Jim Henson’s Muppets make the leap from television to the silver screen in this comedy-musical road trip across America that shows us how the foam and felt vaudeville troupe found each other and entered show business. We meet Kermit playing banjo in a swamp, inspired by a passing agent to go to Hollywood. Driven by the desire to entertain and make people happy, Kermit hits the road, picking up muppet friends along the way who share his dream to put on a show. But that dream is constantly threatened by Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), a frog leg restaurant mogul who’ll stop at nothing to make Kermet his company’s mascot — dead or alive.
Part of the Muppets’ charm, on television and in their debut feature, is their ability to reflect their audience. We all have our muppet counterpart — be it the fiercely passionate Miss Piggy, the bold but clueless Fozzie Bear, or Animal, the untamed drummer for the muppets’ house band, the Electric Mayhem. Even more subdued personalities are in there, like Scooter, the organized administrator, or Sam Eagle, grimly serious to a laughable fault. And Gonzo the Great is a favorite for many, representing all of us who never felt like we belonged. The muppets are us, and we are the muppets.
Turning the half-hour television variety show into a linear feature film could not have been easy. The ‘how we met’ angle is a winner. The songs by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher are uniformly terrific, with the folksy wrap-around song “The Rainbow Connection” becoming one of the most beloved songs in all of cinema. Gonzo’s surprisingly moving performance of “I’m Going to Go Back There Some Day” is also a standout number. In addition to Durning’s supporting villainous performance, The Muppet Movie is littered with a bevvy of big-star cameos. The most memorable are Mel Brooks as a creepy scientist who threatens to lobotomize Kermit for Doc Hopper, and Steve Martin as a waiter whose rudeness does little to dampen a romantic dinner between Kermit and Miss Piggy. Other cameos include Richard Pryor, Milton Berle, Cloris Leachman, Orson Wells, and Bob Hope — each appearance a testament of good will for the muppets.
The Muppet Movie was ahead of its time with self-deprecating humor and a tendency to ‘break the fourth wall’, making asides to the audience and referring to its own printed screenplay to solve a few plot problems. But even wit, good music, and star power aren’t always enough to make a classic. The muppets seal the deal with a genuine dose of heart, coming together in defense of Kermet in the film’s climactic showdown with Doc Hopper. Staring death, or at least the death of a dream, in the face, they announce they are a family. This gives the villain pause, just long enough for the muppets to prove their point: that if you forge a big enough family, with enough different attitudes and points of view, there’ll be nothing that can stop you — or the show — from going on.
With muppet performers Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, and Dave Goelz. Directed by James Frawley.
Oscar Nominations: Best Song (“The Rainbow Connection”), Original Song Score or Adapted Film Score