Summer movies usually demand a great suspension of disbelief. They’re heavy on special effects and deal with outlandish situations, whether superheroes and sci-fi or wacky gross-out extreme comedy.
There is, perhaps, no greater suspension of disbelief than a green felt frog somehow convincing you of its dreams.
The Muppets have been around since 1955 and have survived through several TV series and films, web shorts, record albums, books, DVDs, comic books, action figures, plush toys, and a theme park attraction. In 1979’s The Muppet Movie, the Muppets realized their full potential. The Muppet Movie allowed Jim Henson’s unique blend of emotional punch, endearing characters, and ludicrous humor to find its greatest expression.
It’s nothing if not ambitious. We open with the Muppets in a movie theater, preparing to watch the flick they’ve just completed about their own origins. In other words, a classic film-within-a-film. Right off the bat, we know we’re not dealing with your typical kids movie.
Kermit T. Frog (Henson) is an amphibian with a simple dream: To entertain. He heads off to Hollywood in pursuit of that dream. Along the way, he meets all of the classic Muppet characters: Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz), the frustrated comedian whose loyalty to Kermit is unstoppable; Gonzo the Great (Dave Golez), a crazy daredevil always searching for his next thrill; and of course Miss Piggy (Oz again), an irrepressible diva with an unrequited love for Kermit.
As they make their way to California, the group is menaced by Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), the crazy owner of a restaurant chain specializing in frog’s legs. He wants Kermit for obvious reasons. As you might expect, Kermit and the gang defeat Doc Hopper, they make it to Hollywood, and Orson Welles (as Lew Lord, a powerful studio exec) orders his secretary to “draw up the standard rich and famous contract for Kermit and his friends.” Then we get a musical finale in which the Muppets start to film a film about their lives, within a film about their lives that’s presented as a film they filmed about their lives. It’s a film within a film within a film. Good grief, a running gag.
The Muppet Movie gave these googly-eyed felt creations a soul. It’s there in the opening moments, that unforgettable long pan downward from the clouds to Kermit on a log, plucking out the opening notes to “Rainbow Connection” on his banjo. Who can see that and not immediately identify with Kermit, holding an impossible dream close to his little froggie heart?
In that moment, we know we’re dealing with something special. We’ll get the Muppet zaniness we’ve come to expect, but there’s a (dare I say it?) reality that arises from moving the Muppet action outside a soundstage. That reality allows The Muppet Movie to get away with plenty of savvy moviemaking tricks. Kermit talks straight to the camera; stars waltz onto the screen in cameos where their true identities are just barely concealed. There’s a self-awareness, and enough of a self-awareness to realize that there’s self-awareness. That’s what gets the Muppets around the bend past irony and toward an astonishing warmth. That warmth makes it possible to slow the plot to a magical stillness with a song in the desert, where Gonzo explains, “I’m going to go back there someday.”
That’s probably my favorite moment in the movie, although “Rainbow Connection” is of course classic. I like the Gonzo sequence better because it’s such a perfect moment of revealing character; there’s a boldness to it, that they would cease all the action just to let this weird creature share his heart. Find me any movie, family flick or otherwise, that values its characters so much that it will slow itself down just to let you get to know one of them better.
It’s Henson and his Muppet crew at the peak of their powers. Gonzo the Great could have spent the entire run of the Muppets being a one-joke castoff, the puppet equivalent of Kramer from Seinfeld. Instead, we actually learn what this strange being is about. We get to know him, and we start to truly care about him.
I always get a warm fuzzy when Kermit sings about how his dream is something that he’s supposed to be. We should all be so lucky to experience that feeling, whether it comes when you find what you’re meant to spend your life doing, or when you meet the person you’re meant to spend your life with. It’s a certainty of purpose, an absolute belief in the power of dreams to make us all better people…or frogs, or pigs, or whatever Gonzo is. It’s a special feeling, and it’s special that The Muppet Movie can help us feel it.