As there are reports of the Muppets on television for the first time in a few decades, a review of the first incursion of the Muppets into cinema was in order…
The central enigma of the Muppets, as well as their fascination and their joy, is the sense of childlike post-structuralism they marinated themselves in without ever once dipping into supercilious irony. Every slice of Muppet fiction thrives on the sense of “the show” as it exists in contrast to our world, as the Muppets themselves are performers who are also, tacitly, being performed. Heady stuff, but the key is here, as it always was, to believe both ways. On one hand, we need to know that the Muppets are being performed – the opening joke of the movie, with a talent agent played by Dom DeLuise circumstantially, and whimsically, passing through a Florida swamp where Kermit the Frog resides and invites him to take a trip to Hollywoodland, is pure anarchic happenstance and absurdism. It dares us to question how arbitrary the occurrence is, how artificial, how performed.
It’s a play on every old small town boy or girl moves out West for fame and stardom story ever told, and pointedly here Kermit doesn’t much seem to have a reason for taking up the offer. He just sort of does because the movie requires him to, a level of self-reflexive self-exploration where-in Kermit is ostensibly acting according to a screenwriter’s whim because, well, he has to in order to finish the movie. The show must go on after all.
Yet, on the other hand, we still take the Muppets as characters so seriously not in spite of their constructed nature, but because of it; performance seems so freely flowing in their lifeblood and ready to shoot right out of their felt fingertips that the very idea of their artifice as constructs gives them life to begin with. Thus, while this first Muppet movie casually offhands about its own constructed nature, this only makes it warmer and more inviting. Post-modernism has never seemed less convoluted and mechanical because, here, unlike in most fiction, the “modern” is upended and prefixed without a hint of judgment.
No judgment indeed, for Kermit comes from Florida, and so did his creator Jim Henson, a man who too journeyed out West, perhaps just because it was something to do, and perhaps because he was guided to share his genial, free-wheeling view of the world with all of humanity. Thus we begin the story of Kermit as Henson began his story, picking up other wayward outsiders (in Kermit’s case, these include a comedian bear named Fozzie, a prima donna pig named Miss Piggie, and a charitably insane something known as Gonzo the Great, along with a Southern family’s worth of assorted sideshow players and tech puppets).
The countrified camaraderie that Henson knew in his heart abounds, but it is not only the buoyant restlessness that defines this production. No, the singularity of The Muppet Movie, present not even in the television show and arguably the justification for expanding the whole concept onto the silver screen in the first place, is that it is a deceptively weary motion picture, even in its own manic, carnivalesque way. All the Muppets band together under the ostensible purpose of securing their dreams of showbiz in Hollywood, but the unifying principle of the film is the undercurrent of unstated loneliness and shared outsider status that bonds them. They don’t have anyone else, and maybe neither did Henson, so he made his own friends out of patchwork and cloth and made the world fall in love with them like he had, collecting a few particular enthusiasts along the way (most notably, Frank Oz (who voices and puppets Fozzie and Miss Piggie) and Dave Goelz (Gonzo), while Henson takes over duties on Kermit naturally). And who can blame him for hanging with the Muppets when humanity found him a little too optimistic for their own good? After all, it is the Muppets who help the Muppets in this film; the humans only want to use them for their own gain (Henson wasn’t exclusively optimistic, it seems).
Thus we see pangs of genuine empathy in The Muppet Movie, which is lightly forlorn without ever being saccharine. Kermit, as he would do here and not in subsequent movies, expresses genuine frustration at the world and even his comrades, who sometimes pursue their own show-business mania at the expense of Kermit’s easy-going, laconic charm. Kermit even experiences his share of fright. The villain, with a perpetual interest in Kermit’s legs for his fried frog leg restaurant, is something of a statement of caution by Henson, as poignantly noted by Roger Ebert: “I create legs for Kermit, and you (humans) destroy them.”
By the way, the villain’s frog legs scheme is a statement of pride on Henson’s behalf; he wants you to notice the legs, and the effort put into turning the Muppets television show into a Muppets feature film, what with the flurry of camera pans and angles that take advantage of the wider frame of the cinema and accentuate the relationship between the Muppets and their human counterparts. He wants you to notice that cinema for the Muppets is not only a means to make money but to experiment with the idea of the Muppets both narratively and physically on the screen; he wants to push the idea of the Muppets as tangible creations in the world, creations with the capacity for function and movement, to its natural limit. That The Muppet Movie is a technical achievement in this regard is no shock; Henson and co. were always smitten with art and performance – after all, the felt lives they adopted were so fixated by performance as well.
Henson was fascinated with the potential of different art forms. If he was going to make a Muppet Movie, that is, he was going to make sure he understood it artistically as a film on celluloid, and not simply a blown-up television show. The Muppet Movie would not be Muppets, Who Happen to be on Film. He was proud of his art, and thus his work flourishes as art. Yes, the technical elements of the cinema would flourish further, growing with The Great Muppet Caper – the hyperbolic height of the bravado and stylistic excess in Henson’s Muppet escapades. And even besides future growth, The Muppet Movie is not a perfect film, primarily because the candy coated lunatic fringe entropy of the crew could never fully survive the transition to relatively bedlam-free narrative cinema. But, flaws aside, the cinematic Muppets never again achieved the mixture of artistic experimentation, twiddling whimsy, and lithe commentary on the befuddlement of fiction that they showcase here.