All good spin-offs start with some form of link or reference to the think which has spawned them, and BlogalongaMuppets will be no exception. There’s one difference between the Bond films and pretty much everything else: I, like pretty much every other blogger involved in BlogalongaBond, seems to have little difficulty in watching the films because they already own them. Whether it be Blu-ray, DVD or tatty VHS copies kept under the stairs, most red-blooded males (and females) seem to have direct access to the Bond films, but I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t own a single Muppet movie. Not even The Muppet Movie. So the first step to blogging about Muppets was to acquire a copy of the film itself.
That’s where my confusion started, because what arrived was this:
Those paying close attention will notice that it says “50th Anniversary Edition” at the bottom of that cover. Now, it doesn’t take a mathematics graduate or an astonishing pedant – both of which I happen to be, unsurprisingly – to work out that it’s not been 50 years since 1979. At least, not yet. But apparently, the anniversary was in 2005, and was Kermit’s 50th anniversary. The Muppets have been around in some form for 56 years, which would explain why they are part of so many people’s childhoods and why everyone descends into teary-eyed nostalgia when they are mentioned. They had managed three whole TV seasons, 72 episodes, before finally making the jump to the big screen, but the TV format wasn’t one that would easily adapt itself, generally being a loose collection of sketches tied together by Kermit’s attempts to keep everyone in check. (And usually failing miserably.)
So I can confess now that I’d never seen The Muppet Movie all the way through, despite having been just young enough (five) to have seen it when it came out the first time. So my observations are free of the burden of nostalgia and are instead laden with the bitter cynicism of a middle-aged man desperate to hang on to the last vestiges of childhood by writing about children’s films on a monthly basis. Anyway, here’s the main things that stood out for me having watched The Muppet Movie for the first time.
1. The Best Song Oscar really isn’t much of a category, is it?
The one thing that most people old enough to remember The Muppet Movie remember is the songs. Or, more specifically, the song – The Rainbow Connection, which managed to pick up a nomination for Best Original Song. There’s a couple of things to observe about that: firstly, that the competition that year wasn’t exactly memorable – if you’ve even heard of all the films that got a nomination that year, then well done you.
Winner: “It Goes Like It Goes” — Norma Rae
“Through the Eyes of Love” — Ice Castles
“The Rainbow Connection” — The Muppet Movie
“I’ll Never Say Goodbye” — The Promise
“It’s Easy To Say” — 10
Sadly, the maudlin schmaltz about rainbows isn’t even the best song in The Muppet Movie – the toe-tapping Movin’ Right Along is much better for a start. If you don’t believe me:
So yet again, further proof that Oscar knows nothing, and that hearing enough songs about rainbows in 90 minutes will sap the patience of even the most upbeat person. It’s a cynical time we live in now, unfortunately.
2. The Muppets will certainly go far – they’ve got legs
Because my memories of the Muppets seem to be completely grounded in The Muppet Show, and fairly selectively at that, I’d forgotten that Muppets are actually meant to have legs, and the big screen and big budget allowed this conceit to be thoroughly explored. From riding a bike to sitting on a log in a swamp, Kermit behaves like any frog with legs would; so you have to applaud the technical wizardry and commitment (including Jim Henson spending a week in a hollow drum under a log in a swamp) to pull off that illusion.
(Of course, that doesn’t stop them doing the bobbing along walking thing that marks them out as Muppets whenever they move from any point to any other point. A walk which I spent most of my childhood doing, and my mother attempting to train me out of.)
3. You can convince pretty much anyone to be in a Muppet movie
What’s the best cast list of any film from the Seventies? The Godfather? The Deer Hunter? I’d argue it could be The Muppet Movie. What other movie could convincingly claim to have the best comedy cast of the decade? Not only does it have the freakin’ Muppets, but most movies would be happy to have one or two of the list of cameos above. As long, of course, as they got their Seventies counterparts; there’s a fair few names on that list that are now past their best, and that’s the ones that haven’t gone to the big Muppet show in the sky. But at the time, this was an impressive list. As the original series mustered one guest star a week, the net effect of this was like watching about two dozen episodes that had been ground up in a blender and then thrown at the screen.
4. You don’t even have to convince them to be onscreen
The other observation from the end credits is how many of the Muppet performers double up. Frank Oz, for example, portrays Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Animal, and Jim Henson is not only Kermit but Dr. Teeth. So who’s putting their arms up these Muppets? The answer, it seems, is quite a lot of people, including some well known names; John Landis, of all people, was making Grover’s mouth move, and according to him Tim Burton was also in that crowd (as a Muppet, obviously). The memorable days when both of them were actually making good movies…
5. The best bits, as always, are the bits with just the Muppets
But for all of those celebrity appearances, the best bits – in fact, by and large all of the good bits – of The Muppet Movie are the bits with just Muppets in. From the moment when Kermit turns out to be a much better comedian than Dom DeLuise (and for anyone old enough to remember The Cannonball Run, they’ll know how easy that is), the movie soars whenever the Muppets are on screen; at least in comparison to whenever the celebrities turn up and the film invariably stalls. The three exceptions to this are Charles Durning and Austin Pendleton, who have the job of driving the plot, such as it is, to the end of the movie, and aren’t bad, and Big Bird, who’s not a Muppet Show Muppet, but is still more entertaining in his – her – its – appearance than most of the Hollywood talent.
So overall the first Muppet movie is a mixed bag; extra celebrities, but at the same time a loss of the sketches that made so many love the Muppet Show in the first place. It was also astonishingly meta, to a level that would probably have made Christopher Nolan scratch his head; when The Electric Mayhem manage to locate Kermit based on the screenplay that he gave them earlier, it’s the equivalent of the giant Animal turning to face the audience and winking. But a new formula was being constructed, and it would be attempted a couple more times in Jim Henson’s lifetime.
Current ranking of the Muppet movies:
1. The Muppet Movie
Er, that’s it. Join me again next time for The Great Muppet Caper.
The Review: John Landis is responsible for some of the finest comedies of the Seventies and early Eighties. Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places would be a fine legacy for anyone, but then Landis also has horror chops, having unleashed An American Werewolf on London and the world. Somehow, though, Landis seemed to use up all his good creative instincts during that fertile period, and his career ever since has languished in mediocrity. Coming To America, over 20 years ago, may be his last even half-decent effort, so maybe it makes sense in that context to make something that’s both horror and comedy. Sadly, for everyone concerned, what we have ended up with is neither.
It all seemed so promising, especially when Simon Pegg and David Tennant were announced as playing the titular duo. Tennant, of course, departed to be replaced by Andy Serkis, in a move which Tennant must be very grateful for whatever scheduling gods forced his replacement. Pegg is generally good value and Serkis mugs appropriately, but neither feels especially comfortable with the material or, indeed, their accents. Burke and Hare were from Northern Ireland, a fact that’s barely discernible from Serkis’ accent and only slightly more so from Pegg’s.
At least they fare better than the love interest Isla Fisher, who manages to be Dick Van Dyke bad in terms of both accent and performance. There are some gems in the supporting cast, including Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry as competitors in medicine (and in a much more interesting movie) and Jessica Hynes, who seems to be about the only person to have correctly captured the broad tone that Landis was aiming for as Serkis’ wife. The rest of the cast is also filled with “ooh, is that…?” faces of varying familiarity; the tragedy is that the game of spot-the-random-famous-face quickly becomes more interesting than the actual movie.
It’s not broad enough to be successful as a farce, or funny enough to work as a straight comedy. The story itself would quite happily lend to straight horror, but sadly the gruesome moments feel like flicking between a horror marathon and CBeebies, so oddly juxtaposed and ill-considered are they against the rest of the piece; and critically, there’s really not enough of them. On top of all that, the liberties with the truth are so extensive that only one major character actually has their real life fate bestowed upon them, and the alternate fates conjured up for the rest don’t feel anywhere interesting enough to justify the changes. Somewhere in here there was a great movie trying to get out, but sadly all that’s left is for future film scholars to pore over this one’s festering corpse and ponder where it all went wrong.
Why see it at the cinema: If you like to see some of the greatest talent of British film today, plus Ronnie Corbett, dying slowly on their backsides, then this is the film for you.
The Score: 4/10