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Just what the doctor (teeth) ordered: A review of “The Muppet Movie” (1979)

Optimism is underrated. Movies with cynical worldviews give a lot of food for writing, but it’s easy to get trapped in their dour mindset. You do need to remember that there is good in the world occasionally, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to document that goodness when you find it. At first, I thought I wanted to skip rewatching “Babylon” because it was too long and, frankly, mediocre, but when my girlfriend suggested  that we watch James Frawley’s “The Muppet Movie” instead, I figured out it was for a different reason entirely. “Babylon” is about the corruption of the film industry: how greed, lust and racism poison art. It’s not inaccurate, but as someone who lives to entertain and is constantly afraid that this dream isn’t livable, it’s just not a reminder I needed twice. I needed “The Muppet Movie,” a film not only about the joy of making and watching movies but about the virtue of joy itself. Henson’s eclectic cast of timeless characters embody an infectious joy — that of sharing happiness with others through creativity — and there’s something incredibly moving about that. It’s a simple story, but sometimes the simplest stuff has the most poignant things to say. So, yeah, here’s a review of “The Muppet Movie.” Just what the doctor ordered. 

Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson), lives contentedly in a swamp, passing his days singing and playing banjo. A Hollywood agent (Dom DeLuise) is out fishing, hears his song, and suggests that he go west to L.A. on a quest for film stardom. DeLuise offers fame and riches, which doesn’t excite Kermit, but when he says that he “could make millions of people happy,” something lights up on that felt puppet face. Inspired, Kermit begins a journey to Hollywood, where he meets recognizable friends like Fozzy Bear (Frank Oz), Gonzo (Dave Goelz), Dr. Teeth (Henson) and possibly the love of his life Miss Piggy (Oz). Amidst the growing cast of Hollywood-bound creatures, bumming it in Fozzy’s Studebaker, and accompanying musical numbers, something sinister works in the background. Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), the owner of a burgeoning chain of frog-leg restaurants, pursues Kermit in hopes of getting him to star in commercials. The whole thing is packaged in a perfect mise en abyme, with The Muppets themselves watching the film’s debut in a theater alongside us. 

This is The Muppets, so you know there are a lot of fantastic jokes here. You’ve got some great running gags (“Are you lost? Have you tried Hare Krishna?”) and some great fourth-wall breaks, such as Kermit handing Dr. Teeth the movie’s screenplay to catch him up on the story so far. The celebrity cameos made for a great game of I-Spy throughout, especially given how young a lot of them are in this thing! You’ve got the aforementioned Dom DeLuise, Richard Pryor haggling with Gonzo over carnival balloons, a rather sour Steve Martin waiting on Kermit and Miss Piggy’s first date… and then there’s Orson Welles, who has only two lines in the entire thing, but delivers them with every ounce of his usual gravitas. Sure, he was “Citizen Kane,” but you better believe he commanded my attention in breath-holding glory for those brief forty-five seconds that he was onscreen. The jokes themselves are corny but revel in their corniness rather than play it off for irony, and even the stupidest puns got big laughs out of me. 

And since this is The Muppets, there are also going to be musical numbers. You get a lot of really goofy ones, such as Miss Piggy’s “Never Before Never Again,” which was hysterical, namely because Piggy is a dreadful singer. That final note is as gloriously funny as it manages to go several steps sharper and more dissonant than when it starts. There’s the silly stuff — and then there are songs that access a raw melancholy that sneaks up on you if you’re not careful. A general complaint I have is that there’s just not enough of Gonzo, but he does get a starring moment in “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.” The song tells of how “there’s not a word yet, for old friends who just met,” and that intangible, wonderful feeling of belonging. That lyric in particular gets me misty for a reason I can’t articulate with words. It just sort of makes you feel something. 

All of this is tied together by that opening rendition of “Rainbow Connection,” a song that’s likewise about something almost unknowable. What is that Rainbow Connection? A large part of me thinks that “The Muppet Movie” finds it in the joy it exercises in every little thing it does. It makes puppets feel like people without making you think twice; it creates elaborate props and billboards for singular visual gags just for the pure enjoyability of the joke. It’s a movie that goes the extra mile, not in service of making art but simply because it wants to. The thematic conflict between dreams and the corporate entities that threaten them doesn’t weigh heavily on Kermit, merely because he’s just in it to make people happy. The entire movie reflects that. Is its optimism misguided? You might argue that, but it really makes me feel that approaching life with a similar sense of magic, whimsy and unbridled joy might just be the rainbow connection. And, really, the beauty of it might be in that “connection,” the film’s insistence on how special things become when they’re shared with the people you care about, or just people in general. Or it might not be, and the song seems to really be after people who try and think too hard about what a rainbow means instead of simply loving the thing for itself. So, here’s what I’ll leave you with: “The Muppet Movie” is touching, funny and will make you smile. If you’re feeling a little lost, like I was, seek it out… or just try Hare Krishna. That works too. 

Rating: 5/5

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