Monday, June 22, 2009

 

All of Us Under Its Spell


By Jonathan Pacheco
It’s tempting to believe that nostalgia fuels most of the lasting appeal of The Muppet Movie as so many people literally grew up with these characters. I, however, watched the movie for the first time a few years ago as a nearly blank slate, enabling me to objectively see that, after 30 years, the film still captivates. Gushing with more puns than your grandpa, the film's intoxicating charm bursts from its anchor, Kermit D. Frog, and the virtuoso behind the Muppet, the late Jim Henson.


Meant as a “fictionalized account” of how the Muppets came to be, the film chronicles Kermit’s journey from an unassuming swamp to the glamorous streets of Hollywood, picking up Muppets along the way at clubs, fairs, churches, and used car dealerships.

The movie’s humor lives and dies by the pun, so from beginning to end, the jokes, idioms, and wordplays require enough sharpness to keep things fresh for the entire film. The Muppet Movie unabashedly dives into the silly and absurd, but it never feels lazy. The slapstick never overwhelms and the characters mix things up with self-aware humor that breaks the barrier between the film and the audience; Kermit points out running gags and characters literally pull out the screenplay for the film to find out what to do next.

The writing and delivery of these jokes and banter evoke the same vaudevillian sensibility that powered The Muppet Show (at the height of its popularity when the film came out in 1979), and three decades later, it seems to be a nearly lost comedy form. This film isn’t funny simply because the characters act silly, look funny, and yell a lot; this isn’t Spongebob. No, The Muppet Movie has actual jokes — with punchlines. When Kermit asks Fozzie to make a left at a fork in the road, he obliges, pointing out a 7-foot utensil jammed in the concrete. Kermit voices our thoughts: “I don’t believe that.” There’s something comforting and homey about the distinct “setup/payoff” rhythm to the exchanges between Fozzie and Kermit.

While Fozzie and the other Muppets serve their purposes in the film, everything hinges on Kermit’s character. Jim Henson’s performance as the frog not only carries the weight of the film, but it completely takes off with it. As played in The Muppet Movie, Kermit exhibits the sincerity and straight-forwardness of Jimmy Stewart, the articulation of Steve Martin, the stature and female prowess of Woody Allen, and the timing and charm of Billy Crystal before Billy Crystal even had them. Henson gives us a surprisingly emotive character, considering every facial expression must stem only from the frog’s flapping mouth. You can see this in the amazing mileage he gets out of pursed lips, in the way he rolls his fingers when Kermit enunciates “al-ee-gay-tors,” or in the slight tilt of the wrist and pressing of the fingers to let you know that the frog is nervous. Best of all, Henson’s Kermit has presence. When the frog walks into the room, even in his seeming meekness, he commands attention. He’s the definite leader of the group, and adoration comes his way both from the characters on the screen and the viewers in the audience.

Now, the average kid isn’t clever enough to get the majority of the puns or punchlines in this movie. I doubt they appreciate Henson’s masterful handwork behind the Muppet, and they probably don’t care too much for the cameos from Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, James Coburn, Richard Pryor or Orson Welles. This means that despite the nature of its characters, The Muppet Movie needs to connect on an adult level more than anything, otherwise the film is a failure. However, beyond the jokes and cameos that only the older crowd would understand, Kermit continues to shine as a protagonist who, despite being made of fabric, has a soul. As a bittersweet establishment of the character’s yearning for adventure and exploration, Kermit’s opening song, “The Rainbow Connection,” reaches further than the superfluous singing bogging down nearly every musical we see today. As the most dense bit of development in the entire film, “The Rainbow Connection” forms Kermit’s character completely and immediately. Paul Williams, co-songwriter on the film, had this to say about writing “The Rainbow Connection”:
"Kenny Ascher and I sat down to write these songs, and we thought ... Kermit is … he’s like "every frog." He’s the Jimmy Stewart of frogs. So how do we show that he’s a thinking frog, and that he has an introspective soul, and all that good stuff? We ... also wanted to show that he would be on this spiritual path, examining life, and the meaning of life.

The thing I love best about the lyric, I think, is that in the first two lines, you know that he’s been to the movies. “Why are there so many songs about rainbows? And what’s on the other side?” It tells you that he’s been exposed to culture. I think the song works because it’s more about questions than answers."

As this film’s equivalent to “Over the Rainbow,” “The Rainbow Connection” is a paramount example of how a song can explore a film’s character — silly or serious, Muppet or human — so thoroughly.

The weak point of the film lies in one half of its plot as Doc Hopper, creator of Hopper’s French Fried Frog Legs, sees Kermit’s talent and charisma and decides he must have the Muppet as the face of his franchise. The plot line gives the film a villain but he never feels like a relevant one. Kermit’s goals involve going to Hollywood so he can potentially make millions of people happy with his talents, and Hopper is trying to stop him every step of the way because...he wants to sell frog legs? The connection between Kermit’s altruistic motivations and Hopper’s exploitative intentions lacks the kind of effectiveness that would warrant such a prominent placement in the story. But as only a portion of the plot, it annoys more than it derails.

The Muppet Movie’s positives simply steamroll minor plot flaws with momentum generated by Jim Henson’s soaring performance as Kermit. Truly the heart of the film, Kermit, with all his sincerity and genuineness, appeals as much today as he did 30 years ago. Attributing the film’s charm to nostalgia ignores the fact that the bright, fast, clever humor and overall energy of the film will always appeal equally to the Muppet faithful and the newcomers.


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Comments:
In this age where practically everything is CGI, I'm still as impressed as I was when I was 10 with how they made it look as if Kermit was riding a bicycle. There were so many great moments. A personal favorite was when Rowlf the dog tries to console the heartbroken Kermie with "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along." You have to love any "kids" film expressing cynicism about romance. Though I can agree with the Doc Hopper storyline, I did enjoy a lot of the bits between Charles Durning and Austin Pendleton.
 
I ADORE this movie. I'm not looking for publicity or whatever, I just wanted to post a link to my own blog where I gave my own thoughts on how it has affected me and my own life:

http://jshannon52pickup.blogspot.com/2009/04/52-pick-up-muppet-movie.html

From one Muppet fan to another :)
 
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