Friday, July 31, 2009

It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights...

If you were to make a list of entertainers who have had the biggest impact on people's lives, you would quickly hear the names of Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg mentioned.

I don't doubt for a moment that both of those men should be mentioned. I grew up on Disney films and countless children around the world have been entertained and enraptured not only by Disney cartoons but by Disneyland and Walt Disney World. And no film director was more important in my burgeoning love for movies than Spielberg--"E.T." was the first movie I saw, I returned to the theater six times as a teen to watch "Jurassic Park" and "Saving Private Ryan" was the first time I felt a movie devastate me.

But no popular entertainer has had more of an impact on our culture, imagination and education than Jim Henson.

Henson's creations are often the first fictional characters children recognize and love. "Sesame Street" itself was enough to secure Henson's place in history; teachers around the world should credit Henson for creating a love for learning in children, a belief that knowledge can actually be fun.

And I'm heartened to see that "Sesame Street" is still as popular as ever--in an age where our entertainment is dumbed down, fast-paced and driven to meet the needs of attention-deficient kids, I'm glad that kids still know who Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and Oscar the Grouch are.

What I'm more worried about is how many kids will actually grow up knowing who Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and Gonzo REALLY are.

Let's get this right: The Muppets are one of greatest creations ever. When "The Muppet Show" debuted in the 1970s, it was not known as a kids' show--its unique brand of vaudeville, anarchy and puppetry made it a delight for adults AND kids to watch. It wasn't the double entendre-driven humor we see in Dreamworks films today, where there is slapstick for the kids and light raunch for the adults. Rather, The Muppets were more of the Pixar version--humor that was universal, character based and with a respect for the entertainment history that had gone was Pixar mixed with Looney Tunes, only done by puppets.

More than that, the Muppets were successful because they were characters. Yes, we knew they were puppets...but as often as they broke the fourth wall, Henson and his crew never stopped to make a puppet joke. They treated the Muppets as characters themselves--they weren't puppets who could fill any role...when they were in a movie or TV show, the characters were Kermit the Frog as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy as Miss Piggy and so on. They were never referred to, even by the human co-stars, as puppets. They were frogs, bears, chickens and whatevers.

I stress that because, although the Muppets continue to be popular today, it's not the same. When Henson died and the Muppets were taken over by Disney, something changed. The anarchy that Henson described as "an explosion in a mattress factory" was watered down and the Muppets were treated no different than Sesame Street characters...kid stuff. Rather than be their own characters, they were used to play literary characters, the joke not being rooted in their personalities or unique characteristics but as "hey look! A puppet's playing a pirate!" Even when they played themselves, it felt safe...the edge is gone so that the Muppets can be generic, kid-safe and cute. (The exception I will give is "A Muppet Christmas Carol," which was a Disney production and is probably my favorite adaptation of Dickens' classic).

I don't ask that my Muppets be R-rated or even PG-13 rated when I mention edge; the idea of a "dirty Muppet movie" is off-putting. What I mean is that they've traded the (purposefully) cheesy vaudeville jokes for pop culture references and the very real relationships between the characters and made them jokes (yes, it's funny to see Miss Piggy pursue Kermit and watch him be's not funny if that's the only joke and Kermit is not really interested). It's all so safe, square and unimaginative these days...I'm hoping that Jason Segel can breathe some life back into them with his "Greatest Muppet Movie Ever"--his Dracula puppet musical in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" makes me think his interest in the gig is genuine and not a money-ploy.

At its heart, the Muppets were not about pop culture gags or being cute for kids. Henson was an entertainer. He wanted to make people happy and he did so in a way that was always childlike, never childish.

So, in honor of the 30th Anniversary of "The Muppet Movie" I decided to take a look back at the original "Muppet Trilogy," the 3 Muppet Movies made in the 1980s before Henson's death and before Disney took them over (I should note, though, that if you go to the Disney Studios in Orlando, do check out "Muppet Vision 4D," which Henson helped gets the anarchy of the "Muppet Show" right on, right down to blowing up the theater at the end).

The Muppet Movie: I had an interesting reaction to watching this movie again after not having seen it in more than 20 years--I think that, as an adult, I appreciate and love this movie far more than I ever could have as a kid. I personally believe that "The Muppet Movie" is not only the greatest family movie ever made, it's a bona fide great movie. There is pure magic on display here that even the other films, as good as they can be at times, never quite recapture.

We all know the plot--this is "approximately how" the Muppets met each other and became famous. Kermit is discovered playing his banjo in a swamp and decides to head out to Hollywood so he can make millions of people happy. Along the way he picks up a stand-up comic bear, a chicken-loving...thing and falls in love with a beautiful pig, all the while evading a nefarious frog-leg magnate before Orson Welles orders the "standard rich and famous contract" for the gang.

The key to why, after 30 years, "The Muppet Movie" is still a masterpiece is found in the first 5 minutes of the movie. Yes, everyone remembers the sincerity of Kermit sitting on a log in the swamp singing "The Rainbow Connection." And yes, the scene still gives goosebumps...both as we watch Kermit in an actual swamp and wonder "how did they do that" and as the song's beautiful lyrics hit our hearts. But what most people forget is the chaos of the film's opening sequence, as every Muppet character takes their seat in a theater to watch the movie itself at a private screening ("Private Screening, Waldorf?" "Yes Statler, they're too afraid to show it in public!").

This is the hallmark of why the movie works--there's a balance of sincerity and silliness that is perfectly balanced. On the one hand, I believe this film is as personal as anything Henson ever did. He was always very candid that Kermit was, in several ways, his alter ego. Kermit's dream of making millions of people happy was very likely Henson marveling at his own luck of getting to do that very thing. And the film is not afraid to it the breaks and give us some moments of true beauty and poignancy. Gonzo's solo in the desert "I'm Going Back There Someday" is almost transcendent and the movie's "Magic Store" finale is one of the great show-stoppers in film history, especially when they break the fourth wall and EVERY MUPPET EVER CREATED joins in singing "The Rainbow Connection."

And all of this is balanced by Henson's puppetry. In an age of CGI, I think we take it for granted that anything is possible. But there's still an amazing magic in looking back at this movie, done 30 years ago with puppets, and having to ask "how did they do that?" Yes, I understand that when Kermit was in the swamp Henson was in a waterproof box under the log. But how did they get Kermit to ride a bike? Look closely at the scenes with Kermit and Fozzie driving along the road...that's very obviously not green screen. The car is moving. And in the front seat are two puppets. How is that done? Part of me really never wants to know, even though I'm sure that there are explanations all over the Internet.

And, as I stated earlier, each Muppet is treated as an individual character, although Kermit is, of course, the hero. Fozzie's loyalty to his friends is a theme throughout the series and Gonzo's love of madness and danger is something that started on "The Muppet Show" but is the source of laughs through each of these films. Watch how Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo interact--they're like real guys and watch the reaction Fozzie has when Miss Piggy ditches Kermit and then reappears later...who would have thought to give puppets such human, funny and understandable reactions?

Even the romance between Kermit and Miss Piggy is something that comes off as very sweet and genuine. Their date--waited on, in the film's greatest cameo, by Steve Martin--is actually a quiet interlude that comes off as surprisingly romantic. When Miss Piggy leaves, we don't blame Kermit for heading to the bar to tell his sorrows to bartender Rowlf (leading to another great song, "I Hope that Something Better Comes Along). Even some of the cameos are more than just pop culture gags...they're homages to the humor that informed the series. Yes, Steve Martin as a sarcastic waiter is funny. But Fozzie and Bob Hope sharing a scene (complete with Fozzie's great reaction to Hope's joke)? That's the kind of joke that goes even deeper.

But to say that "The Muppet Movie" is some kind of epic, romantic spectacle is short-changing the wonderful comedy at play. Yes, the jokes are random and cheesy ("Myth? Myth?" and the Hari Krishna jokes might be lost on today's younger audiences)...but they're supposed to be. Henson was a huge fan of vaudeville and it's that Catskills humor that he pokes in the rib, knowing how lame the jokes are and turning the film's biggest joke into how they get away with still making us laugh.

We also give "The Simpsons" and a lot of modern humor too much credit for breaking the Fourth Wall and winking at the audience, forgetting that in 1979 Kermit not only was talking to the audience, but showing other character's the movies screenplay, both catching Dr. Teeth and Co. up to speed and providing a very clever and funny solution in the third act. The film's most clever joke also is a great nudge to the audience as Fozzie and Kermit encounter a certain Big Yellow Bird walking down the road to get to New York "to try and break into Public Television." It was funny then; it's still funny today.

And of course, there's just the pure Muppet craziness that seems to pop up here and there. Animal turning into a giant, a fun rock number in an old church ("they don't look like Presbyterians to me") and a funny little error when the film breaks, giving a great cameo by my favorite Muppet, The Swedish Chef ("the flim is in the flam").

Not all of it has aged well--the scenes with Doc Hopper drag a bit, mainly because there are no muppets around. The Mel Brooks cameo is a bit grating. And, to be honest, there's something vaguely unsettling about a plot that involves a frog assassin with a spear gun trying to kill Kermit.

But all in all, there's wonderful magic at work here. "The Muppet Movie" was not a children's movie but a childlike movie, full of sincerity, silliness and fun. It's easily one of my favorite movies of all time.

The Great Muppet Caper: There's really no sincerity to be found in "The Great Muppet Caper," Henson's first directorial outing. The movie breaks the fourth wall in the opening credits and, from that point on, it's basically just a madcap comedy.

And it works. "The Great Muppet Caper" may lack the heart that makes "The Muppet Movie" such a classic, but it makes up for that with sheer cleverness, eschewing vaudeville for something smarter (they even take a dig at the previous film's cheesy humor with the great reaction to "Catch them red-handed." "What color were their hands before?" "I don't think this is the time for that kind of humor.")

The plot finds Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo in London as investigative reporters, trying to crack the case of Lady Holiday's missing diamonds. Along the way, they of course meet Miss Piggy--who is trying to break into modeling--a cast of eccentrics at the dilapidated Happiness Hotel and Charles Grodin, whose infatuation with Miss Piggy is, for some reason, hilarious to watch.

As I said, the film is one long wink at the audience. After the hot air balloon opening, where Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo can actually SEE the opening credits, they launch into one of the great Muppet musical numbers, "Hey a Movie," in which they basically tell you that nothing you see is to be taken seriously.

This film is still just flat-out funny, with one of the greatest running gags in Muppet history being that Kermit and Fozzie are identical twins ("No, it's not a bear, it's a frog. Bears wear hats."). . . it also permits a hilarious sight gag when we see a picture of their father. And the Muppets are permitted to go a bit crazier this time, especially Gonzo with his camera, tormenting a poor newspaper editor.

There's just a lot to like here. I love the "Happiness Hotel" number, particularly Sam the Eagle's great line at the end ("you are all weirdos"). There's a fantasatic "how did they do that" bike scene that tops "The Muppet Movie," followed by a dance number in which Miss Piggy swims...again, how is that done? Kermit and Miss Piggy's courtship in this film is a bit less romantic and more screwball than before, which is really when the two characters hit their stride. And, most famously, there's the great speech Fozzie gives to the other Muppets, which leads to a great gag by Janice.

Again, not all of this has aged well. Many of the British cameos floated right past me, although I thought that the John Cleese one was clever. The Oscar the Grouch cameo is not as well timed or as clever as the Big Bird one from "The Muppet Movie" and the finale lacks the magic and "oomph" that the first and third "Muppet" films had. But when this movie is on, it's on and possibly the most entertaining and consistently funny of the Muppet films.

The Muppets Take Manhattan: When I was a kid, this was my favorite of the Muppet films. And while it's still very enjoyable and the music is wonderful, I don't think it ever hits the heights of the first two films.

The plot of this is pretty standard, "let's put on a show" stuff: Kermit and the gang graduate from college and decide to take their senior show to Broadway. They find that the Big Apple is not too friendly and decide to split up until the show can be put together. Kermit gets amnesia and then the film ends with the big show, complete with a long-awaited wedding.

I think the film tries to recapture "The Muppet Movie" tone of silliness and sincerity, but just can't quite do it. The plot meanders and spends too much time with the gang apart--the Muppets are always funnier when they're together. Kermit's "Boffo Socko" producer gags come off as a bit dated and, perhaps worst, the human characters in this just aren't interesting, although some of the cameos are very clever (Joan Rivers and Miss Piggy together? That's right up there with Fozzie and Bob Hope).

That's not to say it's not a fun film, just that it doesn't have the vision or magic of the first two; it feels a bit more familiar, which I guess happens after three films. But there's still a lot to enjoy hear. I loved the vignettes of the Muppets on their own, particularly Rowlf's experience at the Kennel or Scooter in the movie theater (featuring my favorite Swedish Chef gag in the films, "oh, the popping corn, in the 3D, popcorn coming right at you"). Miss Piggy's jealousy as she trails Kermit is very funny, particularly when she takes down a mugger. Any addition of Rizzo the Rat is a good sign in my book and, of course, there's the famous introduction of the Muppet Babies, which could have been too sugary and cute but really is clever and fun.

And the film boasts one of the great Muppet finales, the wedding of Miss Piggy and Kermit (although I'm sure Muppet fans debate about whether it was genuine)--I'm not too emotional about the marriage of two felt characters, but the wedding itself is one heck of a scene with every popular Muppet character squeezed into the chapel and one of my favorite song lines in a Muppet movie ("Because you share a love so big, I now pronounce you frog and pig").

Like I said, the Muppet movies afterward have their moments, particularly "Muppet Christmas Carol," although you'd be better to stay away from "The Muppet Wizard of Oz." But it's these first three films that really capture the true insantity and magic of the Muppets and, ultimately, Jim Henson.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.