Muppet Movie, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/18/05 05:23:32
SCREENED AT THE 2005 BOSTON FANTASTIC FILM FESTIVAL: There's a moment at the end of "The Muppet Movie", as the credits roll, that illustrates the reason for the lasting appeal of these characters (and this film) perfectly. Kermit the Frog, amid all the chaos and popcorn being thrown in the theater during the movie's first screening, walks up to Fozzie Bear and assures him that he was, in fact, funny (Fozzie had been worrying about that before the film started rolling). It's not just that this sort of interaction creates the impression that these obviously artificial characters have an exterior life. What Kermit does is an act of simple kindness and friendship that could easily go unnoticed amidst the gleeful anarchy, but that's always been Jim Henson's way - he had a knack for being decent and gentle without being stodgy or patronizing.For those who have not seen The Muppet Movie before, it's about a singing, dancing frog (Kermit, performed by Henson) who is told of a studio holding auditions for frogs and decides to make his way to Hollywood to become rich and famous and make people happy. Along the way, he meets up with others who share the same dream - comedian Fozzie Bear (performed by Frank Oz), plumber The Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and his chicken girlfriend Camilla, actress/model Miss Piggy (Oz), piano-playing dog Rowlf (Henson), and the Electric Mayhem Band - and is menaced by french-fried frog-leg restaurant entrepreneur Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who aims to have Kermit as his spokesperson or his lunch.
Those who have seen The Muppet Movie know this, and know that that's really only the broad outline of the movie. It's filled with classic songs and celebrities from Dom Deluise to Orson Welles showing up in quick, amusing cameos. But maybe you haven't seen it since you were a kid, and as such don't remember just how fantastic those bits were. The songs by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher are a match to Henson's style, bouncy and full of wordplay one minute and possessed of a straightforward sincerity the next. "The Rainbow Connection" was justly nominated for an Oscar, but songs like "Movin' Right Along", "I Hope That Somethin' Better Comes Along" and "The Magic Store" are just as delightful. And while some of the cameos become somewhat goofy reminders of the movie's late-1970s time period (say, Richard Pryor and Elliott Gould), others take on a greater significance with greater context: Edgar Bergen in his last appearance, tough-guy James Coburn being tossed out of a bar, Bob Hope in a road movie, and Orson Welles delivering one line but doing it as only he could. Plus, there's Mel Brooks and Steve Martin with their simply hilarious bits.
Much of the credit for The Muppet Movie's greatness - and, indeed, that of the Muppets in general - is generally assigned to Jim Henson, which is in some ways fair and in others a slight. Henson was a rare genius, the type who only appears a few times in a generation, and his fingerprints are all over the movie, even if he is only credited as a performer and a producer. The Muppet productions since his death have had all of the anarchy but lacked a good portion of the quiet wisdom that held it together; The Muppet Movie has a timeless quality that these later productions lack. It's also a very singular genius; despite the Muppets' immense and lasting popularity, notable imitators (outside Sesame Street clones) have been few and far between.
But the Muppets have always been a team effort. Muppet Show writers Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl write the screenplay, and while Burns only wrote for The Muppet Show for one season, Jerry Juhl is nearly as important to the Muppets as Henson. It's always been difficult to point to any specific thing about the Muppets and say that it's all Juhl, but he was an integral part of these characters, having written for them from 1961 all the way to Muppets From Space in 1999. They get all the nuances, as do Muppet performers Henson, Oz, Goelz, Richard Hunt, and Jerry Nelson. Those guys combine technical cleverness with underappreciated acting ability to easily suspend the audience's disbelief so that we can look at these characters as people, not just puppets made out of felt and foam. Director James Frawley spent most of his career in television with only occasional excursions into film, and though none of his other features are in this film's league, a TV guy is probably more useful than an auteur here: He works with the established team and is able to manage a technically difficult production.
Put it all together, and the result is a film that is simply magical. You may occasionally see a stick holding Kermit's arm up, and some of the sentiments may initially seem simplistic or naive to older audiences (or the ever-more-cynical and "sophisticated" kids), but that is, in fact, what makes The Muppet Movie great instead of just "very good" or something the kids should like. The team behind it knows the potential pitfalls and when not adroitly avoiding them, is able to convince the audience that the characters' wide-eyed innocence and tendency to break the fourth wall are virtues instead of faults.There aren't many filmmakers who have the same kind of brilliant, all-ages appeal that Jim Henson did - Walt Disney in the past, Steven Spielberg when he's in a playful mood, maybe John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki now. And of all Henson's works, "The Muppet Movie" is perhaps the one that best exemplifies what made him part of this pantheon. It's an absolutely essential film, and still an utter delight.
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