The Original Muppet Movie Trilogy Review

I don’t judge anyone who hates the Muppets. I don’t claim derisively that ‘they don’t get it’, nor do I try to convert the uninitiated or the haters.

You are either a Muppet fan or not… I am. If I wasn’t this review wouldn’t exist.

The Muppet Movie 1979

An inspired combination of slapstick, music, vaudeville and charm, The Muppet Movie takes all the now familiar characters away from the Muppet Theatre where humans were the minority, and plonks them right among the (almost) real world.

We meet Kermit alone in his swamp singing beautifully to himself, and after a chance meeting with the frog, a crocodile and a movie agent – yes it’s that kind of film – Kermit is inspired to try to forge his own path in showbusiness.

Along his journey to Hollywood he meets aspiring stand up comedian Fozzie, amateur stunt man Gonzo and a group of zany musos known as The Electric Mayhem. He also finds that romantic sparks fly when he meets a diva pig with delusions of grandeur.

That’s the core part of the initial Muppet group identified, the slightly awry element arrives in the form of a fat, sweaty guy in a white suit named Doc Hopper, who just happens to sell frog’s legs as cuisine. He takes a shine to Kermit’s pins and decides that he simply must have them to promote his wares, whether Kermit agrees or not.

The remainder of the film is essentially an extended chase sequence as Kermit and the gang hightail it towards Hollywood with Doc Hopper and his toadying (no pun intended) assistant close behind.

And this to me is the problem with the initial Muppet Movie, the best parts are the simple times, Kermit sitting on the log singing Rainbow Connection without a care in the world, the awkward but undeniable chemistry between pig and frog, the stoner-ish hep dialogue between the members of the Electric Mayhem, the stand-up bear who is terrible at stand up.

They kinda lost me when the film veered into ‘eating the primary character’s legs’ territory. They definitely lost my four year old in the looming torture scene, and nearly killed the poor boy when the Frog assassin clad all in black and looking decidedly evil showed up. (I really didn’t remember these things from my previous viewings.)

Despite these depressing and out of place sequences there is still a lot to love about the first Muppet Movie, the constant breaking of the fourth wall is already obvious, the general funkiness of the Electric Mayhem and the timelessness of Kermit’s tunes, the cheesy jokes that are so bad that you can’t help but smile – especially when delivered with such innocence and charm by a handpuppet… the inclusion of several big name cameos, none of whom for a moment let on that they are conversing with a sock, yet some of whom still manage to out-ham the very same talking puppets.

The Muppet Movie finds a bunch of frogs, pigs, bears and whatevers coming to terms with their own existence, growing into their own skin and fur. Over the years some peripheral characters became more central, and others stepped back to spout occasional quips when required.

Most of all this film showed that there was entertainment value to be found in these talking socks, and that people of all ages could enjoy their shenanigans guilt free.

Final Rating – 7 / 10. ‘Mature thematic elements’ aside, this is a fine intro to the Muppetational world.

The Great Muppet Caper 1981

There still hasn’t been a truly Great Muppet film. In my opinion this one comes close. It should be no surprise to learn that the director of the film is Mr Muppet himself, Jim Henson.

The filmmakers wisely scrapped any links to the conclusion of the first film in favour of a fresh story using the same characters.

In this case Kermit, Gonzo and Fozzie Bear all work for the same newspaper. They head to the UK to follow up on a major jewel heist and almost instantly become embroiled in an elaborate series of crimes involving Charles Grodin. This is heightened when both Grodin and Kermit start to vie for the porky shrill voiced diva herself Mariah Carey… um I mean Miss Piggy.

Caper has better, more elaborate musical numbers, though not necessarily better songs. The jokes are more frequent and funnier, especially because by this time the characters are better defined so we know already how they will react to certain situations.

There are a couple of still famous scenes where the Muppets take a ride through a park on a sunny day, and a huge underwater song in a pool with Piggy is of course the star of the show, but the enjoyment is derived once again from the rapid fire jokes delivered by likable characters, and the fact that this time the friction and danger is in the form of imprisonment, not necessarily painful death and dismemberment.

Final Rating 8 / 10. I like all the Muppet movies, even the bad ones. This is the one I most wholeheartedly recommend.

The Muppets take Manhattan 1984

After getting the formula about right with The Great Muppet Caper, the series takes a strange turn with ‘Manhattan’ only a few years later. Veteran Muppet Frank Oz takes the helm from Jim Henson and makes a few minor but noticeable changes. Gone are the nods and winks to the audience for the most part, and the film is far more plot based and linear than the slapstick shenanigans of the first film.

Kermit and the gang are finishing college and pondering their futures, which will very likely result in them all moving on separately and losing touch. However Kermit boldly concocts a plan that will see the gang remain together, by heading en masse to Manhattan to launch a massive stage musical called Manhattan Melodies, with all the Muppets as performers or stage hands.

Unfortunately after just a few short days, no success and low on funds, the various characters are forced to disperse and forge their own future, with the promise from Kermit to summon them all if/when the musical gets greenlit. Kermit takes a job in a diner and everyone goes their separate ways.

In many ways this is a more depressing film than the first two – even with the frog killing theme – for long periods of time the characters mope and ponder a future alone, and it seems that the Muppets will never again operate in unison. Of course this isn’t how the film ends, but even in a puppet movie you don’t need to be kept sad for over half the running time.

The jokes are less frequent and the tone less tongue in cheek. The cameos are still plentiful but are more ‘look here’s the famous cameo’ than in other films. The inclusion of the Muppet Babies in a thinly veiled promo for the spin-off is as entertaining as it is blatant, and in some ways is a minor indictment on the dull tone of the rest of the film that it can be upstaged by a flashback.

There is another attempt at a grand sequence with Piggy taking a skate through the park, but it is far less successful than either of the sequences from Caper, and the big finale was an apt but desperate ending to proceedings.

Final Rating – 6.5 / 10. I by no means am saying steer clear of Manhattan, but after the Muppet Movie got the ball rolling and Caper took such a great leap forward, it is disappointing that the franchise would take a step back like this.

Trilogy Summary: In 1984 I was 10, and probably smack dab in the Muppet target demographic. Strangely while I have outgrown many other things since then I stubbornly insist that The Muppets are worthy of my time. I have watched every Muppet related film since then: A Christmas Carol,Treasure Island, Muppets from Space, even the made for TV Muppet Wizard of Oz and a couple of holiday/Christmas specials.

I eagerly await the Jason Segal release and just hope that he feels the same way I do. The Muppets are essentially bad comedians that are so unfunny and hammy that you laugh anyway. The Great Muppet Caper got that about right, Muppets from Space was close for a while and both Treasure Island and Christmas Carol had their moments.

All I ask is that he stand back and let the characters do the work. By now we each know how Kermit, Gonzo, Pepe the Prawn (“I am not a shrimp. I AM A KING PRAWN!”) will react to any given situation, half the fun is actually realising a moment before they do. We don’t want a hip-hop talking Kermit or a suddenly funky Fozzie.

Don’t try to make things more ‘2011’. Bring back the talking socks we fell in love with as kids, leave the clever movie references and ‘so hot right now’ songs to bad animated films.

They are who they are. Bad, ill-prepared comedians, arrogant and aloof swine and well meaning amphibians, that’s what makes them timeless and hilarious.

Now bring it on!

About OGR

While I try to throw a joke or two into proceedings when I can all of the opinions presented in my reviews are genuine. I don't expect that all will agree with my thoughts at all times nor would it be any fun if you did, so don't be shy in telling me where you think I went wrong... and hopefully if you think I got it right for once. Don't be shy, half the fun is in the conversation after the movie.
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