#ThrowbackThursday – The Muppet Movie

Original US release date: June 22, 1979
Production budget: $8,000,000
Worldwide gross:$65,200,000

There sadly exists very little context for how big of a deal The Muppets – created by Jim Henson – actually were upon their arrival.  Debuting in 1976 with “The Muppet Show”, the Muppets captured the imagination and funny bones of the entire American public.  Surprising audiences with a sophisticated wit and satire, and galvanized by a nonstop parade of popular celebrity cameos, the show exploded and became a huge hit among adults and children, alike.  That led to The Muppet Movie in 1979.  Also a gigantic success, the film led to three direct sequels until , eventually, the time of the Muppets largely passed.  There have been attempts over the decades to resuscitate the property, both in film (including 2011’s The Muppets, starring Amy Adams and Jason Segel) and television, to various degrees of triumph.  The “Muppet Babies” Saturday morning cartoon was the biggest of the bunch and it was just announced that a relaunch of that show is in the works.  But never were the Muppets as firmly entrenched in the public zeitgeist as they were at the time of 1979’s The Muppet Movie.

I hadn’t seen this movie, myself, in many, many years.  It had been so long that, with the exception of the songs, it pretty much played as new to me.  I often thought back to 2015’s “The Muppets” television series that longtime Muppets fans claimed to hate so much.  The complaint I often heard was that the show had too much adult humor and too many adult situations.  Yet, in The Muppet Movie, there is a healthy dose of both.  Muppets go to bars, hit on other characters, and there is even double-entendre referencing male genitalia.  It’s just that, as kids, the people complaining about that material being part of the 2015 show didn’t pick up on it, forty years earlier – just as kids in 2015 weren’t picking up on it, last year.  But it’s there.

The pace is a little slow for modern audiences and the humor – as is typical for the Muppets – is often nuanced.  And, knowing that the property appeals to all ages, there’s some material aimed at adults and other material directed at children.  The balance is well-struck and the tone is set early as the Muppets, themselves, gather to watch a screening of their own movie.  Sam Eagle stops Kermit to smugly ask if the film has any “socially redeeming value”.  Kermit politely blows him off as the film does the same to anyone in our world who might be wondering the same thing.  Some films are simply meant to be entertaining.  This is one of those and that’s great.

Breaking the fourth wall is something that the Muppets have always done.  Long before “Moonlighting”, She-Hulk, Deadpool, Lobo, C.M. Punk, and most others (though after Looney Tunes), the Muppets were self-referential and turned self-deprecation into an art form.  Through this, the Muppets feel more human, helping them become more readily relatable and endearing.

The film is not only a comedy, but also a musical.  A couple of the songs have proven over time to be quite enduring and Kermit’s “The Rainbow Connection” is unquestionably a classic.  The musical aspect adds to the film’s charm and helps contribute to its heart.  Whereas the 1976 television program was a sketch comedy show, Henson and his crew understood that the film needed more.  The story admittedly is a rather paint-by-numbers affair relating how the Muppets came to be stars.  It’s essentially their origin story.  There are very few surprises along the way and the skeletal structure of their journey approximates a makeshift version of that sketch comedy format.  Along with that comes an excess of dated cameos and pop culture references that would go almost completely unappreciated by modern audiences.  That’s the risk one takes when leaning so heavily on that sort of thing.  It works great at the time.  Decades later?  Not so much.

Consequentially, the narrative, itself, isn’t wholly compelling.  Rather, the appeal of the film hinges on its sharp wit and its warmth, both of which it contains in spades (even discounting the pop culture references).  At the time, The Muppets was something unique and wholly original.  It’s been aped and lifted from so often in the decades since that more contemporary audiences may have trouble viewing the property through a proper perspective.  The film is a little slow at points, but always has something clever to say for those possessing the will and the attention span to sit and listen.  Despite the onslaught of newer, hipper intellectual properties, the Muppets have managed to hold on and stay afloat for all of these years.  Though I think there are other films in their portfolio that are better, they couldn’t have done it without The Muppet Movie.

And now, my favorite Muppet, the Swedish Chef, has a special request:
“Följ oss på Facebook!  Bork bork bork!”

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