Reflections on The Muppet Movie, back on the big screen 40 years later

Review by C.J. Bunce

Thanks to Fathom Events and other film retrospectives over the years, movie audiences can revisit their first viewings of some of the best films ever made.  In that league comes The Muppet Movie, which just wrapped its 40th anniversary with two days of screenings.  Like the one-of-a-kind The Beach Boys and The Bee Gees, and the symbols of goodness everywhere: Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross, and Steve Irwin, The Muppets are a truly unique team, and Jim Henson and his $65 million box office hit The Muppet Movie reflects why they created the word “iconic” in the first place.  It says something when a retrospective anniversary screening can make the week’s Top 10 box office after 40 years.  The Muppets are as accessible and necessary as they’ve ever been.

Paul Williams’ musical score and powerful songs might be the high point of the movie, from “The Rainbow Connection,” to “Movin’ Right Along,” to Gonzo’s emotional “I’m Going to Go Back There Again.”  Or maybe it’s the magic, the forgetting we’re absorbed in characters played by actors that are a frog and a pig and a bear and a dog and whatever Gonzo is.  Or maybe it’s the behind the scenes magic.  Filming in the lagoon once used for Gilligan’s Island, Henson spent an entire day perfecting the scene with Kermit singing in a wetsuit under water, perched inside a metal tank, reaching upward to give Kermit his character.  You wouldn’t know any of it happened that way from the perfectly still water and multiple angles the song is filmed from.  Or that Kermit was operated my remote control for the Schwinn scene (but Kermit the Muppet really was riding that bicycle, no strings attached!).  Jim Henson can’t be overstated as sitting among the kings of creating the fantastical.

But even all of those great components can’t beat the storytelling.  Full of honesty and heart, Kermit’s path is a classic reluctant hero’s journey, equal to that of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Luke in Star Wars, Frodo and Bilbo in Tolkien’s stories (Fozzie is a great Samwise), Harry in J.K. Rowling’s series.  Here our green felted friend assembles a group of new friends to help him succeed by story’s end.  The Muppets had already been known to us through The Muppet Show, yet this movie succeeded in getting audiences to meet them all over again.  The story is playful, too, allowing its own script to become a plot device with the characters.

And you can’t beat the fun, the laugh-out-loud jokes (the audience caught them all in my screening) you’d expect from a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road trip movie (with an appearance by Bob Hope here, too, as a bonus).  It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had Hollywood comic actors united behind a single important film with so many cameos, and The Muppet Movie did it again (with Milton Berle here, too), all brilliantly spliced into the story to keep pushing the action forward.  In one scene Kermit walks into a smoke-filled room like James Bond, in another he’s romancing Miss Piggy in homages to Tom Jones and Casablanca.  Director James Frawley using scenes as homages to films like that ground the film in American cinema history, and scenes that would be parroted again in movies from the following year’s The Blues Brothers to even the coda in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off show its lasting influence.

Paul Williams received nominations for the film’s two Oscars for the musical score and the song “The Rainbow Connection”–Williams has said he wanted to make a song on par with Pinocchio’s “When You Wish Upon a Star.”  His song is certainly its equal, as magical and as well known today.  As Oscars go, 1979 was a remarkable year for unremarkable movies.  The forgotten A Little Romance and All That Jazz won best musical score Oscars instead.  The Black Hole was nominated for cinematography.  And who is still singing the song from Norma Rae, which took the best song Oscar?  The Muppet Movie was in good company.  Also snubbed for best film were The China Syndrome, Alien, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

It’s awesome to be able to watch this film on the big screen again.  It still holds up.  It still should hold firm at not only the top of your best fantasy list, but your own best film list of any genre.  If you missed The Muppet Movie in the theater, check it out on home DVD or Blu-ray, and enjoy the music again on Paul Williams’ soundtrack.



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