Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Muppet Movie (1979)


It’s hard to imagine anyone who lived through the ‘70s and ‘80s and didn’t get some kind of exposure to the Muppets in the hands of the legendary Jim Henson. With the concept preparing for a reboot this year, I decided it was time to take a look back at the first feature film based around the most famous puppets in the world.


Just how did those muppets come together to make The Muppet Show? Well this film tells the story. Turns out that Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) was inspired to journey to Hollywood to become a star, because a silly talent agent thought he had potential. Along the way he meets all of his muppet friends including Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz), Miss Piggy, Gonzo and Rolf the dog. Unfortunately Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) thinks that Kermit would make a perfect spokes-frog for his frog leg restaurants and will stop at nothing to catch him. But don’t think that just muppets are in The Muppet Movie keep your eyes peeled for all kinds of folks including: Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen, Mel Brooks, Carol Kane, Madeline Kahn, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor and Orson Welles… yes, that Orson Welles.

Good Points:

  • A fun story that works all your favorite muppets into the action
  • Some amazing puppeteering on display
  • Some of the catchiest songs of the ‘70s

Bad Points:

  • Paper thin story and characters
  • Many of the cameos are super short
  • The music, costumes, and hair are painfully ‘70s


When I was a kid, I didn’t enjoy this film as much as the follow-up, The Great Muppet Caper. But these days, I enjoy the more laid back vibe of this film. There’s a lot of heart in this movie and you can tell everyone had a blast making it. It is also the truest to Henson’s vision of the world of the muppets. Makes for a pleasant nights entertainment, as long as you don’t mind Moving Right Along stuck in your head for days afterward.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 4

Sound: 3

Acting: 4

Script: 3

Music: 4

Direction: 4

Entertainment: 4

Total: 4

In Depth Review

You know the concept of an entire television series that revolves around silly puppets that sing, tell corny jokes and goof around sounds like a recipe for disaster. And yet The Muppet Show was a fixture on television for five seasons spanning from 1978 to 1981 (not to mention reruns). It was a truly unique and may have been one of the last gasps of variety show entertainment on television. Most of all it was a show everyone in the family could enjoy, with a wide array of humor.

The popularity of the show (and the fact that they managed to get some amazing guest stars) eventually lead to the creation of The Muppet Movie. The main plot hook was seeing how the muppets all met and got together to form The Muppet Show. But mostly it was just a chance for Jim Henson and his crew to work with a bigger budget, lots of guest stars and try some truly amazing things with the puppeteering.

I have to say that even the most jaded viewer who dislikes anything made of felt is going to be amazed by some of the technical skills on display in the film. The movie opens with an extended crane shot of Kermit the frog sitting on a log surrounded by a swamp. The illusion is perfect; you immediately accept that Kermit is just a frog strumming a banjo and singing. Well, maybe I won’t go that far, but when you finally realize that someone has to be operating Kermit, your jaw drops. How did they do that? The answer, Henson was in a specially designed container under the water and operating Kermit while watching the performance on a monitor. It took five days to shoot. Talk about dedication. But that’s just one of the many clever acts of puppet power you’ll see. You get Kermit riding a bike. You’ve got Gonzo floating away on a balloon. There are muppets driving buses, hanging from ceiling fans and engaging in romantic daydreams complete with running in fields through a gauzy screen.

That’s one of the great things about this movie, the spirit of fun that pervades through every frame. Henson and his crew just go for broke, if they dream it up, they do everything they can to bring it to the screen. And the results are inventive and fun. While later films like The Great Muppet Caper would get even more impressive in their puppeteering achievements, The Muppet Movie set the bar very high.

The other thing that will stick in the memory after watching this movie are the songs written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. Williams was one of the masters of writing catchy songs that you just can’t remove from your brain. The Muppet Movie is full of them. Rainbow Connection gets all the acclaim and it’s a great opener for the film. But for me, nothing says The Muppet Movie like the road trip duet by Fozzie and Kermit: Movin’ Right Along. But all the songs are really entertaining and run the gammit from folky lullaby to funky ‘70s rock. Now, I’m not a big fan of folky music, or ‘70s music for that matter. But these suckers grew on me.

While we’re talking ‘70s, I do have to say that the humans in this movie date it tremendously. The hair, the clothing and the slang is all 1970s. Those with a low tolerance for bell-bottoms and the color brown are going to find the movie tough to get through. Luckily the muppets themselves are timeless. But each encounter with a human snaps you right back to the Carter era.

What is funny is that most of the human cast only appears in brief cameos, popping up for a few lines before vanishing without a trace. The whole movie is like this. “Was that Richard Pryor?” “Did I just see James Coburn?” “Seriously? Bob Hope?” Yep they’re all here. A few folks get juicer roles. Charles Durning and Austin Pendleton get plenty of screen time as the antagonists. Steve Martin plays a seriously annoyed waiter on Miss Piggy and Kermit’s first date. Mel Brooks overstays his welcome as a mad scientist (the only scene that really falls flat for me). But most of the human actors are blink and you miss them appearances. So if you see one of your favorites on the IMDB listing, just keep in mind they may have 30 seconds of screen time. But who are we kidding, you’re hear to see the muppets!

Unlike most of the later films, the plot here is pretty thin. What you get is mostly an excuse for some amazing set pieces, songs and jokes. This is bound to annoy some people, and in my youth it was one of the reasons I disliked this film. The concept of telling the story of the muppets meeting and getting on television gets some lip service, but it never drives the narrative. The plot gets so thin that the muppets themselves make fun of it and even use the script for the film to bring people up to speed and figure out what they’re going to do next. Compared to something like The Muppet Christmas Carol which stuck to the Dickens story pretty tightly, this is as flimsy as they come.

But as I mentioned The Muppet Movie is the closest in spirit to The Muppet Show. It took me revisiting the television series to understand why the movie was the way it was. Henson’s energy and enthusiasm drove the show and drives this movie. Its what makes the whole thing feel like a big bowl of fun. Put into context I was able to appreciate it a lot more. It’s great summer viewing for the whole family or even if you want to feel like a kid again.


  1. Thank you for expanding this review! I miss when family movies were actually as good as this and not just a string of pop culture jokes (although the cameos come close, it's not done with them playing their most famous roles - it's a real parental bonus). Henson's skill at making the Muppets feel as real as the actors is still astonishing & works better than modern CGI at its finest. Maybe it's because the human actors have something physically there to play off of?

    Now, to try & get Moving Right Along out of my head.

  2. You're welcome. And I agree with you. Practical effects and puppets seem to bring out better performances in actors. CG has it's place and when used well can be very effective. But I think a director needs to keep in mind that a mix of techniques can yield a greater result.