Hard to believe it’s been almost 35 years since Jim Henson’s The Muppet Movie (1979) hit theaters; its burlesque and self-referential claptrap of oddities catering to some very corny, though decidedly adult humor that had already endeared itself to a generation via the small screen and Henson’s ground-breaking variety half-hour, ‘The Muppet Show’ which ran from 1976 to 1981. Henson coined the term ‘Muppet’ to establish his creations uniqueness back in the early 1950s – part marionette/part puppet; and had further pursued dreams of going national with his two earliest creature creations, Kermit the Frog and Rowlf, the big brown dog. Each appeared regularly on late-night TV skits and in commercials throughout the 1960's. When PBS decided to debut Sesame Street in 1969 Henson took a leap of faith and stepped up his game. But he soon tired of the show’s slant toward the toddler set as well as its heavy-handed approach to being educational. What Henson was after was a more adult and entertainment-styled variety show; a sort of Ed Sullivan offshoot with cross-generational appeal.
Indeed, with its ever-evolving set of main staple characters – including the iconic Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear and Prof. Bunsen and Beaker, and its cavalcade of prominent stars of stage, screen and TV who frequently performed along with this imaginary ménage, The Muppet Show quickly became a sort of ‘Tonight Show’ in prime time with Kermit assuming the helm as its Johnny Carson. Over the course of its lucrative run, The Muppet Show created such reoccurring absurdities as ‘Pigs in Space’ – a sort of Star Wars soap opera – and ‘the Swedish Chef – a delectable riff on Julia Childs.
But the show’s undeniable success was primarily attributed to Henson’s uncanny ability to make these characters, mostly constructed of pliable fabrics with their large, stationary, though very descriptive, eyes, seem to live as flesh and blood creatures able to interact with each other, but also co-exist within the human world. The enduring and endearing popularity of the Muppets extended to their making a cameo appearance during 1980’s annual Oscar telecast; a highlight capped off by Miss Piggy inquiring if MC Johnny Carson considered her Oscar material, to which Carson glibly responded, “Oscar Meyer, maybe.”
I can still faintly recall the giddy excitement of going to see James Frawley’s The Muppet Movie (1979) on the big screen as a precocious and thoroughly obsessed eight year old Muppet aficionado; being marveled back then by what seemed its earth-shattering special effects. On television Henson’s creations were never shown from the waist down, primarily because that’s where the operators of these magnificent felt-sewn alter egos were hidden. But in The Muppet Movie – thanks to a larger budget and the technical wizardry of Robbie Knott and Scott Forbes – we were privy to full figure representations of Kermit riding a bicycle, and, Kermit and Fozzie performing a soft shoe shuffle inside a seedy backwater that catered to some very spurious ‘foreigners’. The lunacy and incongruous claptrap of vignettes that loosely made up The Muppet Movie’s threadbare narrative – a screenplay by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl that now seems largely slapped together out of bits and pieces of skits discarded and reworked from The Muppet Show – is nevertheless serviceable to tell the fictionalized story of presumably how the Muppets met and became an act in the first place.
After a curious prologue in which Kermit (voiced and muppeteered by Henson) has invited virtually the entire cast of The Muppet Show to a private screening inside Worldwide Studios, we begin our tale in a picturesque bayou. The location is never disclosed, but it looks like Florida’s Cypress Gardens to me. We find Kermit appropriately perched on a log, banjo in hand, near the water’s edge, warbling the Oscar-nominated Paul Williams/Kenneth Ascher The Rainbow Connection – a winsome and slightly forlorn melody about daydreams and wish fulfillment that I remember quite innocently striking a chord of resonance within me back then, and upon revisiting the film today still carries with it a faint tinge of longing; fanciful yet poignant. It really does work.
In all, Williams and Ascher contribute seven original songs; the soundtrack’s eighth capped off by a rousing rendition of ‘America The Beautiful’ warbled by Frank Oz as Fozzie Bear. The second best of the original songs is arguably ‘Movin’ Right Along’ a transitional piece that bridges Fozzie and Kermit’s cross country trek in search of Hollywood; the most tiresome of the lot, undeniably the romantic pas deux between Miss Piggy and Kermit; ‘Can You Picture That?’ But I digress. In keeping with the theme and content of The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie features cameos by big name talents of past and present; mostly to comedic effect and including Dom DeLuise, James Coburn, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Charles Durning, Edgar Bergan (who died shortly thereafter), Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, Elliot Gould, Carol Kane, Madeleine Kahn, Cloris Leachman and even Orson Welles. Not all of their appearances are memorable. In point of fact, few do more than merely trade on their star presence in the film, the most plum part belonging to Durning as Doc Hopper; the unscrupulous proprietor of a burgeoning franchise of frog leg eateries. Doc desires to make Kermit his spokesman; then decides to simply hunt him down and kill him when Kermit refuses to comply.
That’s pretty much it for the movie’s plot; regrettably so, since in retrospect The Muppet Movie seems very much like four episodes of The Muppet Show unceremoniously lumped together with an understandably grander budget than the series, but utilizing none of it to craft a more thoroughly compelling, or even more aspiring and original narrative with better sight gags and mounting appreciation for its slapstick. After the idea of going to Hollywood is implanted in Kermit’s head by Bernie – an oily Hollywood agent (Dom DeLuise), Kermit mounts his bicycle and aimlessly sets off to hit the big-time with nothing greater than his dream. He is introduced to Fozzie Bear (voiced by Richard Hunt) inside El Sleezo’s backwater speakeasy (run by James Coburn). In absence of the usual girlie floor show Fozzie attempts a mundane standup routine that incurs the wrath of its cutthroat clientele. Kermit intervenes, encouraging the piano player (Paul Williams) to strike up a lively tune. Both he and Fozzie perform a spirited soft shoe. It doesn’t help and the bar patrons, including a prostitute (Madeleine Kahn) and her pimp (Telly Savalas) threaten both the bear and frog’s safety.
In a last ditch effort to save their skins, Fozzie declares ‘drinks on the house’; the stupefied patrons rushing to the rooftop in search of the perceived hidden liquor. In the meantime, Kermit and Fozzie are confronted by Doc Hopper and his mindless henchman, Max (Austen Pendleton). Doc won’t take no for an answer and pursues the pair on their road trip across America – and momentarily (inadvertently) crossing into Canada – all the while determined to make Kermit his spokesman. To elude Doc, Fozzie and Kermit briefly take refuge inside an abandoned country church where rocker Dr. Teeth (voiced by Henson) and his Electric Mayhem Band, comprised of Janice (voiced by Richard Hunt), sax player, Zoot and drummer, Animal are rehearsing to reopen the place as a rock and roll café. The band performs some psychedelic camouflage on Fozzie’s Studebaker which, of course, only serves to draw further undue attention to it.
After an auto accident with The Great Gonzo (voiced Dave Goelz) and his beloved chicken/wife Camilla, Kermit and Fozzie decide to trade in both cars for a station wagon at shyster, Mad Man Mooney’s (Milton Berle) used car lot. The foursome is aided in their trade by Doglion (Goelz in full figure), a towering ball of hair who cannot wait to go to Hollywood, but is inadvertently left behind through a misunderstanding. Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo and Camilla next turn up at a county fair where Beauty Contest Compere (Elliot Gould) declares Miss Piggy the winner (slim pickin’s indeed). Piggy is instantly smitten with Kermit. While Fozzie runs off to buy everyone an ice cream (the vendor played by Bob Hope), Gonzo buys a bunch of helium-filled balloons from another vendor (played by Richard Pryor) for Camilla that unfortunately have enough hot air to carry him away with the breeze. Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie and Camilla make hot pursuit in their wagon, but only after Doc Hopper manages to get off a few rounds with his shotgun does Gonzo come crashing down to relative safety.
That evening the foursome decide to stay at a motel, Kermit and Piggy indulging in a romantic dinner (attended to by a snooty waiter played by Steve Martin) before Piggy is abducted by Doc and threatened with harm unless Kermit agrees to meet him outside. Instead, Kermit is bound and taken to the lair of mad scientist, Max Krassman (Mel Brooks) who has invented a device capable of turning the brain to mush. At the last possible moment, Piggy becomes incensed by a comment made about ‘pork’ (an ongoing gag from the TV serial) and reverts to some nimble karate moves (more of the same) to free Kermit and make their escape; assaulting Doc, his men and Krassman into submission.
After yet another showdown with Doc and his men – this one in an abandoned western town where everyone meets Professor Bunsen and Beaker; scientists who have invented a ‘growth hormone’ with decidedly negative side effects resulting in gigantism, the pair feed a few pellets to Animal who bursts forth from the building to terrorize Doc and his men; chasing them away once and for all. The Muppets, now a united front, arrive in Hollywood where movie mogul Lew Lord (Orson Welles) immediately drafts up a “standard rich and famous” contract for all concerned. The Muppets reprise how they first met, Kermit and cast trilling The Rainbow Connection against a cardboard and paper mache backdrop decimated when Gonzo, clutching a new bundle of balloons, inadvertently knocks everything down. The roof of the soundstage collapses, allowing a rainbow to flood through the rafters, at least in essence, confirming Kermit’s faith in the power of believing in one’s dreams.
The Muppet Movie has its appeal; the first third of the Burns/Juhl screenplay rather witty in spots and moving the plot along with some fairly adult jokes and reoccurring humor; as in Kermit’s repeated response to various characters admitting to him that they are “lost” – his reply, “Have you tried Hare Krishna?”, or Kermit’s debunking of various “myths” about frogs misinterpreted by Carol Kane’s dotty patron as “miss” being summoned and thereafter turning up in the most unlikely of places, or finally, when Sesame Street’s Big Bird politely declines Kermit’s invitation to go Hollywood, “No thanks, I’m going to New York City to be on Public Television!”; these are clever in-jokes that work well within the camp that made the Muppets a household word on TV in the first place.
But the Burns/Juhl narrative seems to lose almost all of its steam immediately following Kermit and Fozzie’s chance meet with Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem – the ‘on the road’ travelogue quality of the piece suddenly stifled and thereafter devolving into episodic, and occasionally badly scripted vignettes. The story – such as it remains – falls apart under its ‘no nothing’ script; the machinations increasingly transparent; the gags less funny; the cameos all but wastefully inserted to no one’s benefit. Bob Hope and Richard Pryor – as example – are given virtually no esoteric lines to expound, while Steve Martin is afforded far too much time as the haughty waiter who clearly considers his vocation beneath him. The romance between Miss Piggy and Kermit – shot in atypical 70s heavily gauzed romps through some nondescript pastoral landscape - stalls the already passionless and meandering plot to the point of turgidity. In the end, The Muppet Movie becomes its own cliché; distilled into an exploitation of the television series’ fame.
None of these oversights prevented The Muppet Movie from taking in some serious box office. In fact, this film spawned a movie franchise of like-minded fare; The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) following suit. The Walt Disney Organization tried fruitlessly to acquire Henson’s creations in order to brand them under their own banner of family entertainment. To any and all queries it was a ‘no sale’. However, after Jim Henson’s untimely death in 1990 from walking pneumonia, Disney Inc. coproduced two additional feature films with the heirs of his company; The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996) before attempting a minor comeback on television as Muppets Tonight (1996-98). Since 2004, the Muppet franchise has been owned outright by Disney Inc. and it is to their thanks that we now have the Blu-ray release of 1979’s The Muppet Movie. The results, however, are far from perfect. Owing to a general lack of proper storage over the years, the frequent changing of hands along the way, the issue of rights reverting back and forth from Henson’s company, to Columbia Pictures, then later Sony, and now, Disney, and also to the limitations inherent in '70s vintage film stock, The Muppet Movie on Blu-ray remains a lackluster viewing experience despite some improvements made to the film’s overall clarity and color fidelity. The biggest plus is an overall clean-up of age related artifacts that were prevalent before on DVD and occasionally distracting.
But the most curious oversight on this newly minted Blu-ray is film grain, looking completely unnatural – almost digitized in spots – exceptionally heavy throughout in long shots while practically nonexistent in close-ups. At times, the image almost seems in danger of breaking apart under the duress of its’ thicker than normal grain structure. From shot to shot, grain is so inconsistently rendered that it becomes quite obtrusive to one’s overall viewing experience. The dramatic overhead truck in to the bayou where we find Kermit first strumming his banjo suffers from some inexplicable patina and/or haze that deadens the color and crushes any and all fine detail.
Colors are brighter and considerably bolder on this Blu-ray; the DVD issued by Sony back in 2003 looking severely washed out by comparison. However, the more robust colors this time out look as though someone has merely toyed with the knobs on the telecine processor rather than gone back to original camera elements for a ‘ground up’ remastering effort. Inconsistency is the biggest drawback. Human flesh that can appear quite natural in one scene becomes piggy pink or ruddy orange in another immediately following or preceding it. Blacks in shadows look more murky brown than velvety smooth and dark, belying Isidore Mankofsky’s original cinematography. The newly remastered DTS 5.1 audio fares better: crisp and faithfully reproducing the vintage sonic atmosphere of the movie.
Extras include a gimmick ‘pause’ feature Disney has labeled as ‘muppetastic’ – best left for the first-time viewer to discover. We also get a ‘Frog-e-oke’ sing-a-long (been there, done that) and some vintage camera test footage shot by Jim Frawley, Doc Hopper’s complete and unedited commercial and original trailers, plus Pepe, the King Prawn’s ‘interview’ with Kermit. Overall, I would have appreciated an audio commentary on the making of the movie or at least a featurette describing as much. Clearly, Disney is marketing this disc to the tiny tot set – not adults who grew up with the Muppets and would like to know more about both them and their creator. Oh well, it is what it is – and not all that much in the final analysis. Bottom line: The Muppet Movie gave me a warm fuzzy feeling for my long-since bygone childhood. It also rekindled some very fond memories I have of both that time in my life and the Muppets importance in relation to everything else. Today’s kids won’t get it, I suspect. The technology and the times have conspired to render The Muppet Movie a quaint relic and/or time capsule rather than an ageless family-orientated masterpiece.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)