The Muppet Movie: Ambition and Optimism

A shot of Kermit’s speech before the movie officially begins, showing the filmmakers’ dedication towards bringing as many Muppets on-screen as possible.

In the month of June, the Muppets celebrated the fortieth anniversary of their first feature film. While Jim Henson’s beloved foam posse had their ups and downs since their creator’s passing, with Muppets Most Wanted’s box office performance and the early cancellation of the 2015 series being particularly recent downers, their spirit never failed to be hopeful.

The Muppet Movie is the embodiment of the meticulous nature of the artistic craft imagined by Henson and his crew, and the nearly endless idealism of the Muppets themselves.

This scene was such a hit with viewers that the crew replicated the technique but for the entire Muppet cast in the Great Muppet Caper, only two years later, and for Scooter in The Muppets Take Manhattan

The film was one of, if not the first of its kind for the franchise. It put the Muppets out of the comfort of their vaudeville-inspired theatre (or fictionalized New York borough, if one counts the Sesame Street cameos) and turned them into fully integrated parts of our world. For an entire hour and a half, viewers got to see the Muppets being themselves without necessarily having to perform any sketches or deal with offstage antics. The movie distinguished itself from its small screen counterparts by incorporating several full body shots, convincing depictions of the Muppets doing everyday tasks or a mix of both. The first scene greets us with tons of Muppets, from the cast’s core members to more minor characters, sitting in a movie theatre, fully body and all. We later get to see Fozzie Bear drive a car and play a guitar (with his entire body in the frame during the latter). We get to see the entirety of Gonzo fly up in the sky as he holds onto a bunch of balloons. We get to see all of the major Muppet characters confront the film’s antagonist in a way that also put their entire bodies in the frame, instead of using the traditional ‘from the waist-up’ approach, which could’ve easily been taken by the crew. And who could forget the iconic scene where Kermit sings “Rainbow Connection” in the middle of a swamp, banjo in hand, or Kermit riding a bike?

This was also the film that enriched the Muppets as a cast; without the restrictions of The Muppet Show, they could finally interact with everyone else in the gang, instead of being limited by their performers’ availabilities. The Muppet Movie brings back the relationships established in The Muppet Show, and it allowed characters that share a performer to interact with one another, something almost inconceivable at the time. Jim Henson’s Kermit and Rowlf, Frank Oz’s Miss Piggy and Fozzie, Richard Hunt’s Scooter and Janice; all examples of the film breaking the traditional mould developed by The Muppet Show’s production cycle. Logically, this results into the film ending off with a shot of almost every character introduced at the time that could be considered a Muppet singing the final lyrics of the last song.

These technical marvels are all fine and dandy, and so is the full realization of the Muppets as a collective. However, they wouldn’t be complete without the dazzling charm the characters bring to their world and the message they preach. They are why The Muppet Movie should still be celebrated forty years later.

Beyond its achievements in special effects and its cultural significance, it’s a tale of one’s dream coming true. It showers you with optimism that becomes a breath of fresh air after confronting a frequently harsh reality every second of your life. The quirkiest of misfits, whether they’re a banjo-playing frog who’s being targeted by a guy that wants to cook their legs, an aggressive wannabe diva pig, a porkpie hat-wearing failure of a bear comedian, or whatever Gonzo is supposed to be, can find their place in the world, and even the industry they want to work for. Even Sweetums, who spent the entire film running at the Muppets’ car, desperately trying to catch up to them, finally reached his goal of catching up to his fellow Muppets by the end.

The film humanizes the Muppets (animal, monster, or otherwise) and makes them even more rounded by using established notions about them in previous reiterations of the franchise. Kermit casually playing the banjo in his swamp gives the viewer, used to the frog being the level headed but stressed out leader of the gang, a much more naturally relaxed side of him. This is the film that told us that Gonzo was not just a sadomasochistic, chicken-loving daredevil whose species reeks of ambiguity, but a somewhat lonely soul whose uniqueness is as much of a blessing as it is a curse. It indirectly justifies Fozzie’s neuroticism by showing us that Statler and Waldorf were never his only hecklers. In fact, Fozzie can probably endure most of Statler and Waldorf’s shenanigans because he has performed for a much more aggressive audience in the past, as this movie suggests. Scooter, the backstage gofer who went from being manipulative because of his uncle’s ownership of the Muppet Theatre to being a close ally of Kermit and the gang, is introduced alongside the Electric Mayhem, by far the most bizarre pairing (or perhaps grouping) in the film. If we can see him casually hang out with the resident hippie rock musicians, maybe there is more to the guy known for warning the celebrity guest that the show is about to start than we thought.

In a cultural realm where exploration of darker and more depressing topics is becoming more accepted, and more expected, revisiting a saccharine but heartwarmingly jolly tale like The Muppet Movie can be quite the refreshing experience.

The logical conclusion of the Muppets’ first big screen adventure

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Edited by Amyus.

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  1. I have been a part of the Muppet experience since a very young age. The first Muppet production I watched was “The Muppet Christmas Carol” from 1994. My grandfather, being a great fan of the Charles Dickens classic, was watched it and as I joined him, I was instantly transfixed. Then, I moved on to “Muppet Treasure Island” and “Muppets from Space” but I wasn’t till a few years ago that I finally saw this classic.

  2. Cornelius

    Maybe it’s my age, or maybe it was due to the fact that I was rarely allowed to watch children’s television, but my early life was sadly without Jim Henson and his hugely successful creation. 🙁

  3. If I were to say that I remember seeing this in the cinema when it was first released that probably gives away how old I actually am, or at least gives you a bit of a range.

    • Oh yes. The thing is though that as kids we loved the Muppets, so when they got their own movie it was a no brainer that we kids would end up going to see it. Fortunately for me, on the fourtieth anniversary, one of the best cinemas in Melbourne decided to put it on again, which meant that I had a chance to relive a childhood experience, as well as watching a whole younger generation appreciate it as well.

  4. Shepard

    If you love the muppets, watch this film. If you’ve never heard of them, watch this film.

  5. Amyus

    Nice one. The finished article looks and reads great! I’m really pleased for you 🙂

  6. The film proves hard to resist!

  7. Great analysis. The Muppet Movie is a perfect storm. It’s not only great for young viewers but adults, like me, can enjoy just as much as any child.

  8. Angelyn

    It’s a great film with amazing puppetry even still for today.

  9. I enjoyed this film as a child and caught myself singing along to every song.

  10. After we watched these guys on their own show, they became a part of us. Great movie. It’s sad we have lost some of the people that brought this to us.

  11. The reason why this movie works so well is because the Muppets are giving us their own style of entertainment, rather than them trying to conform to something else.

    There are a lot of scenes in this movie that take place that, to be fair, don’t really need to happen. They don’t really move the story forward, but they knew just how to make this stuff work.

  12. I feel like it never hits the highest notes. Sure, the puppetry was amazing and I much prefer it to CGI. But the Miss Piggy romance song? Terrible, terrible song and should probably have been cut — it drags the pace down and is hard on the ears. And the plot is so simple, it is not much to speak of. So we have a good technical achievement here, but as far as a story goes, it is not much. The same film with actors instead of Muppets and this would have been forgotten.

  13. A simple but uplifting movie. i can fully understand your perspective. however i think the uplifting ending is somewhat dismal in comparison to the rest of it. there’s too much depression in the general story to just slap a happy ending on the end and make everyone smile.

  14. This movie has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid, and I still love it now!

  15. Tackett

    I watched it recently and thought it was average. I think the film is quite slow in places and obviously the big name cameos at the time are less impressive today for younger viewers.

  16. Carolina

    This movie is just such a classic! Even someone who has never been a big muppet fan can and will enjoy this very well made film.

  17. Madelyn

    Love the muppets. A sheer delight.

  18. This is a fun analysis of the muppets, making intelligent and astounding remarks and comments on the topic.

  19. Fae Fredericks

    Everyone went crazy when they saw Kermit riding a bicycle for the first time!

  20. Of course I love this movie! What’s not to love about it? It’s funny, it’s musical, it’s entertaining, it’s emotional, it’s everything that embodies the Muppets!

  21. The muppets are such colorful and likeable characters who somehow come across as instantly recognizable flesh’n’blood living beings.

  22. One of the great origin stories cleverly framed as a rollicking road movie.

  23. If you’re having a bad day, the pop this bad-boy in.

  24. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. I always enjoy these characters, watching my children react to them. Then one day they outgrow them and it is good memories to have.

  25. Ilene Liu

    It was a very innovative film for its time.

  26. Jim Henson was truly a genius when it comes to the artistry of puppetry.

  27. The muppets will always remain an integral memory of many childhoods. Such an uplifting film

  28. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    An good essay. I always enjoyed watching these characters with my children.

  29. Stephanie M.

    Amen; sometimes you just need a breather film.

  30. Dr. Vishnu Unnithan

    I would be interested in knowing your take on the new Muppet film starring Jason Segel and it’s sequel.

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