Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Muppet Movie (1979)

          True story: When The Muppet Movie came out in 1979, I fell so completely in love with the film that I went to see it every day for a week. Admittedly, I was 10 and therefore just about the perfect age for the picture, but still, there’s a reason the first cinematic outing of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and the rest of Jim Henson’s Muppets got under my skin. Sweet but tart enough to avoid being cloying, the story unfolds like a classic Hollywood fable in the Frank Capra tradition—at the beginning of the picture, Kermit is just another frog playing a banjo in a swamp until a vacationing talent agent (Dom DeLuise) informs Kermit he could entertain millions of people if he went to Tinseltown.
          And that, right there, is what kills me about The Muppet Movie: It’s a story about the one noble reason for making films, which is using the cinematic medium to enrich the lives of others. As someone who has spent his entire professional life involved with movies, I lose sight of that beautiful idea every day, and I would never pretend that all of my reasons for embracing a cinematic existence are admirable. Nonetheless, somewhere inside me is the 10-year-old kid who connected with Kermit’s dream, and we could all do worse than remembering who we wanted to be before life made us who we actually are, with all of our petty flaws.
          If all of this sounds awfully high-minded since the subject at hand is a family comedy starring a bunch of felt puppets, it’s useful to explain that the surfaces of The Muppet Movie delighted my younger self as much as the heart of the film touched me. Brightly colored, fast-moving, sly, and tuneful, The Muppet Movie is a musical comedy alternating between charming dramatic vignettes (oh, Miss Piggy, the obstacles you place in your own path), silly comedy sketches (Gonzo taking a ride on a handful of balloons), and toe-tapping songs written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. (As if penning the gorgeous main theme “Rainbow Connection” wasn’t enough, the duo also contribute fun numbers like the jaunty road anthem “Movin’ Right Along” and the Electric Mayhem’s funky jam, “Can You Picture That?”)
          The story about Kermit slowly gathering a surrogate family during his trip to Hollywood is fun (why wouldn’t Fozzie Bear drive a Studebaker?), and the stop-and-start romance between Kermit and Miss Piggy offers an amusing satire of overwrought romantic melodrama. The bad-guy business with evil restauranter Doc Hopper (Charles During) is genius, because what better nemesis for Kermit than a fast-food titan who operates a chain selling frog’s legs? (During is wonderfully flamboyant, and Austin Pendleton is a hoot as his morally conflicted sidekick.) The movie regularly drifts into loopy territory, like the climax in which Keith Moon-inspired muppet Animal plays a bigger role than usual, and on top of everything, the movie is stuffed with amazing cameos by comedy stars and other celebrities. Of special note are Mel Brooks as a nutjob German scientist, Steve Martin as an obnoxious waiter (“Oh, may I?”), and Orson Welles as a Hollywood mogul.
          Decades after my weeklong immersion in The Muppet Movie, I still find it as clever, entertaining, and heartfelt as ever—if not more so, since the intervening years have revealed how rare it is to find a genuine celebration of decency anywhere in the cinema. I doubt I’ll ever tire of listening to Henson’s deeply felt statement.

The Muppet Movie: RIGHT ON

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