The Walt Disney Company, after previous unsuccessful attempts, purchased The Muppets in 2004. Then for seven years they did absolutely nothing with the franchise, save for releasing some DVDs of The Muppet Show, Muppet Wizard of Oz, and making a few YouTube videos. Not what I would call a good use of one of my favorite childhood entertainment groups. This is a comprehensive look at The Muppets through film and television. For the sake of some kind of brevity, I am sticking to the major motion picture releases and television series. Otherwise, we could be here all day. As it is, you may want to get a soda and some boomerang fish to settle in to this one.
The Muppet Show (1976-1981)
I was born in 1980, so I was not here for the start of this show, nor do I really remember much about watching it on television as a child. Obviously, I knew the Muppet characters, but, like most children, my first real Henson experience came with Sesame Street. But since I became such a huge fan of the Muppets I bought the first two seasons on DVD and quite enjoy them. For me, popping in an episode of this show is like curling up on the porch with a mug of hot chocolate and watching a rainstorm. It’s that level of relaxing and comforting. It’s a look back at a bygone era when entertainment was more varied, and the pace was slower. There are better episodes and worse episodes…really it depends on how much you like the guest host for the week.
The Muppet Movie (1979)
I am rather conflicted about this movie. Obviously it deserves some merit for being the first of the Muppet film adventures, and at times it really shines. Those times are the songs and cameos. Edgar Bergen (in his final film appearance), Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, James Coburn, Dom DeLuise, Elliot Gould, Bob Hope, Madeline Kahn, Carol Kane, Cloris Leachman, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Telly Savalas, and Orson Welles all have cameo appearances and they set the bar high for cameos in Muppet movies to follow. Along with the cameos, the songs and the soundtrack are some of the best in Muppet film. I know all the words to The Rainbow Connection, Moving Right Along, Never Before, Never Again, I Hope that Something Better Comes Along, Can you Picture That?, and I’m Going to go Back there Someday. But that said…the plot of this movie is just not good. If you’ve never seen this movie, the bad guy is a fried frog legs restaurant owner who wants Kermit to be his spokesperson. Yeah. THAT bad. Thankfully any time the plot starts to take too long, we get another cameo, or a song.
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
This is by far my favorite Muppet Movie. It has great songs, awesome cameos, and the plot is fun too. Kermit and Fozzie play identical twins reporting on a series of jewel thieves, and Gonzo plays their photographer. The trio travel to London where they come across the rest of the gang at the Happiness Hotel. When I go to London, I want to stay there. The single greatest cameo in all of Muppetdom is John Cleese as the wealthy owner of the house at 17 Highbrow Street. Diana Rigg and Charles Grodin are the two main human characters as siblings Nicky and Lady Holiday. This movie is fun and timeless from start to finish. I highly recommend it to kids of all ages.
Muppet Babies (1984-1992)
This is, by leaps and bounds, the longest running Muppet series, and this is the show I really remember from my youth. The show itself is your standard kids’ show where the characters get into some situation and learn a lesson by the end of the episode. Doing some research lead me to the realization that Barbara Billingsley, June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver, did the voice of Nanny, and Dave Coulier, uncle Joey from Full House, and Alanis Morrisette’s…ahem…theater partner…took over various voices from Howie Mandel…who used to joke that he used the same voice for his character Bobby from Bobby’s World as he did for Gizmo from Gremlins…and for Skeeter. Speaking of which…just what happened to Skeeter?
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
This holds the title as my second favorite of the Muppet movies, and basically, it’s a remake of “The Muppet Movie,” but with a much more enjoyable plot. In both movies, Kermit has to pitch his idea for a great show, and has to get his gang together in order to make the show work. But in Manhattan, there’s the glory of New York, and thereby the glory of New Yorkers, like Pete the restaurant owner, and the scene in Central Park where Piggy gets mugged and “borrows” some skates from Gregory Hines. If you’ve never seen a Muppet on roller skates…find this movie.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
And here begins the phase where the majority of Muppet movies are just rehashes of previous films, only done with Muppets. This is the best of those, as the charming nature of the Muppets carries over fantastically into Charles Dickens classic Christmas tale. Michael Caine plays Scrooge fantastically, and this movie is notable for several reasons. Firstly, this is the first Muppet movie to be done following the death of Jim Henson in 1990. Steve Whitmire took over the role of Kermit and several other voices that had previously been done by Henson, and this is also the first movie directed Jim’s son Brian. It is also the first movie co-produced by Disney.
Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
And the theme of revamping old works continued in this horrid rendition. Tim Curry and Billy Connoly do serviceable jobs as Long John Silver and Billy Bones…but I think this movie was just a failed concept that made it all the way through production. Muppets shouldn’t be swashbucklers, and high adventure and derring-do are not their stock in trade. It’s just hard to watch and is my least favorite Muppet feature.
Muppets Tonight (1996-1998)
This was the last creaking breath of trying to force a variety show into an older and more ADD audience. I must admit that I didn’t watch much of this show, mostly because the ones I did catch were just kind of off from the nostalgia of the original show, and not good enough to stand on their own. They did have a good slew of guest hosts, from Billy Crystal to Cindy Crawford, but this was really the final nail in the coffin for trying to revamp the original Muppet Show. This show introduces Clifford the Purple Rasta Muppet and Pepe the King Prawn. Pepe is the best thing from this whole show.
Muppets from Space (1999)
This movie was a breath of fresh air as it was an original plot, but is not the best of the Muppet movies. Instead of being a musical, the songs are more of a soundtrack, and are soul and funk tunes…which I like…but aren’t really “classic Muppet,” and frankly, the cameos are lacking as well. In just 20 years the quality of cameo stars went from titans like Bob Hope and Richard Pryor to David Arquette, Hulk Hogan and Kathy Griffin. But despite not hitting the two notorious high spots in Muppet films, the plot is actually intriguing. Gonzo, always the loner, always the outsider, starts longing for his real family outside of the Muppet family…and realizes that his family is trying to contact him…from space! Yes friends, Gonzo is an alien. I know it’ll take you a while to digest that, so I’ll wait. Done? Well it really wasn’t that big a shock, now was it?
The Muppets Wizard of Oz (2005)
Ok, I’ll admit it. I never saw this one. That said…it just looks bad. Frankly, I didn’t even remember this was made until I started doing research for this blog post. I am leery of Muppet remakes of films, so I am going to skip it unless I get some comments saying that it’s really awesome and worth time that would otherwise be spent re-watching Sherlock.
The Muppets (2011)
Ah, the long awaited return of the Muppets to the big screen! And this movie did not disappoint. Amy Adams and Jason Segel are the two human plot movers this time around, and The Muppets has nod after nod to every incarnation of past Muppet glory. The gang has to get back together for one last big show, and as a fan not just of the Muppet movies, but of the Muppet Show, this film had a lot of moments that seemed hand-picked just for me to remember and treasure. The cameos are still there, and some of them are humorous, some of them not as much, but that’s the same in all Muppet films, and there is music too…and the music is one of the highlights of the film. For instance, when the cast comes together to sing the theme to the Muppet show, I started to well up. When Kermit struck the first chords of “The Rainbow Connection” on his banjo, I wanted to sing along, but I couldn’t…because I was in tears.
Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
The sequel just isn’t as good as the predecessor. They even make a joke about it in the opening song. Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey are good, but it feels like the writers were trying to recapture the magic of The Great Muppet Caper, but fell pretty short. It tells me something when the line I remember most from this didn’t actually happen in the movie itself. There was a Happy Valentines Day video where Constantine ‘steals a kiss’ from Piggy…who then starts to steam up…and Constantine looks over to Kermit and says, “I have regrets.”
The Muppets on ABC (2015)
The premiere episode of the new ‘Office-style’ Muppet show aired recently, and while it was mostly just an introduction into the new style and tone of the show, a lot of it had already been released in various vignettes online before the premiere. In this new take, Kermit and Piggy are no longer a romantic item, Kermit is dating another pig, and Piggy is playing the field of available celebrities. I will say that I laughed quite a few times in the half hour show, most notably at the more ‘adult’ themed jokes, like when Zoot stands up and proclaims, “Hi. My name’s Zoot, and I’m…” before being sat down and told it wasn’t THAT kind of a meeting.
I will admit that I’m still not quite sure if I like this new direction for the Muppets, but I’m more than willing to give it a shot. A lot of people are saying they would rather just see a newer version of the old style variety show…but let’s face it people. That genre is just not mainstream anymore. I LOVE that style of show, in fact one of my favorite shows of all time is the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but it just doesn’t translate well into this generation. If you don’t believe me, go back and watch some of those old episodes of the Muppet Show and tell me you don’t skip past some of the dance or song numbers. If we want Muppets on television they need to change with the times, and that is what they are trying. We’ll just have to wait and see how successful they are…whether they can keep that undefinable blend of innocence and wickedness that has made them endure for forty years.
Oh, and a quick side note: “Mahna Mahna” the quintessential song from the first episode of The Muppet Show which also featured at the end of 2011’s The Muppets, came from a Swedish softcore porn just makes me like Muppets all the more. You can see it here. (No nudity, but still probably NSFW)