then there’s one of my favourites, Ralph the Dog, playing in a hotel bar with more soul than most human performers.
There are so many things to love about this movie. The characters, as you already know, are superb. The songs, which you might not know (every Muppet movie is a musical) are brilliant, funny, heartwarming and damn catchy. There is so much explicitly self-referential humour, recurring jokes, puns, visual comedy and more.
I hadn’t seen this movie since I was a child (when it was one of my favourites) and I reveled in the few scenes I remembered – and there were so many jokes that I have little doubt I didn’t even get back when I used to watch it. There’s a saying about being the original and the best, and while the other Muppet movies are great, the original certainly lives up to the title. 9/10
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
This one starts to get a bit tricky with characters playing characters. Fozzy and Kermit play identical twin reporters (I get that that’s the joke but geez) who engage on a trans-atlantic commute to find a crook after Gonzo was too busy taking photos of chickens?
SIDE NOTE – When I saw Muppets Most Wanted earlier this year I was generally confused regarding the allusion that Gonzo has a sexual relationship with a chicken, and is generally attracted to them. I thought it was strange – then I watched the first 3 movies. It turns out Camilla the Chicken IS in fact Gonzo’s girlfriend and, if anything, they have a much more overtly sexual relationship than the lead lovers in Kermit and Miss Piggy. It all makes sense now but still… gross.
Anyway for some reason the reporters and their photographer, instead of, oh I don’t know, THE POLICE, are sent to Britain to interview the owner. That doesn’t happen, and more thievery occurs at the hands of Charles Grodin (the dad from Beethoven) and his associates. Pig meets Frog (as always) and sparks fly, but this time Kermit has some competition from Charles Grodin himself. Surely it’s much more difficult to lust after a puppet when you can make awkward eye contact with the person who has their hand up its ass.
After playing a passive idiot for most of the movie Piggy finally re-embraces her psycho-strongman side to break out of prison and kick some ass in a final scene that of course sees the gang save the day.
This movie is just as self-referential, right from the opening credits, and once again is rife with great jokes, including one from the man himself Jim Henson;
“Daddy look, it’s a bear!”
“No darling, that’s a frog, bears wear hats”
Where the Caper jumps leaps and bounds ahead of the original is in the incredible puppetry techniques, from bike riding to swimming. If some of it blew my mind this year then surely it blew the minds of many more back when it first came out.
It’s still classic Muppets, the songs are great, the jokes are great, but the plot is a little bit weaker in this one, which means 8/10
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
To me, this was quite easily the worst of the three – and it’s still much, MUCH better than a lot of stuff going on out there.
The Muppets are graduating college (I mean, seriously), and they want to take their end of year variety show out onto broadway. For some reason they think they’ll be an instant success, but they aren’t. Actually, they fail miserably, and Kermit has had enough of everyone expecting him to know what to do. They all decide he’d be better off without them and leave (see? Freaking depressing really – bring back the schtick).
Miss Piggy goes from being a hilariously needy psycho to an almost alarmingly needy psycho, Kermit gets a bit of his own Charles Grodin treatment from a waitress friend. Finally a JEWISH person wants to make his production – but just as Kermit is ready to share the news and get the band back together HE GETS HIT BY A FUCKING CAR! Bleak much? No wakka wakka there that’s for sure.
So he gets amnesia and ends up working in a marketing firm with a bunch of frogs (probably the funniest bit in the film) before they all find each other again, put the show on, and Piggy makes one final act of psycho lunacy by swapping the fake priest with a real one to marry them in front of hundreds of people without even discussing it with Kermit. What a bitch. It’s bleaker, and I suppose ‘more human’ than the others. That’s probably why I give it 6.5/10
I can see why people started to lose faith in this franchise prior to the reinvention we’ve had the pleasure of witnessing. The last 2 films are great but there’s 3 or 4 more between this one and those that I’m in no hurry to watch.
Overall, though, the Muppet franchise is one of the best family-comedy brands in the world. The jokes are incredibly hilarious without being perverse, but at the same time there is a little bit of room in there for adult humour that I’ve only noticed in these last watchings. The elaborate lengths that have been gone to, as well – the dance numbers, the orchestration behind the songs, the previously mentioned amazing puppetry methods, they’re huge! All of this for a bunch of puppets? It works.
Watching the first two in particular, though, really repossessed me with the enchantment of someone on the border of being too young to understand what’s happening. These are incredible films with a great spirit of fun and wizard-like puppetry. Jim Henson left a legacy, there’s no doubting about that – but perhaps what a lot of people don’t realise when they think of the Muppets – he left something for ALL of us – not just those aged 5-15.