Review: The Muppet Movie

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The Muppet Movie is dedicated “to the memory and magic of Edgar Bergen,” who died shortly after doing his cameo role in the film. In that scene, Bergen and Charlie McCarthy are seen in the audience as fans attending a puppet show at a county fair—a puppet show within a puppet show within a puppet show, as well as an all-important nod to the immense influence of Bergen on the field of ventriloquism and puppetry. That kind of layered telescoping is typical of the film, which opens as the Muppets arrive at World Wide Studios to attend a screening of their new film. In a hall-of-mirrors effect (neatly reflected in a shot of hundreds of Kermits singing before a dressing-room mirror late in the film), what really happens is that we watch a movie in which the Muppets watch a movie about how the Muppets came to Hollywood to make the movie that they—and we—are watching. It’s not an original conceit but it is splendidly sustained, and frequently mind-boggling. When Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and Camille Chicken arrive at the aforementioned county fair, we see a couple shots in which real chickens are prominent, and we fear momentarily that Camille may be in danger. As it turns out, she never is. In the same way, Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) is pursuing Kermit only to persuade the frog to be his publicist, not to cut off our hero’s legs for his chain of frog-legs restaurants. Kermit’s resistance to Hopper’s overtures is not a matter of life and death, but of principle: for no amount of money will he aid Hopper and betray his brother frogs. Thus even the darker entanglements of the film are lightweight. Kermit’s impassioned speech about frogs on tiny crutches calls to mind the famous Gahan Wilson cartoon of a legless frog begging in front of a restaurant advertising frog’s legs.

Kermit sets out for Hollywood not to become rich and famous but—on the advice of Bernie the Agent (Dom DeLuise)—to “make millions of people happy”; and that promise is what we think of when, at the finale, the Muppets reassemble the entire story in two-dimensional sets, which blow up like a shattered dream, only to be bathed in the glow of a gentle rainbow, and sing, “We’ve done just what we set out to do.” The sophisticated special effects are funny and exciting, the comedy low and high, physical and verbal, slapstick and wit, with nothing too simple to be enjoyable (excepting Steve Martin’s self-indulgent cameo as a waiter whose shtick is to insult the customers). The Muppet Movie is that rare thing, a G-rated picture that really is “family entertainment” and not just a kids’ show. It embraces its audience magnanimously (“When somebody out there loves you, you’re part of the magic show”), yet still distances itself as film. It even attacks itself as film: Statler and Waldorf, the two old geezers who sit in the balcony on the weekly TV show and take a dim view of the Muppets’ doings, land a few good ones in the movie, including the best of all: “I’ve seen detergents leave a better film than this.” And when, a little over halfway through, the film breaks and the lights go up in the Muppets’ screening room, the projectionist proves to be none other than the Swedish Chef. Could director James Frawley, who is known for this sort of thing, be making an oblique reference to the cinematic distancing of that other Swedish Chef, Ingmar Bergman, whose Persona interrupted itself in precisely the same way?

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

THE MUPPET MOVIE
Direction: James Frawley. Screenplay: Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns. Cinematography: Isidore Mankofsky. Production design: Joel Schiller. Music and lyrics: Paul Williams, Kenny Ascher. Production: Jim Henson.
The players: The Muppets (Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Rowlf the Dog, Gonzo, Camille Chicken, Big Bird, Statler and Waldorf, The Electric Mayhem, Crazy Harry, Swedish Chef, Dr, Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker and supporting Muppets); the Muppet players (Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz); Charles Durning, Austin Pendleton, Scott Walker, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, James Coburn, Dom DeLuise, Elliott Gould, Bob Hope, Madeline Kahn, Carol Kane, Cloris Leachman, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Telly Savalas, Orson Welles, Paul Williams, James Frawley.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.