The Review: Star Trek: Generations. Police Academy: Mission To Moscow. Trail Of The Pink Panther. Movie geeks will often debate the merits of sequels, prequels, interquels and lots-of-other-made-up-word-quels, but you can be sure that any film series that’s already been to the well six times has already taken quite a lot of the well water. But the Muppets have done more than that; on and off TV for over forty years, with two Sesame Street films and two TV films as well as countless other ventures which didn’t have the name Muppet in them, so you could be forgiven for thinking that the Muppets had seen their time come and go. But what if the very nostalgia for the good times gone by was what could make The Muppets great again?
Jason Segel obviously craves that nostalgia, having tried to write a puppet Dracula adaptation while a struggling actor. Much of his back catalogue has also been filled with meditations on nostalgia or reflection, as well as themes of family and relationships, and The Muppets is built around two clear aims: to evoke an emotional response from a collective fondness for the Muppets, which might burn stronger in anyone old enough to remember the TV series from the first time around, and to explore the nature of relationships and relationships and themes of loyalty and love, using both the Muppets and their human counterparts. The early stages of the film are slightly more stylised than many previous outings, but after that The Muppets settles very much into the kind of formula established in the first three Muppet movies of the Seventies and Eighties.
Those formula elements include a small central human cast, in this case Segel and Amy Adams as the romantic couple whose trip to LA kicks off proceedings, and as both have form in this area both are well suited to their roles; Chris Cooper is more of a left-field choice as the nominal baddie, but has his moments to be allowed to chew scenery. There should also be a wide variety of smaller cameos, which indeed there are, although your recognition of some and enjoyment of many will depend on how much US TV you watch. The songs range from good to excellent, Flight Of The Conchords’ Bret McKenzie adapting his usual intense wordplay style to a more traditional musical feel, although there could possibly be time for one (or two) more of them. Finally, in terms of the Muppets themselves, unlike many other supposedly great Muppet films which end up sidelining their stars, Kermit and Miss Piggy are centre stage, and although a handful of the Muppets Tonight-era Muppets get a look in at various levels, it’s the traditional Muppets that form most of the cast, so fans of everyone from Rowlf to Scooter and Animal to Bunsen and Beaker should be satisfied with the screen time for their Muppet.
What sets this apart from previous films is that the self-referential, fourth-wall breaking comedy that typified the earlier films is not only in place here to drive many of the jokes (and the Eighties Robot is a source of lots of them alone), but by referencing back to the TV series and earlier films, and the love that the charactes themselves had for those films, that sense of nostalgia sought is powerfully evoked, and there are a selection of moments spread throughout the first half of the film that could move a few of the grown-ups in the audience to tears. But the Muppets have always been about the laughs, and the last act of the film, when the telethon to save the Muppets themselves is in full swing, captures the random anarchy of the Muppets at their very best. Almost as if someone could distill pure joy and bottle it, for Muppet fans this is an absolute treat; there is still the odd rough edge (a slightly rushed ending that’s still playing out when the credits have started rolling, for example), but for the Muppets it’s the seventh time that’s the charm.
Why see it at the cinema: My one caveat for this would be that it’s maybe not suitable for very young children, judging by the amount of fidgeting in the screening I was at. For everyone else, the laughs, the tears and the pitch perfect recreation of one very particular Muppet moment demand to be seen on the largest screen you can find.
The Score (out of 10):
Final ranking of the Muppet movies
1. The Muppets
2. The Great Muppet Caper
3. The Muppet Christmas Carol
4. The Muppet Movie
5. The Muppet Treasure Island
6. The Muppets Take Manhattan
7. Muppets In Space
September 5th feels a very long time ago now. It was the day that I launched BlogalongaMuppets onto the world, with a view to watching each of the Muppet films in order before the release of The Muppets. Tomorrow, that dream finally becomes a reality, as Mrs Evangelist and I will head off together to watch the still-confusingly-titled The Muppets. It’s been a slightly strange journey, as when I set out I thought that I’d not seen many of the films, only to realise when watching the films that I had actually seen most of them before. Except this one.
Muppets From Space came out in 1999, and despite being 25 I did contemplate seeing it at the cinema. If I was as obsessive then as I am now, I probably would have done. But then, the Muppets were on the way down, not bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia that surrounds them today. (That glow had surrounded them at the start of Muppets Tonight three years earlier; then people actually saw the show.) The ingredients were all there: it was co-written by Jerry Juhl, long time Muppet writer who’d worked on the show, as well as the Caper, Christmas Carol and Treasure Island films and other Muppet projects like Fraggle Rock, and was directed by Tim Hill, who’s written more episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants than anyone except the show’s creator. (He has gone onto make Alvin And The Chipmunks and Hop, which maybe explains something).
But it’s just not right. While it follows the formula, with all of the formula elements in place, and a mixture of Muppets from pretty much every era, the need to explain Gonzo’s back story, and make him an alien rather than a whatever, detracts from the character. At only one hour and eighteen minutes before the credits roll, it’s also far too short. It’s undoubtedly an acquired taste; somehow attempting to describe it doesn’t feel as if I could do it justice, so here’s eight screen shots taken from the movie itself.
Make of them what you will.
Next time: Not quite The Muppets. Before the film itself, I’ll be running down my favourite Muppets, from every different version of TV, film and whatever the hell this was. Then The Muppets.
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.
When the history of mankind comes to be written, and man’s greatest achievements come to be listed, it won’t be fire, or the Pyramids of Giza, or the indoor toilet that stand proud at the top of the list. (It’ll probably be the iPhone, won’t it.) But standing in such illustrious company will be two things that could be the greatest combination since bread and slicing: James Bond films, and Blogalongabond. Illustrious and industrious blogger The Incredible Suit had one of those life-changing moments of inspiration in January of this year, upon realising that the release of Bond 23 was but 23 months away, and that blogging about all of the films would result in an average of precisely one a month.
Since then, BlogalongaBond has averted many potential tragedies, including (a) being called BlogalongaBond, which is a silly name, but no-one seemed to actually mind; (b) Bond 23 being brought forward by a month, which caused two days of mild panic before Mr Suit took the sensible decision to ignore it and carry on regardless; and (c) the fact that ITV are currently showing the films at the rate of one a week, which is generating lots of traffic now, but in about three weeks will create an unrealistic expectation in the readership of about two dozen varied bloggers. Well, I’m not writing one a week, you can forget it – it’s enough of a struggle writing one a month.
Despite this calendar based challenge proving such a struggle that I lasted precisely six months before I missed my first deadline, I always had a feeling that if a similar excellent film series lent itself to a similar calendar-based challenge, that it would be a shame to miss the opportunity. As if by chance, I found myself watching The Muppets Take Manhattan on the Bank Holiday last week, and got to wondering how many Muppet films there’d actually been. If you can’t see what’s coming next, then you’ve really not been paying attention…
Yes, The Muppets, the confusingly titled seventh theatrical release featuring Jim Henson’s creations arrives in theatres in America in November this year, but isn’t unleashed onto the British public until February 10, 2012. Just as many great TV series had their spin-offs, so has BlogalongaBond spawned another, which makes this the Frasier of cinematic blogging endeavours – or possibly the Joanie Loves Chachi of cinematic blogging endeavours if it all goes horriby wrong. You wouldn’t let that happen, would you?
What with us being in September now, that means that the BlogalongaSchedule looks like this:
- September – The Muppet Movie
- October – The Great Muppet Caper
- November – The Muppets Take Manhattan
- December – The Muppet Christmas Carol
- January – The Muppet Treasure Island
- February – Muppets In Space
- Also February – The Muppets
Which works out nicely as one a month, as long as you don’t mind doing what the Bond bloggers must do and writing about the new one in the same month as the last old one. But surely a little detail like that won’t let you stand in the way of the chance to watch all of the Muppet movies, will it?
In case you’re new to this, follow these simple steps to become part of the collective:
- Watch the movie for the month in question.
- Write about that movie on your blog.
- Post a link to that blog post on the Facebook page, which you’ll find here.
If you’re feeling industrious, and particularly into the Muppets, you could also share your thoughts on any of the following in addition to the regular schedule:
- The Muppet Show regular episodes
- Sesame Street
- Fraggle Rock
- Muppet Babies
- It’s A Very Muppet Christmas Movie (TV movie)
- The Muppet Wizard Of Oz (also TV Movie)
or the host of other Muppet related TV and video events from The Tale Of The Bunny Picnic to Kermit’s Swamp Years. But mainly, the point is to blog about the films. So you’ve got 24 days to track down and watch The Muppet Movie. You up for it?
Just in case you’re still not entirely convinced, allow me to present some clips, both classic and modern, to help seal the deal.
The Swedish Chef
Bunsen And Beaker
Pigs In Space – With The Cast Of Star Wars
The Muppet Movie – The Rainbow Connection
OK Go sing The Muppets Theme
Go on, you know you want to!