Beyond the innovations in puppetry and special effects that Jim Henson has brought to Hollywood, his work has had a special personal impact on people from a range of generations, myself included. I was enthralled by the antics of Bert & Ernie who made counting and the alphabet fun; teenage me was beguiled by David Bowie’s infamous bulge in the super-80s electro-pop masterpiece of Labyrinth; and the actual Muppet films themselves have the power to turn my family of 6 surly adult children into a full on Broadway cast, jazz hands and all. I was raised on The Muppets, so in my eyes I have the authoritative opinion.
Funnily enough, this has proven to be a difficult article to complete, with this now being the third request from our editor to attempt this piece. I’ve been trying to be objective, but in light of Jim Henson Pictures’ new found infamy with the sugar snorting, silly-string-jizzing antics of The Happytime Murders, I feel I have nothing to lose in tossing out my controversial Muppet opinions. The latest effort of Brian Henson’s Razzie-winning cynical satire, and the last failed ‘Muppets’ TV series consolidates the basic truth that Americans don’t deserve The Muppets. Seeing the cornerstone of my childhood kicked about and unappreciated boils my blood. So, whilst possessed by the spirit of an enraged Lord Grade, and with the equal ferocity of when I rip the wax-strip from my underarm, I dive into this piece with well documented evidence for my shocking prejudices.
Author’s note: all films listed are based on cinematic release only (sorry The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz).
8. The Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
This is the exact kind of movie that makes you despise Disney’s monopolisation of Hollywood and international media.
After the massive success of The Muppets (2011), it was of course time to cash in on the hype with a sequel. The problem with this was not necessarily Disney’s involvement in the continuation of the franchise, but more how The Muppets Most Wanted is the laziest and sloppiest attempt at film-making I’ve ever seen: they make the plot up as they go along. The World’s Most Dangerous Frog, Constantine, swaps places with our beloved Kermit as The Muppets set off on their comeback world tour, orchestrated by an evil Ricky Gervais who is in cahoots with Constantine in a plot to steal the English crown jewels and frame the Muppets for the crime. It’s a silly enough idea, but the execution stinks, resulting in an instantly forgettable movie.
With nowhere near enough focus on The Muppets themselves, the audience’s attention is directed towards new characters, a risky move for a newly re-established franchise, especially as it was the dynamic between the central Muppet characters that made them such a success in the first place. Even worse, whilst The Muppets upheld traditional puppetry and special effects, Disney couldn’t resist the temptation of CGI in the sequel. Honestly, I’m seething… it looked as convincing as Gerry Anderson’s wooden puppets.
There is an attempt to cover up the lack of strong plot and puppetry betrayal with hark backs to The Muppet Show, but the distinct lack of variety and vaudeville routines does not justify these empty nostalgia trips and the vapid “celebrity” cameos. Once was more than enough for me. I won’t be revisiting The Muppets Most Wanted any time soon, and no wonder the franchise came to a resounding stop at this point. You could even put the blame for The Happytime Murders firmly on the shoulders of this entry.
7. Muppets from Space (1999)
One reason I’ve avoided writing this particular piece for so long is because I knew it would hurt. I’m so sorry Muppets From Space, I love you but I can’t justify putting you at a higher spot than second from worst.
After two book adaptions in the musical tradition, Jim Henson Pictures took a rather odd turn in deciding to focus on Gonzo’s origins story – and apparently, he’s from outer space! I remember being over the moon when this movie came out, and to this day it is the only Muppets feature that I have seen in the cinema. It does hold a special place in my heart beyond this shallow nostalgia: Gonzo has always been my favourite out The Muppets as I related to his natural weirdness – my mam always affectionately referred to me as her little weirdo.
At times people weren’t always very kind to me or my idiosyncrasies which can really make you feel like you don’t fit in, but I always eventually realised that the people who mattered still loved me, and this is Gonzo’s story in this movie: feeling terribly out of place in the world, pinning his hopes on a long-lost family from space, and after nearly getting his brain sucked out he finally realises The Muppets were his family all along.
However, my perspective has been massively distorted by rose-tinted glasses (and the devastating panache of Pepe the King Prawn) and compared to other productions it does, I must reluctantly admit, fall flat.
Clearly, there was a massive drop in production value after Muppet Treasure Island (cramped sets, lacklustre production designs, mediocre star appearances and underwhelming location shoots). Despite a popping soundtrack, it was still rather disappointing to be deprived of original Muppet music which was always an integral part of the franchise. Oddly enough, unlike the other lower ranking movies in this list, the imbalance between humour and drama is caused by too much wackiness and not a powerful enough plot (or a dramatic plot not delivered effectively). Muppets From Space benefits from nostalgia but it won’t impress newcomers, landing it at number 7 on this list.
6. The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
Jesus Christ, New York! What the hell did The Muppets ever do to you!?
Despite ‘Sesame Street’ being a beloved institution of the city, The Muppets Takes Manhattan documents the relentless abuse of the gang at the hands of the Big Apple. Apparently disappointed by the revenue of The Great Muppet Caper, the decision was made to tone down the wackiness, offering audiences a much more serious, character driven piece; but man it’s depressing!
With wide-eyed innocence and a dose of good old-fashioned American Dream ambition, our puppet friends set out to make it big on Broadway. Instead, they are faced with rejection, underemployment, scams and lethal traffic. Is this Millenial the Musical?
The Muppets are no stranger to dark content which is something that should be respected in children’s entertainers, but they always taught their best lessons with a backdrop of madcap humour so that any harshness can be soothed by the power of laughter. The Muppets Take Manhattan does crack some very smart gags but the film’s balance isn’t quite right, resulting in something resoundingly humdrum and mediocre. Some wild and unrestrained comedy wouldn’t have gone amiss as seen in the more promising glimmers of the film including Joan Rivers’ hilarious cameo. I also can’t ignore the few iconic Muppet moments the movie did have to offer including the debut of ‘Muppet Babies’ and even Kermit and Piggy tying the knot!
This isn’t as bad as the low ranking may indicate, which is perhaps the biggest compliment one could offer the franchise overall.