The Movie Sleuth Originals: Keep Believing, Keep Pretending: ‘The Muppet Movie’ (1979) at Forty

The Muppets were meta before it was cool.

Jim Henson’s marvelously zany, irreverent, monstrously memorable cast of puppets – developed from primitive hand-and-rod and live-hand puppets and incorporating full-body puppet characters as well as innovative designs Henson created as technology shifted over time – had been making people laugh worldwide with their ensemble sketch comedy, The Muppet Show, since the mid-1970s. Hapless straight-man Kermit the Frog (Henson) and his bizarre cabaret of creatures would become a main legacy for the creative ingénue, so it was inevitable that the franchise would spawn a feature film. And so it did, in 1979 – produced by Henson and directed by James Frawley, boasting a script by Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns – a straightforward story framed as the Muppets themselves sitting down to a screening in a movie theatre.

It’s a very simple story, at its heart; Kermit is a good-hearted amphibian, strumming a banjo and singing songs about rainbows in the middle of the swamp when he realizes he could be making it big in Hollywood, so he sets out to find his way to California, meeting new friends along the way who help him get there. He is pursued for his talents by the greedy Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who is determined to have a singing, dancing frog in his restaurant commercials – but Kermit is, understandably, reluctant to shill for an eatery whose specialty is fried frogs’ legs. The stakes are almost ridiculously low, in reality, but from the Muppets’ perspective, anything that keeps a person (or a frog, or a bear, or a ….whatever Gonzo is) from achieving their dreams is a major threat. 

And it is the pensive, beautiful way the Muppets have of meandering from fun buddy road movie, to romantic comedy, to stage musical and back again that makes The Muppet Movie so special, even after forty years. It evokes every feeling the cinema can provide, from joy and laughter to wistful tears – all the while reminding us that, despite our differences, we all have something in our lives that we want more than anything, and sometimes the deepest connections we find in life can come from the most peculiar, and most seemingly random, of situations. Kermit even points out (to himself, no less) that it is because they all believe in the dream that they have been able to stick together and weather the odds to make it to Hollywood. The reality of the Muppets is an optimistic one, rose-tinted to a fault, and even at its boldest, their humor is never spiteful or crass. Even the most cynical or sarcastic of Muppet characters – or, indeed, the most destructive (did somebody say “BOOM”?!) – are not malicious; they just want to have a good time, and spread their own (oft manic) happiness with the rest of the world.

And share it they do, with a who’s-who in 1970s celebrity cameos from Albert Finney, Madeline Kahn and Steve Martin to Mel Brooks, Carol Kane, Telly Savalas, and even Orson Welles. The Muppet Movie was Edgar Bergen’s final film credit before his death in 1978; fittingly, as he had been a favorite and early inspiration for young Jim Henson in the 1950s, closing the circle with a small, but touching, moment in a film full of wonderful beats. The absurdity of singing frogs, talking bears, and kung-fu proficient pig prima donnas coexisting alongside the biggest names in Hollywood of the time only adds to the fantasy – nobody bats an eye as Kermit rides a bicycle in the middle of the street. 

Forty years later, The Muppets endure – because they represent a wonderful wildness, a weirdness that celebrates diversity, nostalgia, silliness, and love. Because the entire premise of The Muppet Movie is the story of how a ragtag bunch of misfits got together, each of them with a dream and a song, and found a family amongst each other. Some of the jokes may seem dated, and yes, there is a lot about the old Muppet films that definitely put them in specific places in their strange floating timeline. But ultimately, The Muppet Movie and its sequels work because the Muppets themselves are not merely characters, but concepts – and every archetype has its place in their wacky world.

Our current entertainment climate often seems to have outgrown such joyful simplicity, with its violence and fast-paced superhero action, its fancy CG-effects and wry, media-savvy commentary on politics and self-parody. It would be easy to say that the Muppets don’t really have a place in the modern world; indeed, the attempts Disney has made within the past decade-and-a-half have proven a lackluster series of offerings that try to keep the franchise relevant, and yielding disappointing audience turnouts and sad critical reviews. But the Muppets are, at their core, Jim Henson’s heart and mind. Without him, they are only a spiritual successor to what made them special forty years ago – what Disney has failed to recognize is that, without that very difficult balance between silliness and sentiment, it doesn’t matter how modern you try to make the Muppets. 

They will never quite be what we grew up with, but we can still look back on our memories with them and find laughter and love – right where we did when we were younger. Theaters hosting the fortieth anniversary screenings of The Muppet Movie in July may not have been selling out, but those who came and sang softly along to “The Rainbow Connection” and mouthed their favorite lines of dialogue did so because they found meaning in what the Muppets stand for, and were eager to share it with anyone else who cared about it.

In The Muppet Movie, Gonzo sings: “There’s not a word yet, for old friends who just met.” And as we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the first Muppet Movie, introducing a new generation to our dear old favorites, and finding new ways of appreciating the legacy of the man who made them come alive so beautifully, we come to understand that what Gonzo is really talking about in “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” is not a place – but a time. It is childhood, it is the land of dreams, and it is hope. And someday, we’ll all find it.

You’ve guessed it: The lovers, the dreamers, and you.

-Dana Culling