The Muppet Movie ushered Jim Henson’s famous puppet characters to the big screen in fitting fashion, with the creatures sitting down to watch themselves in the film proper. It’s the first of many self-aware tics in the film, up to and including some characters reading the movie’s script to know where to intercept their friends, and numerous jokes throughout call attention to both recurring gags and the wall that exists not only between character and audience, but puppet and guiding hand. The screening-room framing device also grounds the film’s Hollywood dreaming; seen as an adult, the naked ambition of Kermit and his felt pals can be surprising, at least in the context of the film’s indefatigable good cheer.
But then, the Muppets have always epitomized the most optimistic vision of the Me Decade’s narcissism and self-fulfillment. Combining elements of ’60s touchstones like the puppet program H.R. Pufnstuf (particularly in the form of benign burnouts Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem) and variety shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Muppet Show ported over the psychedelic overtones and social commentary of neither. Instead, the sardonic wit of the show, and this film, exists for its own reward, a goofy lark. Celebrities get in on the act as well, turning up in droves as Kermit journeys from a Louisiana swamp to a West Coast metropolis. The egotism of it all should be noxious, but the sheer affability of the Muppets’ brand of comedy wins out; this may be a party for the rich and famous, but you’re invited too.
The giddy boastfulness of the film’s tone extends to the structure and production elements. Foreseeing the current trend of unnecessary origin stories in franchise films, The Muppet Movie’s basic plot concerns how the Muppets came to be. Instead of droning on about each character’s roots or the like, however, writers Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl recognize that these are, in fact, just puppets, and the narrative chiefly focuses on the shared energy of this idiosyncratic and individualistic group of characters. But nothing compares to the bald showing off of the film’s small but innovative technical achievements. From the moment director Jim Frawley cuts to Kermit sitting on a log, whole “body” in view, the film can’t help but call attention to the puppeteers’ clever positioning or the difficulty of staging something as deceptively simple as Kermit pedaling a bike. In making the Muppets seem more real, the filmmakers spotlight the fakery that goes into them, a contradiction that suits the Muppets well.
That The Muppet Movie should be so upbeat is impressive, given the macabre subplot that pushes the film forward. As Kermit pursues dreams of stardom and amasses a growing collection of fans, he finds himself frequently sidelined by Col. Sanders’s swamp kin, Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), a fried-frog-leg impresario looking to put Kermit’s vaudeville talents in service to selling the breaded limbs of his own species. Hopper turns to increasingly vicious means to get his way, but still Kermit attempts to reason with his would-be tormentor, even when Hopper perseveres with his plan.
Hopper’s presence makes this the best cinematic depiction of the Muppets, not only for the focus it provides to the story, but for the manner in which he demonstrates the Muppets’ key quality. Despite Hopper’s villainy, the film never deals with him harshly, even as a source of ridicule. The latter defines Muppet humor: frequently complex and dark, but never aimed too hard at anyone. From layered, referential jokes to the cameos from hip (but not exactly kid-friendly) stars, The Muppet Movie flirts with esoterica, but a spirit of inclusiveness wins out. The Muppets are family entertainment that manages to actually be for the whole family, welcoming and nonjudgmental to kids and sufficiently aware and clever for older viewers. As with the intense technical skill involved in the most intimate and subtle of puppet gestures, the film’s seemingly laidback, simple pleasures stem from a carefully honed, almost alchemical balance of niche appeals into something universal.
Disney’s restorations of their animated films err toward too much digital clean-up, but from the opening shot of The Muppet Movie, it’s clear that grain has been left healthily intact. The film still looks like a movie shot in the late 1970s, with its earthy color palettes and inconsistent textures, but Disney’s transfer clears up the film’s soft contrast without wiping away image details; indeed, the fleshy/fuzzy details of the Muppets’ felt never looked so good. A solid and clear 5.1 lossless track won’t give a home theater setup a workout, but dialogue is always crisp and Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher’s songs swell in the mix, practically begging for a sing-along.
For such a subtly technical film, The Muppet Movie sports no features that delve into the arduous process of pulling off the film’s advance puppet movement. Perhaps that helps maintain the illusion of the Muppets’ reality, though, an idea marginally backed up by the presence of the old feature "Pepe’s Profiles Presents Kermit," a parodic behind-the-scene clip of Kermit the celebrity as his puppet pals (and a few celebrities) sing his praises. The full Doc Hopper commercial and the original theatrical trailers round out the port-overs. A sing-along of the film’s big three numbers exists on its own and as part of an unnecessarily elaborate but amusing intermission when the main feature is paused. By far the best feature, though, is director Jim Frawley’s camera test, in which some of the Muppeteers goof around getting test footage in the English countryside. Henson and company riff on everything from some nearby cows to Fozzie’s hat always blowing off, but a casually sadistic joke from Frank Oz’s Miss Piggy takes the cake, rendering Henson literally breathless with laughter. At times this feature feels less like a camera test than a set of solid outtakes.
The first, and still best, Muppet feature comes to high definition all set to hook a new generation to Jim Henson’s quick-witted but good-natured creation.