Created by Jim Henson, the Muppets first burst onto the pop culture scene in the mid-1950s, and several theatrically-released films followed in the decades to come. 1979’s The Muppet Moviewas the first theatrical outing of the beloved characters, and it’s widely regarded as the best. To this day, it’s easy to understand why The Muppet Movie is so well-liked; it’s a fun, frequently side-splitting cinematic orientation for Henson’s lovable critters. Admittedly, the movie does feel a bit like an extended episode of The Muppet Show, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Why force needless sophistication when the characters work so well within simple, hilarious vignettes? And since The Muppet Movie has heart to spare amidst the uproarious goings-on, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling dissatisfied after watching this flick.
The Muppet Movie is essentially an origins tale. As the story kicks off, Kermit the Frog (Henson) is casually singing in a swamp where he’s discovered by a Hollywood agent (DeLuise). After the agent convinces Kermit to pursue a career in show business, the frog sets off on a cross-country trip to Hollywood. During his travels, Kermit meets and picks up various familiar faces who will soon become part of the Muppet troupe, including Fozzie Bear (Oz), Gonzo (Goelz), Miss Piggy (also Oz), and many more. However, restaurant entrepreneur Doc Hopper (Durning) wants Kermit to be the spokesperson for his struggling franchise specialising in French fried frog legs. And Doc refuses to take no for an answer.
The Muppet Movie announces itself to be a postmodern creation from the outset: as the film opens, the Muppets congregate in a private screening room to watch the movie they’ve just made about themselves. This device serves as a brilliant extension of The Muppet Show‘s self-referentiality (it’s a variety show about putting on a variety show), and it establishes the Muppet characters as being “real” outside of the fictional universe of the movie within the movie. It’s also a delightfully playful gesture, placing viewers in the right headspace to enjoy the impending silliness. And the postmodern touches persist throughout the movie within the movie – at one stage, to skip excessive expository dialogue, Fozzie pulls out a copy of the script for Dr. Teeth to read in order for him to be filled in on Fozzie’s adventures with Kermit so far. It’s great stuff. On top of sly jokes like these, there are also sight gags and hysterical one-liners. Not all of the jokes are home runs, but there are more hits than misses. Besides, the film never drags as it constantly maintains an enjoyably light-hearted tone, which is one of the highest compliments a comedy can be awarded.
As with The Muppet Show, a large handful of guest stars were recruited for the film. Here, the cameo roster includes Mel Brooks as a crazy German scientist, James Coburn as a café owner, Dom DeLuise as the Hollywood agent who convinces Kermit to try his hand in Hollywood, Elliott Gould as the compere at the beauty show where Miss Piggy is discovered, Bob Hope as an ice cream vendor, Orson Welles as a powerful Hollywood executive, Richard Pryor as a balloon salesman, and many others. Big Bird even has a cameo, and Steve Martin pops up momentarily as a waiter at a restaurant (one of the film’s best scenes). Fortunately, the Muppets themselves are not in any way outshone by their celebrity guests or human co-stars; this is primarily a story about the comical critters. The techniques used to bring the Muppets to life still hold up well to this day, and the personality-rich voice work allows us to come to accept the Muppets as real people who just happen to have felt for skin.
Of course, what would a Muppet production be without songs and music? Paul Williams’ tunes are for the most part sublime, including the Oscar-winning The Rainbow Connection which makes for a poignant opening sequence. The songs do not feel forced; they’re catchy, funny and actually help to move the plot forward (though Miss Piggy’s ballad admittedly drags). One of the standout songs is Moving Right Along, which is so insanely catchy that it’ll stick with you for days (probably even weeks). However, The Muppet Movie is held back from perfection by director James Frawley. A television veteran with little feature film experience, Frawley’s handling of the material is merely average – some of the framing and blocking is awkward and drab (shots go on for too long, and the Muppets have too much headspace a lot of the time). A better director could have catapulted the same material to stratospheric heights; as it is, the production could have been stronger.
The Muppet Movie is flawed, sure, but it’s impossible to resist the infectiously fun vibe amid the hearty belly-laughs, the hilarious postmodernism, the joyous songs and the endearing protagonists. To this day, it stands as a great children’s movie that viewers of all ages can enjoy. With all due respect to the classic TV show and the marvellous Muppet Christmas Carol, 1979’s The Muppet Movie is the quintessential Muppet project. It encompasses everything that there is to love about Henson’s creations within an almost timeless motion picture which stands up to repeat viewings.