#277) The Muppet Movie (1979)

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#277) The Muppet Movie (1979)

OR “Heart Felt”

Directed by James Frawley

Written by Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns. Songs by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher.

Class of 2009

The Plot: While singing and playing his banjo in a swamp, Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) is approached by a Hollywood agent (Dom DeLuise), who encourages him to go into show business. Kermit is motivated when he realizes he can fulfill his dream of “making millions of people happy”. En route to Hollywood, he meets struggling comedian Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz), eccentric weirdo Gonzo (Dave Goelz), love-struck diva Miss Piggy (Frank Oz), and a whole gang of lovable marionette/puppet hybrids. As Kermit gets closer to the end of his rainbow, Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) and his assistant Max (Austin Pendleton) are right behind, scheming to make Kermit the spokesfrog for Doc’s frog legs restaurant chain. There’s music, mayhem, and a plethora of celebrity guest stars in the Muppets’ first theatrical outing.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Henson and Oz for “immers[ing] their characters into a well-crafted combination of musical comedy and fantasy adventure.” “Rainbow Connection” also gets a shoutout.

But Does It Really?: I realized about three minutes in there was no way I could objectively watch “The Muppet Movie” for this blog. These characters and songs (as well as those from the other Muppet movies) are inseparable from my childhood, which is a pretty good legacy for any movie. I will argue that “The Great Muppet Caper” is the best of the original Henson Muppet films, but “The Muppet Movie” is the correct choice for the NFR. The film has a timeless quality, an unapologetically goofy sense of humor, and one of the biggest hearts of any quote-unquote family movie ever. Plus it has “Rainbow Connection”, that’s vault-worthy right there.

Shout Outs: Brief references to “King Kong”, “Gone with the Wind”, and “High Noon”.

Everybody Gets One: Jim Henson was tired of his puppetry being pigeonholed as children’s entertainment a la “Sesame Street”, and pitched “The Muppet Show” as a more adult oriented TV series. All of the American networks passed, but British producer Lew Grade was able to sell the show to the syndicated markets. Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns were both veteran “Muppet Show” writers, while James Frawley was a television director who never worked with Jim Henson before or after “The Muppet Movie”.

Everybody Gets One – Bonus Round!: Of the film’s special guests stars, this is the only NFR appearance for Telly Savalas, Paul Williams, Milton Berle, and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy. And although he is one of the co-writers for “Blazing Saddles”, this is Richard Pryor’s only on-screen appearance on the list.

Wow, That’s Dated: A running gag about the Hare Krishna movement, and let us not forget the ‘70s throwback that is the Muppets’ house band: Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

Seriously, Oscars?: One of the top 10 hits of 1979, “The Muppet Movie” received two Oscar nominations. Williams and Ascher’s songs lost Best Adaptation Score to “All That Jazz”, while “The Rainbow Connection” lost Best Song to…the song from “Norma Rae”? That doesn’t seem right…

Other notes

  • Contrary to popular belief, the Muppets were never intended to be enjoyed solely by children. That’s a myth. Myth!
  • To give you an idea of how fast the Muppet star was rising in the late ‘70s, every major Muppet character (except Kermit and Rowlf) was created specifically for “The Muppet Show”, so they had only been around for about three years when “The Muppet Movie” was released.
  • I’ve been compared to Statler & Waldorf many times in my life, and I always take it as a compliment.
  • I’m already crying at “Rainbow Connection”. It’s a straightforward, beautiful song with a powerful message. Plus I’m a sucker for sweeping orchestrations.
  • The thing that The Muppets lost when Jim Henson died was the impetus to advance the art of puppetry. Even in a deceivingly simple film like this, there are several shots where you see the Muppets’ full bodies, including a scene where Kermit rides a bike!
  • Madeline Kahn’s doing her Lily Von Shtupp voice! I definitely didn’t get that reference as a kid!
  • If Kermit won’t do commercials for Doc Hopper, what about for Wilkins?
  • “You don’t go to Bombay to be a movie star.” Shows what you know, Fozzie.
  • Legendary ventriloquist Edgar Bergen passed away shortly after filming his cameo. Jim Henson cited Bergen as an inspiration to go into puppetry, and the film is dedicated to his memory.
  • My favorite part of “Never Before, Never Again” is imaging quiet, reserved Frank Oz in the recording booth giving this song his all as Miss Piggy.
  • I forgot how leisurely paced “The Muppet Movie” is. Everybody assumes the Muppets were a rapid-fire joke machine, but Henson et al gave a damn about character development. That’s the biggest puzzle piece missing from the later films.
  • Steve Martin’s cameo as the waiter is very…Steve Martin. Kudos to Martin, plus David Odell, who helped rewrite the cameo roles to suit the specific guest stars.
  • God how I love the Swedish Chef.
  • Snake Walker (the frog hunter) was supposed to be Clint Eastwood, right? Eastwood had just finished co-starring with an orangutan; surely the Muppets would have been a step up.
  • “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday”. And I’m crying again.
  • Without planning it, this is Orson Welles’ first appearance on this blog. Forget “Citizen Kane” or “Touch of Evil”, this is Orson Welles’ definitive performance!
  • The closing shot of the finale features 250 Muppet characters, performed by 137 puppeteers, including a young Tim Burton.

Legacy

  • The Muppets film series is…still going? This film’s direct follow-ups are still the best: “The Great Muppet Caper” and the underrated “The Muppets Take Manhattan”. The post-Henson films have their plusses, but they never quite capture the alchemy that made the first few movies special.
  • Henson and Oz learned their lesson from the experience of hiring an outsider, and directed the subsequent Muppet movies themselves. This would lead to such non-Muppet films as “The Dark Crystal” and “Little Shop of Horrors”.
  • Despite the positive collaboration, Paul Williams wouldn’t compose songs for another Muppet movie until 1992’s “The Muppet Christmas Carol”.
  • Producer Lew Grade parlayed the success of “The Muppet Movie” to start his own film distribution company, but then… “Can’t Stop the Music” happened.
  • “It’s called ‘A Salute to All Nations, But Mostly America!’”

Further Viewing: Easily the best “Muppet Show” skit. You earn that EGOT, Rita Moreno!

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