The Muppet Movie
dir. James Frawley
scr. Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns
Commissioned by Jim Knowler
Jim Henson was a genius.
Seems like a non-controversial statement, but then again I just learned this year that there are people who think Mr. Rogers damaged a generation of children, so I’m surprised at just how wrong human beings can be.
I was introduced to the Muppets via Sesame Street, and even though that show was educational and enormously effective at it, there was also a pretty basic joy that was communicated through the humor of the show. Jim Henson and the other Muppet performers were amazing at communicating personality and behavior through their hands and mere felt. I still, to this day, don’t quite understand how much range of emotion they were able to evoke through the faces of their characters.
When The Muppet Show premiered, it was an immediate mainstay in my home, and it was clear that my parents loved The Muppets in a very different way than I did. In the early days of VHS, one of the first tapes my parents every owned was a compilation that had been put together by someone, many of the best sketches from Sesame Street and other sources collected in one place. That tape went everywhere, to parties and on vacation and to church camp, and everywhere we took the tape, the tape was a huge hit, and with every age group. The Muppets were as close to universally loved as any entertainers of my childhood, which is certainly an accomplishment, but which doesn’t really qualify Jim Henson as a genius.
And, yes, I know James Frawley is the director of The Muppet Movie, and he certainly deserves credit for his part in the film. Frawley is as old-school as old-school gets, and his attachment as the director is part of what helped convince the financiers that they could indeed make a Muppet movie. But you’ll notice that they never asked an outside filmmaker to direct the Muppets again, though, and that’s because the Muppet performers were already more than equipped to do it all by themselves, even if no one else had that initial faith in them.
Jim Henson knew what he was doing from the very start. He was working with puppets when he was still in high school, and Sam and Friends, his first puppet comedy, was on the air while he was in college. Sure, it was the early days of television and pretty much all you needed to get on the air somewhere was a desire, but to have had that kind of clarity of artistic vision is pretty amazing, because it’s not like he had the Muppets to look up to. I get why there are puppeteers today. I understand how someone could spend their whole lives amazed by the work these performers do and end up compelled to do it themselves. That’s me with filmmaking, so of course I understand the urge. But to be there first, to be the one who comes up with an entire way of approaching comedy, that’s vision. And to see that it could be something more than that? Well… that’s genius. He went from helping to make puppets for a children’s show someone else produced to changing the entire way people thought about children’s programming. It wasn’t an immediate thing, either. He went into commercial production with Muppets, Inc., and those early ads had such a great skewed left-of-center sense of humor that he immediately began to build a recognizable aesthetic sensibility. He also ended up ahead of the cultural curve, as the kinds of things he did in local ads became commonplace in national ads. He was wildly successful, and in the early ’60s, he started building out his company with new performers, including Jerry Juhl and Frank Oz, and he was smart enough to learn from them, allowing them to help expand the sensibilities of Muppets, Inc. I can’t imagine what Jim Henson would have been without Frank Oz, who frequently served as the other half of the great teams in the Muppet Universe, the Bert to Henson’s Ernie, the Miss Piggy or the Fozzie to his Kermit.
When the Children’s Television Workshop asked Henson and his company to work on Sesame Street, they couldn’t have known the size of the crater that explosion of creativity would leave. And even as they were rewiring an entire generation of kids, Henson pushed to do adult work that would make sure people saw the company as “more” than just family entertainment. I am fascinated by how bad a match he was for Saturday Night Live, but looking at it from a distance, I’m not surprised. There is a sincerity to The Muppet Show and to most of Henson’s work that is almost at odds with the ironic distance it took to drop a culture bomb like Saturday Night Live. That early incarnation of the show was desperate to project an air of dangerous degeneracy like they might accidentally burn down the network every time you tuned in, and The Muppets just didn’t fit that same mold.
Henson was very smart about show business, and you can read the bad guy in this movie, a fried frog leg mogul determined to get Kermit to be his official spokesman, as a metaphor for the life as an ad man that Henson rejected when he decided to simply “make millions of people happy,” as Dom Deluise promises Kermit in the film’s early sequences. There’s a sort of winking self-aware quality to every part of this movie, starting with the way they all assemble at the beginning in a screening room to watch the final product. Remember… The Muppet Show was huge at the time this was released, and still on the air. These really were stars already, but this was something new for all of them. There’s something very sweet about seeing these already-beloved icons nervous as they settle in. Then Robin leans over and whispers, “Uncle Kermit, is this about how the Muppets really got started?”, and BLAM… we get that first big blast of magic.
You have to imagine how this played to a theater full of Muppet fans in 1979. That first shot of the real swamp. The first chords of that perfect song by Paul Williams. It’s just perfect. And then Kermit starts singing, just after the rainbow fades, and the camera keeps pushing in on that real swamp. That’s important because the Muppets were the furthest thing from real. Sesame Street was amazing precisely because it wasn’t a real place. It was what we hoped a real place could be, but it wasn’t meant to be real. The Muppets, by their very nature, are restricted to studios and sets and carefully constructed environments.
Meanwhile, let’s take a moment to talk about Henson as a singer. Because he’s already doing a voice when he does Kermit, he can’t just open his mouth and give it everything he’s got. He is singing as a character, and there’s this great clipped unsentimental thing that Kermit does as a singer that is honestly more emotional and powerful than any runs you hear by any Mariah Carey clone. Henson sold a song from the very heart of whoever he was playing, and as Kermit, that stripped down quality is part of what defines him. Kermit The Frog is Henson’s everyman, the closest thing he has to an avatar in his own work, and defining him can be tricky since he’s such a malleable presence. The Muppets have starred in enough parody projects and been written by enough new voices since Henson’s death that it’s hard to remember what it was that specifically defined him in that original incarnation. He is decent, kind to a fault, but easily exasperated. He is a leader, but he can feel crushed by that. He is funny, but in a dad-joke kind of way. More than anything, he is someone who recognizes what is good in others, and who encourages that. He is the fan on the spark that causes the talent in other people to burst forth in full flame, and that’s the role that evolved most clearly during the Muppet Show era. Kermit ran the show like he knew it was always one disaster away from full nuclear meltdown, and he managed to somehow juggle all of the lunacy of the other Muppets into something genuinely wonderful every week. If The Muppet Movie is the metaphorical rise of Henson in the entertainment industry, then the film is a love letter to all of the wonderful oddballs he accumulated along the way, the same oddballs who helped him bring that love letter to life.
By the time that opening shot finally reaches Kermit the Frog, somehow seated on a log in a swamp, playing a banjo and singing and not a puppeteer in sight, I remember the reaction in the theater. People started whispering, and it was clear what they were whispering to each other, over and over. “How did they do that?” Forget that you’re hearing this amazing, profound, beautiful Paul Williams song for the first time. The images were brain-melting. As Kermit sings the bridge, Frawley does this tilt from him sitting and playing to his reflection in the water, and it’s a show-off moment. “Look! Look where he is!” It was such an immediate declaration that whatever rules we thought there were about how the Muppets worked and how puppeteering worked and what it could do on film, those rules were done. Forgotten. Annihilated. For the entire movie, that’s the underlying tension that is working on us in a totally different way than the comedy or the emotional stuff. How did they do that?
The obvious answer is because the Muppets are real.
That’s what makes it more than a trick or a show-off technical stunt. Yes, the Muppet performers are wizards, but when the first thing you see after Kermit leaves the swamp is him riding a bicycle… and talking… at the same time… that is madness, and obviously dark sorcery was involved, and so you just have to accept it. Kermit is real. He’s heading into the real world, and he’s real. Meanwhile, the script is pretty much one long series of one-liners fired back and forth between the Muppets, their co-stars, and a continuous cast of cameos that serve today as a reminder that everyone loved the Muppets and they were the hippest guest appearance you could book. Every generation of entertainers builds off of whatever came before them, and lots of what the Muppets lean on belongs to the vaudeville era. The entire format of the Muppet Theater on The Muppet Show is a throwback to an earlier age, and there’s something sort of delightfully old-fashioned about this kind of rapid-fire pun-driven patter. At the same time, I think Henson was a profoundly modern filmmaker. He always seemed to be determined to find the best way to make something feel real, and he was always embracing new technology as a way of making his characters or his worlds feel more real. If he had lived longer than 1990, I think he would have pushed the cutting edge of digital character work even earlier than it happened. Motion-capture in the hands of Jim Henson would have been an awesome thing, and he didn’t seem to have any problem with the notion of a digital character as a type of puppet. His final TV projects showed that he was heading that direction. In 1979, though, it was all about solving impossible real-world problems like figuring out how to have two puppets drive a car, and the Muppet Performers were amazing at mixing simple and complicated tricks to pull off the desired effect.
Most musicals wish they had one song as good as “The Rainbow Connection,” but Kenneth Ascher and Paul Williams knocked it out of the park. In addition to that song, a justifiably beloved classic, they also wrote “Movin’ Right Along,” “Can You Picture That?”, “Never Before, Never Again,” and the lovely “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along,” and the songs are perfectly deployed in the film along the way, whether introducing Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem or leading Kermit to bond with Rowlf the Dog over loves lost. Even now, at 48, with a wealth of experience behind me, I am struck every time I reach the end of this film by both the promise of its final lyrics and the loss of the man who willed all of this into existence in the first place.
“Life’s like a movie, write your own ending
Keep believing, keep pretending
We’ve done just what we set out to do
Thankto the lovers, the dreamers, and you”
That lyric, coupled with the sight of 250 different characters onscreen at once, all of them moving and alive, no computers involved, and no short-cuts possible, always shatters me. It is gorgeous, and this film stands as one of the most beautiful statements of intent I’ve ever seen from a popular artist. For the rest of his career, Jim Henson and his collaborators worked to make challenging, humane entertainment that could be watched by everyone, but that never pandered or treated any audience member as less than anyone else, and that final frame, spilling over with life and love and ambition and creativity, is as great a memorial as any filmmaker could ever hope to leave behind.