On June 22, 1979, North American audiences were treated to the premiere of The Muppet Movie and Kermit and his pals have been delighting filmgoers ever since. Continuing with the successful television show, The Muppet Show creative genius Jim Henson brought his friends to the big screen. Now, 40 years later, it’s time to celebrate this movie.
I have always loved the Muppets, whether they are in baby form, television variety show, feature-length film, or theme park attraction. Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Rowlf, and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem delight audiences with their humor, musical talents, and narrative abilities.
The Muppet Movie opens at World Wide Studios where the Muppet crew have assembled in the screening room for the premiere of their newly finished movie. From the crowded theatre we see typical behavior of the Muppets with Fozzie telling bad jokes, Waldorf and Statler ridiculing the action, Kermit leading the crew, and the occasional explosion. The film commences, and we are transported to another world.
We start in Kermit’s swamp where he sits alone on a log singing “The Rainbow Connection.” Kermit is inspired by an agent paddling along who tells him of how World Wide Studios is looking for frogs. Kermit sets out for Hollywood to be rich and famous. Along the way, we meet Doc Hopper who wants Kermit to be the mascot for his restaurant chain of Doc Hopper’s French-Fried Frog Legs. Kermit refuses, and is chased throughout the movie by Hopper. Either Kermit will be his mascot or Hopper is going to have him killed.
It’s the journey to Hollywood that allows Kermit to meet his friends, who we all recognize, and enables Jim Henson and company to introduce the characters they have created in a new way. The Muppet Show had been on air for the three years prior to The Muppet Movie hitting the big screen. Everyone knew who Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy were, the challenge was to bring them into the story in a new and hilarious way.
Kermit meets Fozzie at the El Sleezo Café. Together they set off in Fozzie’s Studebaker for Hollywood and along the way meet Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem at a church, Miss Piggy at a carnival, and Rowlf at a hotel. Dodging Doc Hopper, Kermit eventually confronts his bully on the streets of an abandoned town and thanks to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker’s insta-grow pills, a gigantic sized Animal scares the villain away.
The Muppets head for Hollywood and meet with executive Lew Lord, played by Orson Welles, who awards them the standard Rich and Famous Contract.
Does the Movie Hold Up?
Absolutely yes it holds up. The Muppet Movie is a hilarious 97-minute joy. Forty years after it was released, it is still a brilliant film with jokes that stand the test of time and continue to make the audience laugh. Running gags like seeking inner peace by trying Hare Krishna are repeated, but the humor is more than just one running gag. When Kermit enters the El Sleezo Café (the name itself warrants a laugh), a gentleman is thrown out the door. Kermit learns the man, played by James Coburn, is the owner. The idea that the owner of a café is thrown out of his own business is just so ridiculous that it does nothing but make you laugh. When a fight breaks out at the El Sleezo, Kermit is thrown into the piano, and then dazedly looks at the camera and says, “I hope you appreciate I’m doing my own stunts.”
The journey that Kermit and Fozzie take is filled with hilarious moments that make the audience crack up even four decades later. From turning at the fork in the road, where a real giant-sized fork is stabbed into the road, to Fozzie talking about the joy of a bear in his natural habitat, the Studebaker, there are throwaway jokes throughout the journey that are random and funny. Kermit asks his new friend how he learned to drive, and Fozzie deadpans that it was from a correspondence course. The movie is rife with humor, even till the very end when after their long journey, Kermit is rewarded with a standard Rich and Famous contract. What else does anyone else want when they go to Hollywood? They want to be rich and famous.
Between the jokes and the gags, The Muppet Movie is all about the journey that Kermit takes. He starts the film alone in his swamp singing to himself, and thanks to the prodding of a stranger, Kermit embarks on this long complicated cross-country journey that allows him to make friends and inspire others.
The movie shows his growth from being alone to being fulfilled by the fact that the story is bookended with his rendition of “The Rainbow Connection.” At the start of the film, the song feels like a melancholic sad song of a lonely frog. By the end of the film, with Kermit singing and his new friends around, “The Rainbow Connection” takes on a life of its own. The background color changes show the audience how much Kermit has grown. From the swamp colors to the multicolor rainbow, Kermit has changed.
Kermit and Fozzie are Abbott and Costello. Performed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, these two bring life to the characters, and it’s the humor of Henson and Oz that make their scenes so memorable. At one point, Kermit is telling Fozzie to “bear left” while driving. Fozzie, not sure what Kermit is talking about, responds with “right frog.” It’s a quick gag, but done so perfectly, and so humorously that it’s a perfect moment.
When Kermit and Fozzie meet Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, rather than relating what has happened in the previous scenes, Kermit hands him The Muppet Movie script and waits for Dr. Teeth to catch up by reading. Dr. Teeth helps Kermit and friends again by finding them in the desert near the climax of the movie. Kermit asks how they found them, Dr. Teeth responds they just read ahead in the screenplay. The Muppet Movie was using this gag perfectly, long before Mel Brooks applied it in Spaceballs.
The journey was challenging and as Kermit wandered the desert when all hope looked lost, it took a conversation with himself that gave him the courage to go on. Sometimes in our life, the hardest part is taking the first step in a journey, and even though life would have been easier if Kermit stayed in the swamp, he would have missed out on so much if he didn’t have the courage to take that one step.
The Muppet Movie is filled with cameos from some of the biggest and brightest stars of the era, and some who are pure legends. The film is filled to the brim with major stars with a small part in this Muppet tale. Bob Hope serves ice cream at the carnival to Fozzie while Gonzo buys balloons from Richard Pryor. Mel Brooks is the dastardly evil doctor who will brainwash Kermit. Milton Berle plays a used cars salesman. Steve Martin is a snooty waiter that is wearing shorts that are way to short for him, passing Big Bird on the road as he makes his way for New York City to break into public television, and finally, the grandest cameo of all is legendary cinematic titan Orson Welles as Lew Lord. The Muppet Movie was the movie that everyone wanted to be in.
The Muppet Movie is 40 years old, and it’s just as funny as it when it hit the screens for the first time. The story holds up because the story it tells is universal and will appeal to anyone. The Muppet performers, whether Henson himself as Kermit, Frank Oz as Fozzie, or Dave Goelz as Gonzo will make you see the characters as people, and not felt creations.
There is heart to this film that was captured thanks to the talents of the Muppet performers, and the story is universal. Believing in yourself and following a dream. There is so much more I could say about The Muppet Movie, but I recommend you take a moment and watch this film again, I guarantee you will laugh at all the right spots.
If you want to know more about the making of the film, I highly recommend you pick up author Brian Jay Jones’ book Jim Henson. He not only chronicles the life of Muppet maestro Jim Henson but provides a behind the scenes look at how The Muppet Movie was made.