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I’ve seen detergents that leave a better film than this.

The Muppet Movie
(1979)

(SPOILERS) I like The Muppets – love some of the individual ones – but I’m not sure the movie format has ever entirely suited them. Their best puppeteered foot forward in this regard may actually be the spoof/pastiche format adopted by The Muppet Christmas Carol and Treasure Island in the 90s, since it ensures a robust frame for whatever mayhem and gags they wish to hang on it. Here, in their first big screen outing, events are strung together in a freewheeling “genesis of The Muppet Show” narrated prequel format that only fitfully offers inspiration (and laughs).

The Muppet Show writers Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl duly transfer to screenwriting and James Frawley, of The Big Bus – producer Julia Phillips said of him, “I always think of him as Jim Fraud-ly. His claim to fame is that he failed as an actor and succeeded as the director of most segments of The Monkees” – was signed as director. It seems no one was very happy with the choice, Frawley included, hence the Jim Henson and Frank Oz helmed sequels. The picture does make that transition to locations effectively, though, even if the choice of full body muppets (Kermit on a bike, Fozzie dancing on stage) sometimes feels unnecessarily ostentatious.

The travelogue format – Kermit leaves his Florida swamp for LA with the promise of auditions for frogs (“You get your tongue fixed, you could make millions of people happy”), meeting various regulars along the way, while hassled by Charles Durning’s frog legs restaurateur, who wants Kermit as spokesperson – is simultaneously loose enough to insert whatever business comes to mind, but not sparky enough to lead to anything truly off the wall. The succession of cameos – James Coburn, Telly Savalas, Carol Kane, Elliot Gould, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Orson Welles, Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise – pass by largely without a titter. Steve Martin’s Insolent Waiter at least gets to riff a bit, while Mel Brooks rolls out a mad German scientist. Paul Williams also shows up, as well as providing the tunes. He’s a fine songsmith but none of the songs here really count as classics.

So it’s left to the more meta-elements to yield the best and cleverest laughs. The framing device finds the Muppets gathering for a movie screening showing how they really got started (“Well, it’s approximately how it happened”). Statler and Waldorf roll up in a limo (“We’re here to heckle The Muppet Movie”). At one point, Kermit pulls out a copy of the screenplay to avoid providing Dr Teeth and The Electric Mayhem with a lengthy recap of how he and Fozzie Bear came to be at their old church. Subsequently, this is used by Dr Teeth to find them when they are stranded in the desert (I did think they shouldn’t have cut away when Dr Teeth stops reading at the point of Kermit and Fozzie entering the church, and should instead have carried on to the point where Kermit hands him the script).

Later, the film breaks down – à la Gremlins 2: The New Batch – thanks to the Swedish chef’s inept projecting (“I’ve seen detergents that leave a better film than this” observes Waldorf). Come the end, Lew Lord (Welles) allows them to turn their trip to see him into their first movie (complete with studio flats), and as it concludes, Sweetums, who has been chasing after Kermit for most of the film, bursts through the projection room screen.

There are also some dependably dry remarks from Sam the Eagle (“Kermit, does this film have socially redeeming value?” he inquires before it starts; asked what he thinks at the end, his verdict is “It was sick and weird”) The characters themselves are dependable, from the Kermit and Piggy simmering, one-sided passion (“Miss Piggy, you look beautiful” before adding to the audience “Movie talk”), to Gonzo and his derring-do (in the desert, Kermit finds himself talking to his better self: “He’s a little like a turkey”; “Yeah a little like a turkey, but not much” comes the reply).

What’s notable is how massive the movie was, released as it was during the heyday of the show. Inflation-adjusted, it was far and away the biggest of the franchise, and reached seventh for the year at the US box office, trailing Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien, but beating The Jerk and Moonraker. It thus sent Lew Grade on an unwise mission, boldly expanding his film productions, which led to Saturn 3 and more particularly, the enormous bomb that was Raise the Titanic. The Muppets would return to diminishing interest in The Great Muppet Caper (that’s the one with the John Cleese cameo), and by the time of the next, The Muppets Take Manhattan, they were due one of their periodic hiatuses.


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