Skip to main content

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.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.