David Bishop looks back at the Muppet movie franchise…
It’s hard to imagine now, but The Muppets started on television way back in the 1970s. The fact that it has endured for this long is a testament to just how timeless these loveable bits of felt and fur are. Between 1979 and 2011, no less than eight Muppet movies were released, with another one now on the way. Having watched all of these back-to-back, it’s surprising just how well they have stood the test of time. The humour is by turns silly, anarchic, ironic and dry as a bone. It really does appeal to both adults and children and not in any ironic way either. It seems everyone can genuinely love the Muppets.
In 1979, The Muppet Movie was the first in the series to be released and still remains one of the best. While singing away in his natural habitat, a swamp, Kermit the Frog is approached by a Hollywood agent and convinced to go to the Land of Dreams and become a huge star. Along the way, he picks up Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the… whatever (with Camilla the Chicken) and, of course, Miss Piggy. Crazy hijinks ensue as they are chased by Doc Hopper, a fast-food restaurant tycoon, intent on using Kermit the Frog to promote his new frog’s legs restaurant chain.
The plot is immaterial; what you’re watching The Muppet Movie for is the gags, and they come thick and fast. The film is very aware of its own absurdity and isn’t above going for the cheap gags (a fork in the road). That the jokes are pretty much spot-on each time is a testament to the quality of the screenplay and the enduring nature of the characters. Gonzo and Fozzie, as always, are the highlights.
The second film, The Great Muppet Caper, isn’t quite in the same league as its predecessor. The plot, involving Kermit and Fozzie as newspaper reporters trying to figure out who is going to steal a precious diamond, ties itself in knots. While the story of The Muppet Movie allows the Muppets to get involved in increasingly stupid situations with plenty of jokes, Muppet Caper is a bit more plodding. There’s a constant need to move the plot along, which isn’t helped by a lag in the middle with far too much time spent on the Kermit/Miss Piggy romance. The Muppets partly worked due to the sheer onslaught of gags but this one gets a bit bogged down. It’s not that it’s a bad film, just a bit of a misstep.
The Muppets take Manhattan is a return to form. While not as ground breaking as the first film, the story is better suited to the Muppets style of comedy than Caper. This time Kermit and Co go to Manhattan in an attempt to put on a Broadway Musical. However, they find the task a lot more difficult than they imagined. Soon they run out of money and the friendships within the group become increasingly strained.
This one has a lot of similarities with the new Muppet film, with the gang in a race against time to put on a performance. This actually works very well, providing some great character moments, particular with the Muppets splitting up and attempting to make it on their own. Rowlf running a dog kennel and Fozzie trying to hibernate for the winter are particular highlights. It also has a brilliant gag about 3D, courtesy of the Swedish Chef and some popcorn.
The next one is probably the most well-loved and enduring of the series and it’s easy to see why. The Muppet Christmas Carol is, probably, the only Christmas movie to rival It’s a Wonderful Life. A perfect re-telling of the Charles Dickens classic, with Kermit as Bob Cratchit and, a rarely better, Michael Caine as Scrooge. The songs are memorable, the dialogue spot-on and the direction faultless. It’s also the most visually ambitious of the Muppet movies, from the opening shots of London to the scenes of the Ghost of Christmas Future in the graveyard, there’s a real cinematic sheen at work here.
Director Brian (son of Jim) Henson did such a good job with Christmas Carol that he was hired for The Muppets next adventure, Muppets Treasure Island. Good thing too because this is every bit as entertaining as the previous entry. As with Christmas Carol, this is mainly down to some inspired human casting in the form of Tim Curry who hams it up nicely and almost runs away with the entire film.
There’s a great sense of adventure and ambition with this one. Instead of treading on water and phoning it in with cash-in sequels, the filmmakers are genuinely attempting to do something different with each instalment, and the love and attention to detail is evident in every frame. Again, we’re treated to memorable songs, a pacey script and plenty of gags which work for both children and adults.
Sadly, things take a slight downward spiral with the next instalment. While not as bad as it sounds, Muppets From Space does feel a bit cheap and lazy, especially compared with the previous two instalments. There’s a real sense that the popularity of the Muppets is dwindling and not as much money is being thrown at the productions. It doesn’t help that Jeffrey Tambor is not the greatest bit of casting in a Muppet film. However, the biggest problem is the explanation of what Gonzo is. One of the greatest running gags of the series has been that no one, not even Gonzo, knows what he is. Having this explained (guess what, he’s from space), does kind of ruin this. It’s best to ignore this entry in all honesty, even if it is mildly diverting.
However, it’s nowhere near as awful as the made for TV oddity, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz starring Ashanti and featuring a bizarre cameo from none other than Quentin Tarantino. It’s badly filmed, not in the slightest bit funny and has a nasty, cheap feeling which is in complete contrast to the rest of the series. Avoid this at all costs.
By this point the franchise was pretty much dead. Thank heavens for How I Met Your Mother star Jason Segel. Making this his pet project, and co-writing the film with Nicholas Stoller, Segel brings the Muppets into the 21st Century in fine style and produces one of the best entries in the series.
Everything about this is spot-on, with Bret McKenzie writing the songs (there’s a very Flight of the Conchords vibe about this, which is perfectly in synch with the humour of the Muppets) to the casting (Amy Adams, Chris Cooper and Segel are all perfect). There’s a clear love of the characters, and even if you’re not laughing, you’ll have a huge grin on your face. If it couldn’t get any better, there are also fart shoes.
Thankfully with huge box office success and winning an Oscar for best original song, the Muppets are well and truly back. Director James Bobin is back for the sequel, with Ricky Gervais taking over the human lead role. Long may the Muppets continue.