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Muppet Mania

By Rory L. Aronsky
'The Muppet Movie'
'The Great Muppet Caper'

Walt Disney Home Entertainment
Rated G
1/2 (out of four)

When the Jim Henson Company and financier Lord Lew Grade transplanted the booming Muppets franchise to the big screen, they couldn’t simply use the old formula. The movies—which come out on DVD Tuesday, Nov. 29 in celebration of Kermit the Frog’s 50th anniversary—had to be different from “The Muppet Show.” A bigger version of the variety puppet theater featured on that program wouldn’t have worked.

So, perhaps partially inspired by the final 15 minutes of “Blazing Saddles,” Henson set out not only to tell the story of how the Muppets came together (“The Muppet Movie”) and a jewel heist in London (“The Great Muppet Caper”), but also to skewer the conventions of movie screenplays and have fun with what movies are.

This reflexive filmmaking manifested itself not only through casting Orson Welles as a studio head and Peter Ustinov as a truck driver, but through a running commentary on those niggling bits of the movies that are too fake or overdone. After Henson, his screenwriters and “Muppet Movie” director James Frawley’s creations, movie conventions were never the same.

“The Muppet Movie” opens as a Hollywood agent (Dom DeLuise) hands an audition notice to Kermit the Frog, who is living in a swamp. Kermit heads to Hollywood because making millions of people happy just seems better than living in his current quarters. He meets Fozzie Bear at the El Sleezo Café—a location that sets the stage for cameos from Madeline Kahn and Carol Kane—and has to outrun the slimy wiles of Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who wants Kermit to shill for his frog-leg restaurant franchise. Everyone is eventually introduced, from Miss Piggy to Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

On the other side of the ocean, in “The Great Muppet Caper,” Henson (who directed) now wants us to consider the Muppets as a team. They’ve long since gotten the contract from World Wide Studios—the studio from the first film—and even though it’s not implied that they work for WWS, it sounds reasonable considering the opening musical number, which takes place on a smaller-than-average backlot that makes most studio locales look like Times Square on location.

The second film centers around a jewel heist involving Miss Piggy, who seeks fame and fortune and looks to the ever-exasperated Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg, doing her worst to look confounded), whose no-good brother Nicky (Charles Grodin) plans to frame the beloved pig with Lady Holiday’s missing diamond necklace so he can work on stealing the renown Baseball Diamond uninterrupted. Charles Grodin’s lovelorn looks over Miss Piggy must have been training for his future encounters with that St. Bernard in “Beethoven.”

Throughout these stories, the films constantly toy with typical plot manipulation. Dr. Teeth and the band find Kermit by looking at what it says in the screenplay. When Oscar the Grouch makes an unexpected cameo, Ustinov asks, “What are you doing here?” Oscar replies, “A very brief cameo.” Ustinov: “So am I.” And, in what may well be the first official audio commentary on any movie, Gonzo, Fozzie and Kermit comment on the opening credits in “Caper” while in a hot-air balloon.

This still-classic material is lost on a modern company like Disney, which now owns the Muppets, but isn’t doing enough with them. DVDs do cost money to make, market and ship to stores, and Disney can’t devote all its resources to the Muppets. But the films and their characters are still wonderful creations deserving of respect. Disney’s very decision to release editions in honor of Kermit’s 50th birthday demonstrates the character’s longevity.

Brief profiles of Kermit and Miss Piggy on these DVDs are not worthy reverence. It’s hard to believe that there are no Muppet historians out there who would have been willing to do an audio commentary or at least an extensive set of interviews. Even though these discs are clearly marketed toward kids, adult fans are still out there and it wouldn’t have been difficult to balance content for both audiences. We still have the Muppets and that’s good enough to a point, but considering the love and appreciation showered upon the characters by millions of fans, the movies deserve a better record of their creation.

rory [at]


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