Thursday, November 29, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979)

Like Star Wars (1977), The Muppet Movie (1979) was a watershed event in the formation of Gen Xers' cinematic culture. Jim Henson and George Lucas certainly recognized a common spirit in one another, and their films resonated with their youthful audiences in similarly enduring ways. By the time the first Muppet film appeared, The Muppet Show had already been on television for several seasons, but the movie was something larger and more ambitious, in terms of both puppetry and narrative. The Muppet Movie also shares with Star Wars a deep and pervasive debt to the film traditions that had come before, although The Muppet Movie celebrates its relationship to classic movies more overtly and self-consciously than Lucas' film. This playful awareness of itself as part of the great Hollywood tradition is part of the movie's charm, and it helps to set The Muppet Movie apart as a special kind of family film, both smart and sentimental, both wildly creative and instantly accessible, a film that rewards the adult viewer with different but equal pleasures from those experienced by the child.

The plot follows a classic Hollywood line: Kermit the Frog, talented, generous, and completely inexperienced, sets off for Hollywood to become a star. Along the way he picks up a menagerie of companions, including Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and The Great Gonzo. They encounter a number of obstacles on the way to realizing their dream, chiefly embodied by the greedy Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who intends to use Kermit as the spokesfrog for his fried frogs' legs restaurant chain, whether Kermit likes the idea or not.

The plot of The Muppet Movie combines elements of two popular Hollywood genres, the show business picture and the road picture. The show business plot ties it to films like A Star is Born (pick a version), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and a host of other movies in which starry-eyed kids arrive in Tinseltown looking for their own "standard rich and famous contracts," while the road elements connect it with films like the Hope and Crosby vehicles and even The Wizard of Oz (1939). Both genres can be played as either comedy or drama, and The Muppet Movie incorporates both, although its drama is generally tinged with enough surreal weirdness to render it palatable to the youngest members of the audience. Thinking about it now, it seems to me that the classic film The Muppet Movie most resembles is Sullivan's Travels (1941), with its emphasis on the importance of making people laugh combined with its picaresque adventures and Hollywood self-reflection. There are times in Preston Sturges' brilliant comedy when Sullivan does not feel like laughing at all, becoming downcast and even in despair, and Kermit shares those moments during his own journey. Still, both stories insist on the belief that it will all come right in the end.

The Muppet characters have their own indebtedness to classic films and types, having been created to reflect the values and conventions of Vaudeville and other old school entertainment institutions, and in The Muppet Movie those relationships get more play because of the opportunities presented by the sustained narrative. While Kermit, for example, possesses a certain affinity with Sturges' Sullivan, he might rightly be called a Capraesque hero, as well. Henson could have named his picture Mr. Frog Goes to Hollywood and summed it up pretty handily. If Kermit were a human being and not a frog, he would be played by Jimmy Stewart (Roger Ebert has called him "Mickey Rooney in a frog suit," but I think he has more romantic charisma than that implies). The sense of common ground between Henson and Capra characters becomes particularly obvious in It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002), which more or less recreates the entire plot of It's a Wonderful Life (1946) with Kermit as its amphibian George Bailey. Miss Piggy has her own classic movie roots; with her diva's ego and talent for self-transformation, she channels the glamor and hard-edged determination of stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In The Muppet Movie, her lust for fame causes her to abandon Kermit, the frog of her heart, but her porcine melodrama brings her back to him in time to share in his success.

The scores of cameo appearances that populate The Muppet Movie shore up these affiliations. We get, in no particular order, Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, James Coburn, and Orson Welles, just to name a few of the veteran performers who appear in the film. The presence of Welles is probably the most interesting from a classic film perspective; imagine the man who made Citizen Kane (1941), arguably the greatest movie of all time, appearing in The Muppet Movie! It's the cinematic equivalent of the Pope's blessing. Many of these stars were better known for their television careers, but all had experience in the movies, including Milton Berle, who had been appearing in silent films in Hollywood since the age of 5.

The Muppet Movie was a collaborative effort, as were all of Jim Henson's productions; director James Frawley, writers Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns, and the entire crew of puppeteers all had to share a dream as much as the Muppet characters themselves in order to make the film a success. What they also shared was a very sharp eye for what made classic Hollywood films so good, their energy and spirit, their familiar types and universal themes. They drew from the best that had been done before, and it gave their felt and fur characters a kind of gravity even when they were being the most ridiculous, the way that characters are in the films of Sturges and Capra and Hawks. In that sense, The Muppet Movie is a true classic, and it's just as worthwhile to watch it today as it was more than thirty years ago.

For more films that share the themes and spirit of The Muppet Movie, try 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and Babes in Arms (1939). Round out the classic Muppet trilogy by watching The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) before moving on to films made after Jim Henson's death, including The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and Disney's The Muppets (2011).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.

Postscript
My author copies of The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson just arrived today, which reminded me that it was time to revise and reprint this review of the original Muppet film. The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson is the second anthology of essays I have edited with my friend and colleague, Anissa Graham. It's now available on Amazon and through numerous other book retailers, along with our original anthology, Kermit Culture. Both books were published by McFarland. In case you're wondering, my favorite Muppet is The Great Gonzo, which might explain why I try to do so many different things "while and at the same time!"