Posted by David Kalat on November 26, 2011
I have something I need to say. It’s something I don’t say often enough, and for that I am sorry. You deserve to hear it. The words are few but powerful.
I love you. I love you, Muppet Movie.
The Muppet Movie and I are childhood sweethearts. We met when I was nine years old, and it was a brand-new first-run release. I saw it repeatedly on that first run in both traditional hard-top theaters and drive-ins. As it passed into second and third runs, I kept chasing after it, smitten. I loyally stayed with it throughout its life on HBO and pay-cable.
It was, in fact, the site of my first “date.” I was 10. The girl was a 3rd grade classmate of mine, named Michelle. When I first met her, I mistook her for a boy named Michael. She told my mom she wanted to marry me. I spent most afternoons after school at her house, watching Space Giants (the best television show of all time). I don’t recall the circumstances of how we ended up going to see this movie together–did I invite her? Did she invite me? Did our parents set this up? What I do remember is that she didn’t love the movie enough for my tastes, and we went our separate ways. That’s how I roll: love me, love my movies.
Flash-forward about 25 years: a revival screening of The Muppet Movie was playing at the AFI’s Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. I was living in the DC suburbs at the time, and decided this was the perfect venue and opportunity to introduce my beloved Muppets to my own children. Now, bear in mind that the Washington area is not designed to facilitate travel from one suburb to another, so the journey from my home in Alexandria to the theater in Silver Spring could take as much as an hour, depending on traffic. One does not undertake it lightly.
But that seemed a small price to pay for a big screen Muppetstravaganza, so off I went. My son Max was about five years old at the time, and an absolute tyrant. My wife and I had nicknamed him Kim Il Jong when he was three, in honor of his determination to go for the nuclear option in any dispute.
For some reason, Max had decided that he didn’t want to leave the comfort of his car seat, and refused to get out of the car to go into the theater. Dragging him out of the car, for the purpose of taking him to see the flipping Muppet Movie, initiated a tantrum of epic proportions. It is still spoken of in the legends of suburban Maryland. The caterwauling he unleashed still shakes me to my core.
Experiences like these have caused me to become withdrawn and protective of my Muppet Love. I am reluctant of sharing of my passion, because I cannot take for granted that others share it. The advent of The Muppets this week (god bless you, Jason Segel) has encouraged me to venture out of my shell. And of all the things Muppet that I love, the original 1979 Muppet Movie is a work of absolute genius.
If you wish to argue that The Great Muppet Caper is the better film, well, I won’t waste your time disputing that. Caper is infinitely tighter, it is brilliantly funny, it has John Cleese and Diana Rigg in it. And don’t underestimate the significance of that–both John Cleese and Diana Rigg were in The Avengers, but not at the same time. John Cleese and Diana Rigg each appeared in James Bond films, but not the same ones. The only time they shared the same credit–thank the Muppets.
But this isn’t a blog about The Great Muppet Caper, it’s about the original, the definite article. The Muppet Movie.
Which is, admittedly, a structurally flawed movie. It follows the road movie/Wizard of Oz paradigm, in which the audience identification figure sets out on a quest and collects fellow travellers on his journey.
Which is a problem, from a narrative standpoint. Just how many compatriots does the protagonist need to facilitate his quest? In any quest story, it’s the first and last encounters that matter. For example, in Wizard of Oz, Dorothy isn’t getting anything done without the Scarecrow. The others have their roles to play, but there’s a reason she says goodbye to him with a special emphasis.
Other quest narratives have the same structure: Milo and Tock, Luke and the droids, Kermit and Fozzie. That first friend is what you need to make it all the way.
And, as I said above, then there’s the last stop of the journey–the Wizard behind the curtain, facing down Darth Vader, that final triumphant pitch meeting with Orson Welles:
The structural problem is what happens in between. The middle of a quest story is just a bunch of stuff that happens that fills out the time between the hero meeting his new best friend and when he finally gets what he’s been questing for. But just how many stops along the way are strictly necessary to make the story work? Two? Eleven? A hundred? In other words, how many Muppets and wacky guest stars does Kermit need to meet before he’s ready to confront Orson Welles?
Apparently a whole helluva lot, because regardless of how sloppy and structurally saggy this film gets, it’s all those stopover points along the way that make the movie worth watching.
Here are just some of my favorites:
The movie beautifully mixes two or three generations of comedy talents into one stew. There are old guard comics like Milton Berle and Bob Hope making cameos alongside comedy stars of the 1970s like Steve Martin and Richard Pryor.
The cameo by Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy is another highlight. McCarthy was the Muppet star of the 1930s, and it’s only right for Henson and his team to tip their collective hats to the puppeteer comedians who came before them. Here’s a clip of McCarthy in his day, from the nutty B-movie Look Who’s Laughing.
I also cherish the meta textural self referential aspects of The Muppet Movie. This scene is perhaps my favorite single scene of any movie ever, or at least it takes the short list along with the scene in Testament of Dr. Mabuse where Lohmann tries to trap his prime suspect in a clever gotcha trap that bizarrely springs back the wrong way. Oh, and Godzilla’s second attack on Tokyo in the 1956 Godzilla. And the kiss from Rear Window. Let’s just say I really like this scene:
So, just to get this straight–the Muppets are in attendance at the premiere of a movie that chronicles the making of the movie they are watching, which already includes loopy digressions into retelling its own story within the telling of its story, but this interrupted when the film breaks. Within the film. Too bad it’s a gag that loses so much of its meaning to an audience reared on digital projection and DVD viewings at home.
Lastly, I have to say a few words about the soundtrack. I have no other interest in the work of Paul Williams, and generally the style of music represented by this soundtrack is not my cup of tea, but The Muppet Movie has the best songs the Muppets ever sang. I bought my kids a Muppet soundtrack CD that included the complete songs of all their movies (up to Muppets From Space) and it was physical proof of the superiority of the 1979 score. The CD started out with its best stuff, the songs you just had to crank up the volume on and start smiling like a little child, and then as it went on your attention would drift away.
It just doesn’t get any better than this.
Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’m off to see The Muppets with Jason Segel again.
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