I have never, I must confess, been the biggest Muppet fan in the world. Before you inquire about the barren depravity of my soul, let me explain: I always liked them, but as a kid it was more like “Muppets, cool” than going full-on Animal. The main presence Jim Henson had in my life was Labyrinth, which I was busy watching over and over again (neglecting the Muppets). Then, somewhere in my mid-twenties, a couple good friends of mine noticed I was near-Muppet-illiterate and decided to rectify the situation by making me watch about four episodes of The Muppet Show back-to-back, and I was flabbergasted. I had had no idea how razor-sharp the comedy was, how cavalierly it broke the fourth wall and commented on itself. The Muppet Show basically mastered show business. It was laugh-out-loud funny but never in a cheap way, it never resorted to shocks or meanness to get laughs.
The Muppet Movie, released in 1979, was absolutely in the same vein as the show, and holds up just as well. It boasts an enormous and eclectic assortment of non-Muppet guest stars, everyone from principal villain Charles Durning to cameos by everyone from Steve Martin and Richard Pryor to Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and (most awesomely) Orson Welles, who manages in one line of dialogue to wistfully sum up his entire career in cinema, and without bitterness because there is no bitterness in Muppet World.
The story, framed as a movie-within-a-movie, is the incredibly simple story of how Kermit the Frog is chillin’ in the swamp playing his banjo one day, and after Hollywood agent Dom DeLuise tells him he’s got talent and should go to Hollywood to audition, he does. Along the way he serendipitously encounters a number of other dreamers (all the other Muppets), all the while trying to keep one hop in front of sinister (and oddly pathetic) frogs-legs restaurant mogul manqué Charles Durning. Will Kermit and retinue make it to Hollywood and succeed in their goal of making people happy? Don’t ask silly questions.
The Muppet Movie is a pretty good example of a great movie that isn’t a great movie. For a big budget ($28 million was still a lot of dough in 1979) studio picture there are a few things here and there that are a bit awkward. But such is the goodwill engendered by the Muppets, and their relentlessly positive and beautifully simple outlook on life and entertainment — “make people happy” — that none of those petty Scrooge-like concerns matter. The Muppet Movie is great. Even though it isn’t. I keep coming back to the Welles thing: the Muppets’ entire journey to Hollywood, seeking validation, is granted by Welles, the director of the greatest American film ever made, Citizen Kane, much as Jim Henson and the rest of the filmmaking team, in their quest to make people happy with this movie, go to Welles, who gives them his blessing, for no other reason than because they’re the Muppets, and Muppets are awesome.
So, I may not be able to name all of them off the top of my head, nor can I quote chapter and verse from the show, but I like to think I “get” the Muppets and The Muppet Movie. Because all there is to get, it seems, is that being upbeat and joyful and making people happy is a good thing. I am not accepting arguments against that assertion.
Screenshots from Movie Screenshots