With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.
It’s a question that pops up every five or 10 years for casual fans of Jim Henson’s delightful creations The Muppets: Where did they go? The actual answer is almost always that they’re still around, be it in web videos, commercials, or even a live concert. But at the moment, there are no Muppet movies publicly known to be in production, preproduction, or even announcement stages. This is something of a surprise, given the big push their corporate owners at Disney gave them between 2011 and 2016, but maybe it shouldn’t be; all told, not that many Henson-originated projects tend to immediately connect with audiences and produce the non-Kermit type of green.
The Muppets themselves are beloved, of course, and The Muppet Show and the original Muppet Movie were wildly successful. But while subsequent Muppet movies have been more broadly popular than Kermit-free productions like cult favorites The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth or decidedly non-cult non-favorites like The Ghost Of Faffner Hall, by today’s franchising standards the eight theatrically released Muppet movies are a series of fits and starts.
Maybe part of the problem is that its start was so strong: It’s unlikely that there will ever be a Muppet movie as great as The Muppet Movie, which hit theaters in 1979 in the midst of The Muppet Show’s five-season run. A kinda-sorta origin-story/prequel to The Muppet Show, it follows Kermit The Frog’s journey from playing banjo alone in a swamp to taking Hollywood by storm with a gaggle of new friends (in the parlance of a later movie: “dogs and bears and chickens and things”), while pursued by maniacal fast food entrepreneur Doc Hopper (Charles Durning). Hopper insists that Kermit must serve as an advertising pitchman for his fried frog legs business—or die.
It seems like grim stuff, but the movie undercuts Hopper’s very real menace with self-awareness—a series of jokes, frames, and plot turns that are designed to remind the audience that this is a movie, not the “real” thing. It’s a natural extension of The Muppet Show, which spent plenty of time behind the curtain of the characters’ variety show, and produced plenty of sketches and songs where half the joke was that they were being produced at all. The movie version, directed by James Frawley from a script credited to Muppet Show writers Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns, peeks behind the curtain plenty of times, often for laughs, as when Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem catch up with Kermit and Fozzie’s backstory by reading the movie’s script up to this point.
But the metatexual elements of The Muppet Movie go beyond gags and winks. The ending of the movie is particularly trippy, especially for younger viewers. After scaring off Doc Hopper and finally receiving their Hollywood movie deal, the Muppets recreate the events of the movie we’ve just watched on a soundstage with fake-looking sets and props. But the flimsy sets collapse, ripping a hole in the ceiling, from which descends an enormous rainbow, prompting a warehouse’s worth of Muppets to reprise Kermit’s opening song, “The Rainbow Connection”—before the movie pulls back to the screening room where The Muppet Movie actually began, with all the Muppets gathered to watch The Muppet Movie. Some of this is funny, but it’s also strangely moving to see these felt characters grappling with so many levels of artifice—and attempting to find the genuine emotion in a patently “fake” enterprise. Even younger viewers are left to decide for themselves how much of this movie is real, and how far imagination can take them.
Neither The Great Muppet Caper nor The Muppets Take Manhattan are as aggressively meta as The Muppet Movie. Caper makes plenty of references to its status as a made-up story, but they’re stacked up front in a credits sequence (with a few more jokes sprinkled throughout), while Manhattan is largely quite earnest about its placement of the Muppets in the real world, as college graduates once again hoping to make it in show business. (The main difference is that they’re aiming for an east-coast Broadway debut, rather than a Hollywood berth.) The most reality-bending bit in Muppets Take Manhattan is a wedding between Kermit and Piggy that may or may not be legally binding—a fan debate later taken up on screen in 2011’s The Muppets.
If anything, the more outlandish Caper has stronger roots in the “real” world (or at least the “real” movie world) than either Manhattan or the original, because it has the largest parts for human actors, including a sublimely weird Charles Grodin as the leader of a nefarious gang of jewel thieves. Though some of the human throngs weigh the movie down—an Esther Williams-style dream sequence is lavish, but mostly just sends real swimmers/dancers swirling around Miss Piggy to no real practical or comic end—Caper is one of the funniest outings, from its running gags (Kermit and Fozzie claim to be twin brothers) to its zany melee of a climax. Manhattan has many inspired sequences, like one featuring rats creatively working in a kitchen over 20 years before Ratatouille, and another teaming Miss Piggy with Joan Rivers at a department store makeup counter, but after the adventurousness of Caper another put-on-a-show story feels a little like regression.
Maybe that’s why after The Muppets Take Manhattan, the creative team moved on to more ambitious projects. Henson worked on Labyrinth, as well as various TV material, and Frank Oz parlayed his feature debut into a gig adapting Little Shop Of Horrors back to movie screens, which led to more non-Muppet movies, and so on. Then Henson died unexpectedly in 1990, leaving fans worldwide in mourning.
Yet not long after Henson’s death, the Muppets were back on movie screens—perhaps out of a desire to reassure their audience that Kermit and company would not disband. There were more Muppet movies released in the ’90s than any other decade of their existence so far, mostly focusing on retellings of classic stories (the kinds that Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny might take a shot at in shorts or TV specials), with an odd movie out at the end of the decade.
Henson’s son Brian directed both of the storybook Muppet movies, 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island, doing an admirable job with material that, ironic given their classic-lit pedigrees, hardly anyone would consider top-tier Muppet stuff. Christmas Carol fares better; it’s a ridiculously durable a piece of storytelling, and if the movie gives unprecedented attention to a human performance in a Muppet movie, at least it’s Michael Caine doing a damn good Ebenezer Scrooge (even the sourest-spirited Muppets—Statler, Waldorf, Uncle Deadly—are too funny, too mirthful even in their bad attitudes, to make sense in the role). It does, however, create a strange vacuum in actual Muppet performances.
In both Christmas Carol and Treasure Island, the Muppet screen time that would typically go to Kermit, Piggy, and Fozzie is reallocated to Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat. In Christmas Carol, Gonzo makes an amusing stand-in for Charles Dickens as narrator, even if the antics feel more out of place. This tactic is more of a problem in Treasure Island, where Gonzo and Rizzo are just sidekicks to a fairly dull non-Muppet version of Jim Hawkins. In general, these two movies’ avoidance of actually using Kermit as a lead character is theoretically refreshing—he’s the lead in the first three movies, and there are plenty of other Muppets who can take the spotlight—but in practice leaves the movies feeling centerless, as Gonzo and Rizzo hang out on the sidelines and react to a bunch of humans (10 minutes or so into Muppet Treasure Island, my 2-year-old looked over to me suddenly and said “Kermit?!” Her full question was clear: “You said we were going to watch a Muppet movie, so where the hell is Kermit, goddammit?!”). But both movies still have plenty to recommend them, especially in their impressive physical production, featuring wonderfully inventive puppet work tailored to these specific stories. The puppetry is often more engaging than the thin overlay of jokes scribbled in the margins of famous books.
Stepping back from literary adaptation, 1999’s Muppets From Space should be a back-to-basics move; it’s set in contemporary times, with the Muppets playing themselves and all living together in a single house (as all reasonable people should have always pictured). It’s also the first Muppet movie to fully benefit from characters created for the short-lived Muppet Show revival Muppets Tonight, including Bobo The Bear and Pepe The Prawn (both performed by the gifted Bill Barretta). Doubtless some older, crankier Muppet fans grumbled over these characters gaining membership to the exclusive club (I don’t know that this is the case but it’s hard not to picture a bunch of jaded former fans derisively referring to them as “NuMuppets” or something), but the new characters keep the Muppets from stagnating.
That said, Muppets From Space doesn’t quite do the job as the rare just-plain-Muppets theatrical film. Gonzo again takes center stage, and while he’s more interesting as a morose outsider (harkening back to his original incarnation on the TV show) than a generic wisecracker, neither version is as much fun as the weirdo daredevil of later Muppet Show and earlier films. Muppets From Space has a lot of funny gigs and a gently cosmic trippiness (interpreted a bit too often as “play funk songs people know from weddings”), and it’s refreshing to see the Muppets playing themselves. But when it goes slack, it feels like just another cute kid flick.
Following the box-office failure of Muppets From Space, the Muppets took their biggest break yet from movie screens. They wouldn’t return to theaters for another 12 years, and after they’d been properly sold to Disney (an earlier deal was scotched following Henson’s death). Disney eventually recruited Muppet superfan Jason Segel to work on a new film, which he co-wrote with Nicholas Stoller for James Bobin to direct. He also co-starred in the film with Amy Adams and as many Muppets as possible.
The resulting sorta-reboot The Muppets engages more directly with The Muppet Show than any of the Henson-affiliated films; even The Muppet Movie, made at the height of the show’s popularity, never gets them on stage at the Muppet Theater. It’s also clear from the film that Segel considers the Muppets part of a very specific cultural context—his late ’70s/early ’80s coming-of-age. As such, he helps write dialogue about how the Muppets “haven’t put on a show together in years,” trying for a knowing fan’s wink even as he contradicts the existence of several TV movies and specials, seemingly because they don’t fit in with his particular nostalgia. Segel and Stoller want so badly to pay tribute to their preferred version of the Muppets that their major new character is a Mary Sue-ish creation: Walter, an obsessive Muppets fan who instantly wins the love and respect of all the old characters by getting them back together again. (Here the movie also bears the marks of production tinkering; there’s a bizarre lack of clarity over whether Walter and Segel’s human character Gary are supposed to be brothers or best friends.)
As myopic as the movie’s view of the Muppets can be, it also lends a poignancy to the characters’ meta leanings, moreso than perhaps any Muppet movie since the first one. Many fans did feel a sense of loss when Jim Henson stopped performing Kermit, and it’s fair enough to say that the Muppet TV movies of the ’00s are less wonderful than the first three theatrical features. The Muppets, for all its seeming behind-the-scenes fussiness, does actually touch those early classics: Joke for joke, the movie is very funny, and it’s full of wonderful little touches, like the expressiveness of Peter Linz’s physical performance as Walter, the way Amy Adams keeps adding touches of overemphatic melisma to her solo singing, and the cameos from any number of Muppet obscurities.
The revival also brings Bret McKenzie into the fold to assume the mantle of—brace for possible heresy—the Muppets’ best-ever in-house songwriter. The song score of The Muppet Movie is quite good, and the other sequels have some good tunes among them, but I daresay the songs of The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted are, collectively, even better: catchier, funnier, more consistent, and featuring enough of McKenzie’s Flight Of The Conchords style to distinguish them from an old Paul Williams number.
Muppets Most Wanted, made with Bobin and Stoller but not Segel, isn’t as cathartic an emotional experience as its predecessor, and in fact gently kids its predecessor’s more sentimental leanings and fan-friendly structure. When it looks like Walter, a supporting character this time around, may quit the Muppets, one of the others complains that they just spent a whole movie getting him to join the Muppets; Lew Zealand, meanwhile, offers an incredulous “you can quit the Muppets?!” making the hilarious implication that the boomerang-fish guy has only stayed with this motley crew out of a sense of grim requirement.
It’s a funny joke in a funny scene, and Muppets Most Wanted may be the funniest Muppet movie since Great Muppet Caper, which it vaguely emulates by situating itself in Europe and involving a criminal plot. Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), in cahoots with the master thief Constantine, convinces the Muppets to embark on a hasty tour of Europe, which Dominic and Constantine use as cover for a series of high-profile thefts. They’re able to do this because Constantine is a frog who happens to look exactly like Kermit; after he breaks out of the Siberian Gulag, he switches places with poor Kermit, who gets thrown back in prison at the mercy of head guard Nadya (Tina Fey). It’s all very silly, and largely delightful, mixing the old (Muppets going nuts without Kermit to rein them in), the semi-new (more McKenzie songs, all winners), and the actually-new (Matt Vogel, who has since taken over Kermit-performing duties from Steve Whitmire, plays the disdainful Constantine).
Muppets Most Wanted also didn’t do particularly well at the box office, leaving the series stranded again, waiting for another reboot. One could posit that the Muppets, like Peanuts before them, simply aren’t an ideal fit for movies, and are better-suited to the original medium of television. The Muppet Show and Muppets Tonight lend credence to that notion; the underappreciated but still disappointing recent revival (also just called The Muppets), less so. To be sure, Muppet-related content will probably continue to emerge, whether it’s in the form of YouTube videos, one-off performances, improvised interviews, or another TV series (maybe a Disney streaming service could see fit to produce something like the wildly ambitious but short-lived Jim Henson Hour). The conceit built up from The Muppet Show is that this is a group of enthusiastic performers, not specifically movie stars, with sometimes limited skill sets (poorly conceived stunts, musty stand-up comedy, boomerang fish) better-suited to television, vaudeville, or perhaps low-rent carnival sideshows.
Yet there is value in putting the Muppets on film and letting them run wild and make jokes about what it even means to make a movie. Though these self-referential qualities have become more common in family-friendly entertainment, so has franchise-building, as terrific movies like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and The Incredibles become potential series padded with mythology and backstory. Though the Muppets series has eight entries (“I don’t mean to be a stickler,” Bunsen Honeydew interjects during Muppets Most Wanted’s sequel-goofing opening number, “but this is the seventh sequel to our original motion picture”), they reduce any real continuity to references and in-jokes. Through their many phases, the Muppet movies offer so many asides, fourth-wall breaks, and whimsy that they become almost interactive, especially with their younger audiences—an amusing ongoing conversation about the enchanting fakeness of show business, graced with some true technical marvels (see also: Muppets riding bikes like it’s no big thing). Jim Henson prized a warm, inclusive application of creativity, and that’s the world that the best Muppet pictures depict: one where life is like a movie and you can write your own ending.
1. The Muppet Movie (1979)
2. The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
3. Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
4. The Muppets (2011)
5. The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
6. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
7. Muppets From Space (1999)
8. Muppet Treasure Island (1996)