Chances are, parents reading this week’s column took their little ones to see James Bobin’s The Muppets
over the Thanksgiving weekend. (And if you haven’t yet, go now!)
Inspired by the creativity of Jim Henson, Jason Segel resurrected Kermit, Miss Piggy and their felt friends for a nostalgic reunion that got the band back together to save their beloved Muppet Theatre from a greedy oil baron (Chris Cooper, who raps … which actually is more awesome than it sounds).
Where does your family go from here, though? As much as I’d like to see it happen, The Muppet Show isn’t returning to network television to replace vulgarity like the fictional Punch Teacher and likeminded “reality” programs. And unless you want to buy box sets of old Muppet Show seasons, it’s best to rent previous Muppet features to help explain to your kids how Kermit met Piggy, Gonzo and the gang.
I’m partial to The Great Muppet Caper
, a spy spoof that holds up to this day. But if you are going to start anywhere with old Muppet movies, it has to be with the 1979 original, The Muppet Movie
. So, let’s borrow a Studebaker from our hibernating uncle, head to Hollywood, and figure out when you can watch The Muppet Movie
with your kids.
Green Lights: “Someday we’ll find it. The rainbow connection. The lovers, the dreamers, and me”
Similar to Segel and Bobin’s feature, James Frawley’s 1979 effort is a Meta exercise in fictional storytelling that imagines Henson’s Muppet characters as actual “people” living in Los Angeles who sit down at the beginning of the film to watch … well, to watch their film.
The Muppet Movie’s a traditionally structured road-trip movie, with our beloved protagonists Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear heading West to audition for a Hollywood production, picking up assorted Muppet characters along the way. The stops they make are loose set ups for bad punch lines, inspired celebrity cameos, or bad punch lines delivered by inspired celebrity cameos.
It’s all window dressing for the film’s real draw, though, and that’s seeing the Muppets outside of their realm and inside of ours. There’s a certain magic to seeing the Muppets away from their theater and maneuvering around tangible environments we could identify and even visit. I still get a tingle of excitement seeing Kermit riding a bicycle or watching he and Fozzie dance for the surly patrons of the aptly titled El Sleezo Café. It’s hard not to get elated when Gonzo takes flight after Richard Pryor cons him into buying too many balloons.
Back when The Muppet Show was a weekly occurrence, it just stood to reason that the top halves of Kermit and his friends only occupied their theater. But seeing them emerge and interact with our world was (an still is) an adolescent rush.
The messages of the ’81 Muppet feature are a little more wholesome than the 2011 counterpart, where maniacally laughing oil barons want to drill beneath Muppet Theatre. This movie’s predominantly about following one’s dreams, no matter how ridiculous, and that’s a lesson worth repeating. The Muppet Movie also reinforces a strong notion of friendship and togetherness, long a cornerstone of Henson’s family program. The Muppets follow Kermit because they believe in his dream, and that belief carries over into Segel’s film, as well.
At times, The Muppet Movie caters more to older members of the family, without fully overlooking the youngest. But we’ll dive into that in the Red Flags section.
Red Flags: “It's not often you see a guy that green have the blues that bad.”
Sort of like with Segel’s Muppets, the majority of the classic Muppet Movie will be funnier for parents than it might be for kids. The cameos in Frawley’s winning comedy come fast and furious. The puns are relentless, and Kermit regularly breaks down the fourth wall to address the audience about how corny the film they’re watching happens to be.
“Oh great. It’s a running gag,” Kermit laments after a particularly funny Hare Krishna joke is repeated.
“I hope you appreciate that I’m doing all of my own stunts,” the frog states to his invisible audience after being tossed into a piano.
I howled every time it happened, but it’s marginally too clever for young kids. Even when Big Bird pops by as a familiar hitchhiker approached by Kermit and Fozzie, his joke about heading to New York City to break into public television is far more clever for adults than the kids, who’ll just be excited to see Bird on screen.
And the cameos, which are brilliant, push the buttons of culture-sensitive parents rather than gearing their gags to kids. In that respect, I think Segel and Bobin scored big, as my boys were thrilled to see Selena Gomez on screen with the Muppets. Here, I was gonzo (pardon the pun) for cameos by Orson Welles, Richard Pryor, Madeline Kahn, Milton Berle, Carol Kane (“Myth! Myth!”) and Bob Hope. My kids could care less.
My boys were a little concerned over the Muppet Movie subplot concerning Doc Hooper (Charles Durning) and his desire to deep fry Kermit’s delicious frog legs. The scene with Mel Brooks as a demented Dr. Frankenstein threatening to hurt Kermit quieted my kids who weren’t yet aware that Piggy’s a secret ninja, ready to chop-sockey any bad guys who threaten her men … er, frog. And I was a little concerned over the unevenness of the musical selections. “Rainbow Connection” is considered a genuine classic, and rightfully so, but Piggy’s off-key “Never Before, Never Again” never needs to be heard again.
The film doesn’t stray very often, though. The Muppet Movie slips right back into its groove once Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem -- reading the screenplay to tell him where the gang can be located -- moves the movie right along to a rousing ending that’s bound to please every family member.
And that’s why, in reality, The Muppet Movie is appropriate for virtually every age.
Yes, certain jokes are supposed to resonate with parents. But even on TV, the Muppets were tailored to adolescent kids crazy for physical puppet humor and grownups who got a kick out of their celebrity friends. The old Muppets movie expanded on that format, and Segel’s new Muppet movie revitalized it.
If your family went to the movies and loved seeing the Muppets on the big screen again, keep the magic going on your small screen at home. You won’t be disappointed.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, Hugo, The Goonies, The Princess Bride and The Monster Squad, to name just a few.