Rated G. Oh man, it's such an odd experiment writing about the MPAA rating for things every day. I remember as a kid both loving this movie and being absolutely terrified by it. The idea that people wanted to eat frog legs seemed absolutely demonic, despite the fact that I think that I even ate frog legs at the time. But the giant Animal at the end, for some reason, really perturbed me. It just seemed like so much. That's why I showed it to my young children. Because I don't learn my lessons. G.
DIRECTOR: James Frawley
For years (FOR YEARS) I tried to get my kids to sit down and watch this, mainly because I grew up with it. I don't know if the philosophy was that I hate the idea that generations of films get forgotten under the surplus of forgettable films that come out often. (I'm sounding so old. I acknowledge some of the stuff that is coming out is pure genius. I am just stressing that the concept of the modern classic is far more malleable than I'm comfortable with.) Then one day, my kids just beg to watch this movie. Now, I love the newer Muppet movie as well, simply titled The Muppets. My kids like that one enough to watch it every so often. But every time I tried to get them to watch this one, they burned out quickly. I don't know what changed, but we got a full family viewing out of the The Muppet Movie.
Now, while watching The Muppet Movie, I had the epiphany that The Blues Brothers and The Muppet Movie shared the same plot, structure, and tone. I mean, I instantly forgave The Muppet Movie. After all, making a kids' version of a phenomenon makes a ton of sense and the story really lends itself to The Muppets. But then, surprise surprise, The Muppet Movie came out first. How can I live in a world with this truth out there? See, The Blues Brothers is one of my be-all, end-all near perfect films. I adore that movie. It's kind of shameless. It's self-aware. It twists the notion of musicals on its head. And then I find out...that the Muppets did it first. I guess I shouldn't be that upset. After all, I watched The Muppet Movie before I watched The Blues Brothers. But there's something really charming of the very meta commentary happening in both films. Building off of the concept of The Muppet Show, the film just parades celebrities out in shameless cameos and that's the movie. Perhaps, in a nerd's perfect slice of nostalgia, it's actually even more adorable seeing the celebrities of yesteryear mugging for the camera next to these puppets. What must it have been like being Milton Berle, one of the infamous divas of stage and screen, playing apart from a puppet while telling cornball jokes?
I get what makes these movies appealing. But 1979 was a time where you could tell a story that was aimed for kids, but didn't necessarily have to feel childlike. I think it was when Pixar did the first Toy Story movie that there was a conscious decision to throw in adult jokes to allow parents to enjoy these movies as well. That's not what is really going on. The drive behind stuff like The Muppet Movie was to make everyone have a good time without necessarily having a core audience. It was about storytelling that was more universal, but just ensuring that the movie didn't cross too many lines. There's something a little rebellious and edgy about The Muppet Movie. It is a film that's stemmed out of counter-culture and acid. I don't know the rich history of Jim Henson, but the movie thrives in the fact that it is unpolished and rough. It's the garage band days of The Muppets. Kermit played a banjo and went to seedy bars to find work. Doc Hopper wanted Kermit to be complicit in the deaths of frogs everywhere. The band from The Muppets are straight up hanging out in an abandoned church. These moments aren't sanitized for the audience's sake. Rather, they embrace the fact that the '70s were almost about guerilla cinema.
As such, The Muppet Movie becomes a very specific kind of road movie, almost sharing more in common with Easy Rider or Bonnie and Clyde than Muppet Treasure Island. That may seem like a stretch, considering that the audiences for stuff like Easy Rider is very adult. But the movies are about harshness. The jokes are central to the piece, but they aren't written for children. I mean, there's a lot of Hari Krishna jokes in the movie. It was a popular joke at the time, but that wasn't exactly done for the kids. Maybe, in a way, I'm just defining who the Muppets were at the time. We associate the Muppets with the product of the Walt Disney company, smiling and having fun-loving adventures. Instead, The Muppets were devised so that Jim Henson and his buddies could show off their writing prowess. If Sesame Street was a safe place for kids to learn in fun ways, The Muppets were art for art's sake. I know that is me imbuing them with a sense of grandeur that may or may not be deserved. But The Muppets are part of Americana, for better or worse. And part of that Americana comes from the central motif of the film: finding the American Dream on the road.
Geez Louise, listen to me spoutin' off all this mumbo jumbo. But there is something very purely 1979 about the whole story. We were really built to believe that you could redefine yourself if you just pursued the dream. Kermit it playing the banjo in a swamp. He lacks ambition. "The Rainbow Connection", without actually being indirect characterization, has a sense of ennui to it. When he offers advice and directions to a man in the swamp, something kindles within him. He never had ambition, but this man opens to door to America. Given a set of tasks, Kermit is able to have a chance at success. He has to assemble a team of likeminded Muppets to traverse this land and sample what makes America great. He goes into dive bars. He eats at fancy restaurants. He visits a local fair. The movie climaxes in a ghost town in the Wild West, all with the resolution of the paradise of Hollywood. It's this journey of self-discovery which parallels the many elements of America. I mean, I just defined the road movie. But the road movie, for Kermit, isn't just about the journey. It is about the physical and cultural geography of this land.
He even has the crisis of faith moment, where he realizes that the American Dream might be a complete sham. It's the knowledge that people may depend on him, despite the fact that he made no promises along the way. But that might actually reveal the most earnest, if not a little naïve, element to Americana. The Muppets (and I keep hearing myself talk as if there's this great cultural significance that isn't there) band together, realize the common goal of success, and become honest-to-Goodness friends. And they do so all in the name of fighting Capitalism. Isn't that funny? A movie all about the American Dream that fights Capitalism pretty hard. That's what Doc Hopper represents. He's there for the sake of making a buck, not caring whose happiness he steps on. So this little group of hippies decide to show that the real American Dream isn't about the money of work. It's about seeing Orson Welles and making art for the rest of your life. It's about making puppets and telling jokes with your friends. Because the Muppets are successful. As much as they're a source of revenue for Disney nowadays, it was about telling stories with your buddies. And that's the message of the movie. It's a bunch of hippies sitting around a campfire, driving an old, beat-up Studebaker, while telling fun stories and jokes.
So there is a heavy message that probably wasn't intended. But I also think that it stems out of the notion that Jim Henson probably couldn't stop from being earnest and vulnerable. There's nothing preachy in the movie, shy of the evils of Doc Hopper's Corporate America. But it is a heartfelt message. Also, "Rainbow Connection" is still a bop.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.