It’s hard to describe the magic of the Muppets to kids today. From my son’s perspective, he actually has very little interest in puppets on television. He’s more interested in cartoons and computer animated films. But put on the Muppets, and he’s off to his room to play with his toys.
I remember seeing The Muppet Movie for the first time on video when I was a kid. Not old enough to see it in the theaters, or remember doing so if I did, I remember loving the adventures of Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear. When I was younger, it was Kermit who I liked best, but over the years my attraction as shifted to his furry sidekick. There’s something about the wanna-be stand up comedian that makes me laugh all the time.
Anyway, this original film was the first to feature the lovable Jim Henson creations. It came on the heels of the successful The Muppet Show, which at the time of its release in 1979 had aired on television for three years. It included all of the famous Muppet characters in one capacity or another, with its basic premise to show how all the characters met and found their way to Hollywood.
Kermit (performed by Jim Henson) was living a content but unfulfilled life in the jungle, with a chance encounter with a Hollywood agent causes him to head to Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a star. Along the way he meets up with Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and Miss Piggy. They journey across country on a bizarre road trip, pursued by Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), a fast-food restaurant owner who wants to open a franchise business based around frog legs, and believes Kermit would make the perfect spokesman.
The concept of the film was inspired by Jim Henson’s real experience of getting into the business. It includes a collection of cameos, including Steven Martin, Dom DeLuise, Mel Brooks and Bob Hope, as well as Orson Welles, whose role is an homage to British producer Lew Grade, who helped bring The Muppet Show to life. With a mixture of slap-stick comedy and musical numbers, The Muppet Movie helped solidify the Muppets as bonafide pop culture icons.
My favorite portion of the film is when Kermit and Fozzie meet, as this pairing is one of my favorite aspects of the Muppets. And while I have never been a fan of musicals, the handful of tunes here are great, most especially “Rainbow Connection”, a heartwarming and classic song. The film’s most magical moment is the bicycle scene, where Kermit first leaves the swamp. It’s one of those rare moments where the puppets are seen fully on screen, with no hands attached to provide the movement. It’s not exactly fancy, but at the time it was a great bit of movie magic, one that today would probably have been achieved through some form of digital trickery.
The restored audio and video of The Muppet Movie are terrific, and I think it’s good that they allowed the option of watching the film in “widescreen” or “full screen” as well (just so people can see why fullscreen sucks). The disappointing part of this 50th anniversary DVD release is that there are no real special features. There’s a mildly funny profile of Kermit hosted by Pepe the King Prawn, a character introduced in the recent The Muppet’s Wizard of Oz, but that’s it. I would have thought this would have made for a terrific opportunity to release a true special edition DVD of The Muppet Movie, with behind-the-scenes footage or a retrospective of some kind. Jim Henson died in 1990, Richard Hunt in 1992, and Jerry Juhl, who co-wrote several Muppet films and was a head writer on The Muppet Show, also died this past September. I would hate to think that so much time would pass and many of the people who helped create these indelible characters will be gone before some effort is made to preserve their stories.