"Uncle Kermit, is this about how the Muppets really got started?"
"Well it's sort of approximately how it happened."
It was 1979, Jim Henson's "The Muppet Show" was on the air, the consequence of taking his favorite character (Kermit the Frog) from the confines of Sesame Street and giving him a new show and cast of friends. But this was a big step: he was taking the Muppets from the small to the big screen. The result, The Muppet Movie, was a smart, entertaining movie full of good (and bad) jokes and just enough sweetness so as not to be saccharine, that both children and adults could enjoy. Many still do.
Using a film within a film devicenot unlike the series, which was a variety show of a variety show (special emphasis on the backstage activity)Henson and his cast and crew tell the story of how an oddball group of not quite puppets came to realize their dreams and make it in Hollywood. In a way, Henson is not only trying to give a hopeful message about realizing one's dreams but creating an analogue to his own career.
Two things stand out (beyond the writing). One is the superb Academy Award nominated soundtrack/score (by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher). The songs are catchy and memorable and the lyrics more sophisticated than one would have expected (there's laughs, too). With the exception of the annoying Pig ballad, there isn't a clinker in the bunch. Oddly, the film's most heartfelt songabout loss and disappointment, dreams and hopeis put into the (surprisingly) capable "hands" of Gonzo the...no one really knows what he is ("sort of like a turkey...but not much"if one believes the 1999 Muppets from Space, he is an alien).1
The other striking thing was the special effects. Now that such things are commonplace and all too often done with computers, just seeing Muppets moving around without the ubiquitous wire (for moving their arms) was a surprise at the time. But Henson & Co. outdid that by a long shot. We see legsnot just propped over the wall where the kids on Sesame Street used to interact with the Muppets, but full shots. Perhaps the most astonishing ones were a full view of Kermit riding a bicycle. No visible wires or similar tricks, no obvious blue screen. The impact of the shot is probably lost on those who have grown up more recently, but to see that as a kid (perhaps as an adult) back then was mesmerizing. (Obviously, not all the "effects" were so notable, there's plenty of standard puppeteering.)
Once upon a swamp...
It all begins with a frog in his natural environmenta frog in his natural environment playing a banjo and singing an Academy Award nominated song ("The Rainbow Connection"). To this day, those first few strums elicit a wave of nostalgia. The rainbow is a motif used throughout, representing illusion and hope, something to believe in and strive for. And when he meets a Hollywood agent ("I've lost my sense of direction" "Have you tried Hare Krishna?"the gag recurs twice more in variation) it turns out a Hollywood producer is holding auditions for frogs "wishing to become rich and famous." Kermit isn't interested until he hears that he can make "millions of people happy" (an accomplishment Henson held dear, no doubt). Celebrity alert: Dom Deluise.
El Sleezo Cafe
After a day of traveling (losing his bike to a steam roller), Kermit stops at the El Sleezo Cafea sort of parody of Rick's from Casablanca, complete with Arabs, sailors, and assorted ruffians. There he meets Fozzie Bear, basically doing the same vaudeville routines he did on The Muppet Show. The audience is so hostile that he decides it's time to split, besides "if they need frogs, they must need bears" (impeccable logic). They take off in his uncle's old Studebaker ("...a bear in his natural habitata Studebaker"). Celebrity alert: James Coburn, Madeline Kahn, Telly Savalas, Paul Williams, Carol Kane.
Every hero needs a nemesis and Kermit's is Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), a southern entrepreneur of a chain of fast food restaurants selling frog legs. A commercial on the television (during which he opened the head of really poorly made frog costume to reveal himself hawking his food like a cut-rate used car salesmen) shows just how lame he is, trying to entice customers to find the place "at the sign of the bright green legs." And, of course, the song (which was not on the soundtrack for obvious reasons):
Frog legs, frog legs, frog legs so fine
Hoppers is the place you should dine
There's cheese legs, bacon legs, chili legs, too
French-fried frog legs, barbecued
If you want just a snack then here is the one:
A frog leg burger on a bright green bun
He wants Kermit to be his spokesman (he certainly needs one) and hounds him to do it, either voluntarily (so to speak) or stuffed. His assistant, Max, eventually sees the light and tries to help the Muppets, but not before the Frog Killer is brought inmore later.
On the road
The two continue to travel, briefly meeting Big Bird, who is hitchhiking ("I'm on my way to New York City to try to break into public television") and end up deciding to take a rest at an old church. It's really the rehearsal space for the rock band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (soon to be turned into a coffee house). Similar to his role as gofer on The Muppet Show, Scooter is their road manager. When they hear of the problem with Hopper and the dream of Hollywood (they read the script), they disguise the car with a wild paint job and send them on their way.
Next they meet "The Great Gonzo" who is both a "Plumbing Artist" and "Prince of Plumbers." And his chickens. Somehow his beat-up truck ends up on their car roof and it seems time to get new transportation. Stopping at "Mad Dog Mooney's Hubcap Heaven" (or "Mad Dog Mooney's OK Used Cars," according to the sign), an incident with a swatted insect and a no haggle sticker price gets them something for $11.95 (a nickel profit after the $12 trade-in for the other two vehicles). Celebrity alert: Milton Berle.
That damn pig
So it happens. On a visit to a county fair, the winner of Miss Bogen County (Miss Piggy) falls for Kermit at first sight, leading to a sickly-sweet song and fantasies of courtship and marriage. Gonzo forgets the comedy rule regulating bunches of helium balloons which leads to a car chase. Celebrity alert: Elliot Gould, Edgar Bergen (to whom the film is dedicated) and Charlie McCarthy, Richard Pryor, Bob Hope.
Dinner & the Third Reich
Miss Piggy suggests they stop for dinner (meaning a romantic dinner with Kermit). There they are treated to "Vin de Idaho": "Sparkling Muscatel, one of the finest wines of Idaho" (better be for 95¢). As the waiter says, "Don't you want to smell the cap?" Her concern with her career puts the romance on the skids and he spills his guts to Rowlf the dog at the piano.
Then a phone call informs him that she has been kid(pig)napped by Hopper. He's taken to a basement where a bizarre electronic machine is set up. There Mel Brooks, with that odd comedic Nazi fetish (he licks the machine) of his, plays a mad professor who will destroy Kermit's brain ("electronic cerebrectomy"). The Pig saves the day with karate-type moves but then abandons him (again, the career). Then the filmor "flim" as the Swedish Chef saysbreaks. Celebrity alert: Steve Martin, Mel Brooks.
It's the night before the auditions and the car has broken down in the middle of the desert. They picked up the Pig who was hitchhiking, but it doesn't matter: they're run out of chances and are stranded. Kermit: "I never promised we'd make it. I never promised anything." All they had was a dream, something they all believed in and Kermit feels that he's betrayed them and himself. It takes a conversation with himself to realize that the dream is still important even if it won't be realized right away.
Of course, the somber mood disappears when Dr. Teeth and his crew show up with their bus (they found them by reading the script). Full of new found confidence and resolution, Kermit decides that it is time to face Doc Hopper, once and for all.
They choose to meet in an almost abandoned ghost town, like some ancient set from the (original) Wild, Wild West. The only inhabitants are Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker. There they meet Hopper and his posse, including a Frog Killer ("I kill frogs") brought in special for the occasion. Dressed all in black (including hat, goggles, and what appears to be a hood from a scuba suit), he's armed with mini tridents fired from a speargun (more like glorified barbecue forks).
At noon sharp, Kermit appears in cowboy hat and boots. Then makes a speech about dreams and friends, trying to make Hopper change his mind. To the credit of the filmmakers, they chose not to take the obvious route. Instead: "All right, boys. Kill him." A collision between Animal and Honeydew's Insta-grow pills saves the day.
Finally. Hollywood. The gang makes its way into a 40s style movie studio and offices for the audition. First denied, they take advantage of a secretary's allergies to gain admittance. Then without a question, an audition, or a conversation, the producer tells the secretary to draw up the usual "rich and famous" contract. Time to make the movie. Celebrity alert: Cloris Leachman, Orson Welles.
The rest of the "movie" is taken up by the Muppets transforming a huge, empty studio warehouse into a place to film the movie (a movie of the events of the movie that is part of the actual movie). Sets, props, backdrops lights, cameras and...disaster. The sets collapse, the lights explode and the taint of failure raises its ugly headuntil, through a hole in the roof, a rainbow pierces the air of the warehouse, coming to rest on Kermit and his friends. They truly have reached the end of the rainbow. In fact, they are the pot of gold to be found.
Similar to The Wizard of Oz, success, friendship, stardom, the ability to make millions happy were always there within each one and it took the collapse of the real illusion to see that. The final shot of the movie within a movie has about 100 or more Muppets all singing Kermit's opening song suffused with the colors of the rainbow.
Then someone crashes through the screen (a huge ogre-like Muppet who's been trying to track them down since the car lotinterestingly, his name is "Sweetums"). The movie's over, it's a success, and typical Muppet chaos erupts in the theater where they were watching.
While it's probably not as funny or special as it was for those who stuck around through the credits during the initial release, let them run until Animal gives you his message. It's worth it.
A legacy of that Henson magic. Funny, touching, entertaining. Don't ask for more than that.
1When I was a kid, my Dad got himself suckered into the "12 records for only 1¢" deal (and by records, I mean vinyl). He got the soundtrack for the kids and Mom (always a big Henson fan). I helped wear out the record, at one point knowing not only all the words but the instrumental parts, too (ah, childhood, before I discovered their Rolling Stones albums). Last year, when they gave away all their vinyl, my brother snatched it up.
(Sources: numerous viewings since it first came out; the current DVD release of the film)