5. The Muppets (2011)
In the case of The Muppets, I have exercised perhaps a little more objectivity.
For a middle ranking film, I don’t have a huge amount of good stuff to say. The gang have broken up, Piggy and Kermit seemed to have separated, and the beloved Muppet Theatre is about to be destroyed by an evil oil tycoon. Lo and behold a Muppets fanatic with his brother and girlfriend swoop in to rescue the gang and resurrect the apparently dead franchise. The blurb alone is indicative of an awful current trend in sequels and reboots (of which Disney is one of the main offenders) of attempting to attract audiences to a new movie with the promise of nostalgia trips whilst failing to establish the same tone as the original.
In this film, there is way too much focus on the human counterparts of the story; The Muppets should be the stars! Neglecting them in favour of human characters only works in the book adaptions where the Muppets are an intrinsic part of the universe. The humour has been toned down in a way that makes you suspect that all the big producers were terrified that a little left-field zaniness would frighten off those profit-promising audiences.
What annoyed me the most was the film’s implication that The Muppets needed saving, made worse by witnessing them being treated like dirt by the supporting characters throughout the movie.
One, they don’t need rescuing, Hollywood abandoned them!
Two, I know that muppet-bashing to some degree was necessary to the plot but it wasn’t as funny as it was intended to be.
However, what I can’t deny is that this movie did introduce The Muppets to swarms of new audiences – even our editor hopped on the Muppets train after watching this film (as an adult). After all my slagging, I have to admit that it is a genuine delight watching this with Joe; his infectious laughter spreading to me. In truth, isn’t this kind of experience exactly what The Muppets is all about?
4. The Muppet Movie (1979)
The first Muppets feature film following their 5-season TV run is an incredibly poignant and emotive piece, clearly coming from a place very close to Jim Henson’s heart. As The Muppets’ genesis tale, it all kicks off with Kermit’s dream for stardom being ignited by an unlikely encounter with a talent scout in his hometown swamp. A hilarious Dom Deluise catches Kermit singing whilst strumming away on his banjo (and this charming rendition of ‘The Rainbow Connection’ is truly an auspicious start to the new film franchise). This quaint opening sequence is very telling of the humble truth of Kermit’s/Jim Henson’s quest for fame, which The Muppet Movie is an allegory of.
Looking at the Jim Henson Pictures portfolio with the likes of ‘Sesame Street’, ‘Fraggle Rock’, ‘Bear in the Big Blue House’ and ‘The Storyteller’, you can see Jim’s sincere desire to bring happiness to the world as all aforementioned shows are educational, entertaining, humorous without being crass and vulgar, and all with exceptionally high production values. Thus, as an audience, we do believe that Kermit’s quest for fame in Hollywood is driven by an earnest dream to make millions of people happy, consolidating him as one of the most charming and beloved children’s personalities of all time.
In this current day and age when the supposed “Dream Factory” is full to the brim with vanity and greed, the continuing mission which Jim Henson began is a beacon of hope in the empty landscape of Tinsel Town, though it is worth mentioning that The Muppet Movie manages to avoid any major schmaltz, instead serving up several nods, jokes and cameos (from Steve Martin to Richard Pryor no less) to keep the adults tickled too.
This one certainly doesn’t pander to the children in the audience either, as it offers a rather terrifying storyline of a frogs legs fast food chain boss putting out a bounty on our Kermit! I actually consider this plot too menacing but I have buckets of respect for there being such a dramatic element to the production. It is also evident that the production team were still finding their feet in the transition to film, with later productions clearly showing that they had learned from their experience (with sinister edges being complimented by zany humour). It’s also undeniable that The Muppet Movie paved the way for the rest of the franchise nay Hollywood (in its entirety) with several puppetry milestones achieved in this movie alone.
This film will make you more than smile… it is genuinely inspiring.
3. Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
When we talk about the greatest comedy movies ever made, establishments such as the AFI toss about titles such as Some Like It Hot, and Airplane!, but much to our collective distress and shame, a film that is continually overlooked is Muppet Treasure Island.
Following the massive success of The Muppet Christmas Carol, Jim Henson Pictures continued the trend of adapting classic English Literature with this flick, and my God I wish they would return back to this style – I can actually remember my mam bringing home the VHS copy even though I was only about 3, and it breaks my heart to know that each new Muppets release since that fateful date was to be a disappointment in comparison.
As one of the more obscure Disney releases, Muppet Treasure Island has proved itself to be the cult movie of my generation – an office full of depressed, underpaid millennials can be instantly livened up by a cry of “I’ve got cabin fever!”, to which there will be an inevitable cacophony of returning cries of “I’ve got it too!”
Gone is the gooeyness which makes the weaker Muppet movies too sweet to stomach, but instead every opportunity is taken to pull out gag after gag. It rises above the crassness of most contemporary kids movies and is instead something wonderfully surreal, very much in the image of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’: silly enough for the children but smart enough to genuinely entertain adults – those who return to revisit this childhood favourite are rarely disappointed.
However, amongst the incredible Big Lipped Alligator moments and a score that absolutely slaps (seriously, it’s a sin that it’s not on iTunes) there is a heartfelt and even mature narrative that does plenty of justice to Robert Louis Stephenson’s original novel. By letting the story naturally play out, a wise coming-of-age narrative blossoms before our eyes: forge your own destiny beyond what people expect of you, but not without keeping your honour and mercy.
This one gets bonus points for being my generation’s introduction to the unforgettable Tim Curry and thus basically served as a gateway movie to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Excellent!
2. The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
If The Muppet Movie is the Reservoir Dogs of the Muppets franchise, then surely The Great Muppet Caper is the Pulp Fiction: smarter, wittier, greater in spectacle, and far less menacing. Gone are the dusty desert plains of California as The Muppets return to their British roots of an effortlessly more stylish London. More confident in themselves, Jim Henson Productions push the boat out with furious tap-dancing, bicycle stunts à la Paul Newman, synchronised swimming and a glorious motorbike crash. The result is sheer lunacy, guaranteed to have the tears rolling down your cheeks – the sight of my 26 year-old stoic housemate absolutely losing it over the reveal of the Fozzy Bear and Kermit of Frog as identical twins was one of the most reaffirming moments of my life.
This hilarity is achieved without the heavy-handed meta element you get in some of the other Muppet outings – there is still fourth-wall breaking but it is done without much ado and with perfect comic timing. In fact, much of the zany Muppets humour is really well off-set by the British surroundings. In the US-set movies, the surrounding human characters are often alarmed, shocked and even annoyed by the Muppets’ presence, which is of course played for gags, but it really doesn’t match with how ridiculously funny it is to see these colourful and often barking-mad creatures be met with nothing but unfazed courtesy and manners. Watching Diana Rigg make a job offer to an unrestrained Miss Piggy with supermodel delusions, and seeing John Cleese give restaurant recommendations to his house intruders is an absolute delight. Most importantly, there is no stunted or condescending break away scene where the morals of the story are explained to the audience. Instead, the story itself is the vehicle for The Muppets’ values: loyalty, friendship, love and doing the right thing.
An often overlooked film from the franchise as a whole it may be, but definitely one of the best it has remained.
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
This is it.
This is why you read this article in the first place… to acknowledge the universal truth that this is the pinnacle of Jim Henson Pictures’ output.
But not only is this the best outing of the zany Muppets to date, it is a triumph of film, a celebration of English Literature, and most importantly a steadfast testament to the innate goodness of the human spirit which, dare I say it, has inspired many of its viewers to be better people.
Even when sticking solely to its cinematic qualities, The Muppet Christmas Carol cannot be boxed up and labelled, boasting praise as the best adaption of “A Christmas Carol”; one of the best book adaptions in general; and being one of the best Christmas, Children’s, Family movies ever. Upon reflection, at face value it is shocking that a franchise as seemingly daft and silly as The Muppets has produced something so profound and serious, but when you delve into the highlights of the Jim Henson Pictures, it becomes quickly clear why The Muppet Christmas Carol was so successful – they know their audience.
They never insult the young children watching, committing to genuinely frightening and sad scenes but balancing them with comic relief of typical Muppet banter, creating the almost paradoxical hilarity of Michael Caine giving cinema its best performance of Ebenezer Scrooge alongside lines such as ‘Mother always told me, never eat singing food’. This is how the Muppets should be, excellent production values with a whole Muppet-verse Victorian London; original and unforgettable songs (further proving the Muppets’ accolade of singlehandedly keeping the musical genre alive), and spectacular feats of puppetry.
However, the film’s greatest achievement is its honest and sincere celebration of the true meaning of Christmas, peace and goodwill to all men on Earth, avoiding the sanctimonious preaching and thinly-veiled consumerism of some of its contemporaries.
You can feel that everyone involved in the production truly believed in Dickens’ message that Christmas can reach into the hardest of hearts and flood it with compassion, and consequently they have produced a holiday film of It’s a Wonderful Life calibre.
During the time I’ve taken to stand back to reflect upon this movie, I can’t help but be moved that the film was in memoriam of Jim himself, and that it did in fact achieve his dream of making millions of people happy.
But what do you think? Surely there’s no better top spot filler than The Muppet Christmas Carol? But please do let us know your favourites in the comments below!
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