There was nothing ironic or insincere about Jim Henson’s love of humanity and belief in the vitality of the imagination. His ingenious fusions of puppetry, marionettes and animatronics known as “The Muppets” had a remarkable screen presence that rivaled the charisma and nuance of any human co-star. Ever since his death in 1990, it’s been the goal of his cherished collaborators to keep the distinctive spirit of his work alive for future generations. Though Henson’s genius extends far beyond the typical Muppet realm (see “The Dark Crystal,” “Labyrinth,” “The Witches” and the excellent TV series, “The Storyteller”), this list ranks the eight screen outings of Kermit the Frog (Henson’s alter-ego), Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, The Great Gonzo and their many, many friends. So pull up your nearest log, grab a banjo and enjoy this latest trip over the rainbow….
8. Muppets From Space (1999)
We begin with the picture that every subsequent Muppet vehicle has wisely set out to distance itself from as far as possible. It was the final big screen showcase for Kermit and the gang before a series of increasingly awful TV specials that bent over backwards to make the Muppets appear “hip.” Director Tim Hill (who went on to helm “Alvin and the Chipmunks”) clearly had no idea what made the Muppets appealing in the first place. He stages an opening dance sequence set to The Commodores’ “Brick House” (one of several uninspired song choices) that culminates with Kermit exclaiming, “Way to get down with your bad selves” [insert nauseated groan here]. The plot centers on Gonzo (still played to this day by the tireless Dave Goelz) and his pursuit to connect with the alien community from whence he came. It’s hard to believe that this soulless sci-fi parody was somehow inspired by Paul Williams’ soulful tune, “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” in the original “Muppet Movie.”
In his final theatrical bow as Piggy, Oz does what he can with the nearly laughless script that depicts his bovine diva as an opportunistic anchorwoman (there’s admittedly one funny moment when she freezes on-camera). As for Kermit, he’s been reduced to a bland placeholder for Hallmark-level warmth and wisdom. Yet the most glaring vexation of all is Pepe the Prawn (Bill Barretta), an insufferable, Jar Jar Binks-like camera hog who seems to have been created for the sole purpose of injecting innuendo into the proceedings. And despite the writers’ efforts to send-up every sci-fi blockbuster under the sun, they failed to include a single “Pigs in Space” reference.
7. Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
Here’s where it all went wrong. Director Brian Henson (son of Jim) attempted to borrow the formula from his successful 1992 version of “A Christmas Carol” and apply it to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, yet the morose material proves to be an ill fit for the Muppets’ sunny charm. All attempts to lighten the mood with screwball humor devolve into shrill slapstick. As Long John Silver, Tim Curry isn’t charming or creepy enough to satisfy on any level. He flashes his trademark Cheshire-like grin, but there’s little joy beneath it. The same could be said for the entire enterprise, which lumbers along for an hour and forty minutes without ever truly engaging the viewers. The pacing is off and even the most promising gags fail to build into a memorable sketch.
What saves the picture from disaster is the redeeming chemistry between Steve Whitmire (as Kermit) and Oz, who doesn’t materialize as Piggy until the last act, but still manages to steal the show. In fact, all the best bits are saved for the final half hour, such as when Kermit gallantly swishes his sword in a ridiculous battle with Curry. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s songs are thoroughly forgettable, though there’s something touchingly bittersweet about their romantic refrain, “Love Led Us Here,” particularly in the way it’s performed by Kermit and Piggy as they hang suspended from a rope over a watery grave. Love did indeed lead the Muppeteers to this precipice, but by the time this picture was released, there was nothing left to save them from the inevitable fall.
6. Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
And now for a considerable upgrade in quality. Though this latest sequel from director James Bobin (the comic maestro behind “Flight of the Conchords” and “Da Ali G Show”) has been deemed by many critics as inferior, lacking the heart of its predecessor, the film’s vaudevillian irreverence is actually very much in line with the spirit of Henson’s “Muppet Show,” as well as his own major directorial effort (see below). Perhaps the most alarming thing about this farce is just how dense the Muppets have grown in their old age, unable to tell the difference between their beloved Kermit (Whitmire) and his evil double, Constantine (Matt Vogel), a ruthless criminal armed with a perpetual scowl, a Russian accent and a sidekick named Dominic Badguy (played with typical deadpan grace by Ricky Gervais). Once Kermit is shipped to a Siberian gulag, he’s tasked with teaching “Sister Act”-like music lessons to inmates while under the watchful, lustful eye of prison guard Nadya (a pleasingly off-key Tina Fey).
None of the songs here are all that memorable, but they sure are fun, particularly a wistful duet that Miss Piggy imagines having with her idol, Celine Dion. The same could be said of the entire picture, which moves at a fast clip and hurls so many jokes in the audience’s direction that the duds are swiftly overshadowed by the slam dunks, of which there are many. There’s a very funny odd couple pairing of Sam the Eagle (Eric Jacobson) and a French Interpol inspector (“Modern Family”’s Ty Burrell), as well as a priceless early sequence where the Muppets suggest their ideas for a sequel, leading to the Swedish Chef’s pitch for an existential black-and-white riff on Ingmar Bergman. No gag is too silly or stale for the Muppets to revitalize with their timeless charm, and this film had me laughing from its ingenious opening to its wonderfully abrupt end.
5. The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
As an elegantly-staged novelty, this ode to ’30s-era Hollywood is a hoot. In his feature directorial debut, Henson is as subversively self-reflexive as ever, allowing the Muppets to consistently break the fourth wall, poking fun at the formulaic plot that they’ve found themselves trapped within. After one character is asked her reason for rattling off a laundry list of story detail, she replies, “It’s plot exposition, it has to go somewhere.” Henson makes no secret of the fact that his caper yarn is merely a clothesline on which to hang a series of spectacular set-pieces featuring remarkably advanced animatronic effects. After Kermit famously rode his Schwinn bicycle in his film debut, this second screen outing allows the Muppets to ride bikes together in a group. They also scale walls, tap dance, crawl on the floor, and in one particularly memorable shot, crash a motorcycle through a stained glass window.
Joe Raposo’s songs are funny and splashy but ultimately lack the heart of other Muppet musicals. Yet his melodies still manage to drive the film’s two best sequences, each providing a larger-than-life stage for Piggy to shine like never before. The most memorable tune by far is “The First Time It Happens,” a Henry Mancini-style ballad that morphs into a rousing Busby Berkeley-like dance sequence. There’s also a hilarious Esther Williams-inspired swimming routine where water is seen bubbling out of Piggy’s nostrils. The passel of cameos seem sloppily tacked on, save for John Cleese’s dryly amusing portrayal of a boorish husband and Charles Grodin’s deadpan brilliance as a laughable sleaze infatuated with Piggy. One could easily imagine Grodin and Piggy starring in a spin-off of “The Heartbreak Kid [Pig].”
4. The Muppets (2011)
At its core, Henson’s work was poignantly autobiographical in a way that made its warmth wholly authentic. This much-hyped reboot works because it’s every bit as much a personal passion project for its co-writer/executive producer/star, Jason Segel. His status as an outsider and impassioned love of Henson’s work are embodied by the wholly new Muppet character of Walter (Peter Linz), an idealistic fan who coaxes Kermit and Co. out of retirement. The fact that Walter is the brother of a human, Gary (Segel), is a typical example of the film’s cheerfully whimsical humor, as well as a clever homage to the running gag in “Great Muppet Caper,” in which Kermit and Fozzie Bear are cast as identical twins.
From the moment Gary and Walter break out into their first big number, the Oscar-worthy “Life’s a Happy Song,” it’s clear that music supervisor Bret McKenzie put forth a great deal of effort into creating hummable, jubilant tunes on par with the Muppet classics. As Kermit, Steve Whitmire gives the performance of his career in the coveted role that Henson had originally entrusted to him. His delivery of McKenzie’s song “Pictures In My Head” is deeply moving, as he walks past weathered portraits of his old friends that magically come to life. It’s a joy to see new depths brought to the tumultuous relationship of Kermit and the porcine diva Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson), as well as Henson’s signature brand of absurdist humor that director James Bobin fuses with modern comedic sensibilities (there’s a priceless “Family Guy”-style cutaway gag involving Rowlf, deftly played by Bill Barretta).
Since practically every recent kiddie franchise relies on popular songs for easy marketability, it’s worth remembering that the Muppets performed affectionate send-ups of hit songs better than anyone on “The Muppet Show.” No song parody in recent memory tops the Princesses of Poultry’s clucking version of a particular Cee Lo Green number, which brought the house down at the screening I attended. Despite their slightly aged voices and graying eyebrows, the Muppets proved here that they are as vital and engaging as ever. It was chiefly the film’s exhilarating exuberance that led it to win the first Oscar in Muppet movie history: a Best Song accolade for Walter and Gary’s uproariously funny duet, “Man or Muppet,” which includes one of the most fitting cameos of all time.
3. The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
Since they were made during the last eleven years of his life, each of Henson’s big screen endeavors are marked by a sense of loss, yet none more so than his final theatrical vehicle for Kermit and the gang. This is easily one of the funniest and most touching of all Muppet movies, enhanced by the infectious rhythms of Jeff Moss’ songs, which gained great poignance in the aftermath of Henson’s death (the Muppeteers performed Moss’ “Saying Goodbye” at Henson’s funeral). In the director’s chair, Oz builds the comedic setpieces beautifully while allowing for moments of real warmth. Whereas the Muppets instantly gained Rich and Famous Contracts from Hollywood producers in “The Muppet Movie,” here they’re forced work from the ground up in order to become stars on Broadway.
Without Henson’s customary winks to the audience, Oz creates a stronger narrative for the Muppets to inhabit, while giving Kermit more depth and range than ever before. He snaps on his perpetually needy friends (“Can’t you take care of yourselves?”) and tries on a variety of disguises in order to break into show business, occasionally acquiring the desperation of Rupert Pupkin. Oz and co-writers Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses also dream up some truly funny sketches for the celebrity cameos, the best of which belong to Joan Rivers (who cheers up Piggy with a ghoulish makeup job) and Gregory Hines (who earns big laughs with the line, “You gave Jenny the huggies?”).
As college graduates attempting to get their variety show, “Manhattan Melodies,” seen on Broadway, the Muppets go through the relatable growing pains of budding artists attempting to realize their dreams. Henson personally staged a marvelous “rat scat” sung by Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire) that proves to be just as catchy as Moss’ “I’m Gonna Always Love You,” performed during a charming “flashback” sequence that launched the “Muppet Babies” series (which debuted later that year). It’s nearly impossible to avoid getting misty-eyed during Henson’s final line, “What better way could anything end—hand in hand with a friend?” since it ultimately proved to be the end in more ways than one.
2. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
The Muppets’ sublime adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immortal classic stands as an enduring reminder that a great Henson-less Muppet movie is indeed possible, yet every single frame is infused with the late master’s spirit. Taking the reins as director, Brian Henson made this film as a loving tribute to his father, epitomized by its final, profoundly moving refrain of “The Love We Found.” The picture has remained such a beloved holiday perennial that it has served as an introduction to Dickens for various generations of kids. I’ll never forget the time that I attended a Goodman Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol,” and overheard a man informing his young son that the version they were about to see would feature only one Marley (and wouldn’t be portrayed by Statler or Waldorf).
Jerry Juhl’s screenplay impeccably balances Dickens’ story with Muppet humor, while finding ingenious ways for the slapstick to enhance (rather than disrupt) the story. Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge is not a mere deadpan walk-on. It’s a beautifully restrained piece of work that never hits an inauthentic note while navigating through the character’s emotional arc (it’s also vastly superior to other notable screen portrayals of the curmudgeon). Whitmire does a fine job as Kermit, but he truly shines as Rizzo the Rat, the comic foil to Gonzo’s Dickens (Goelz in the performance of his career). Their banter throughout the film is in keeping with Henson’s penchant for self-reflexivity, but it never upstages the story’s emotional core.
There’s a truly ominous magic to the sequences involving Scrooge’s visiting apparitions. The Ghost of Christmas Past moves with an ethereal lucidness achieved through underwater photography, while the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is able to conjure a swirling vortex out of thin air. Jerry Nelson exudes Hagrid-like warmth as the Ghost of Christmas Present, while Oz entirely preserves Miss Piggy’s sass in the role of Mrs. Cratchit (I love it when she threatens to raise Scrooge “right off the pavement” with her fist). And yet, what ultimately holds the film together are the songs by Paul Williams, which are as jubilant as they are transcendently powerful. A great many colleagues of mine have informed me that “Muppet Christmas Carol” is among their very favorite movies, and it’s easy to see why. It may be one of the most moving films ever made.
1. The Muppet Movie (1979)
A masterpiece, pure and simple. It emerged on the heels of 1977’s TV special “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” in which Henson experimented with cinematic techniques that he had hoped to utilize on the big screen. His efforts paid off in spades. This rollicking feel-good picture tells the origin story of how the Muppets met and achieved success onscreen, but it’s told with an unusual amount of feeling and poetry. That’s because the film is really about Henson himself, his efforts to spread joy around the world, and the lifelong collaborators that gradually became his family.
Paul Williams’ extraordinary songs are essential to the films’ success, since they dig deep into character’s inner confusion and stubborn desire to find their place in the universe—“the rainbow connection,” if you will. Throughout the film, it’s clear that Henson isn’t content with merely hurling his creatures onto a human canvas—he wants to achieve a sense of wonder. There’s a wonderful moment when Kermit engages in a conversation with a doppleganger that ends up affirming his refusal to give up. It’s unclear whether Kermit is talking to God or if he’s merely arriving at his own conclusions, though his inner spiritual reflection is marked by the divinely cosmic intervention of a shooting star. The fact that this brief but unforgettable scene raises such provocative questions is a testament to the enduring power of Henson’s artistry.
As for Oz, his portrayal of Piggy is flat-out Oscar-worthy—conveying her hunger for the spotlight and consuming lust for Kermit with each movement and whimper. Her torch song to Kermit, “Never Before,” is hilariously off-key, but is also emblematic of Oz and Henson’s collaboration, which deserves to be hailed as one of the greatest in the history of show business. Among the film’s wealth of cameos, the very best is reserved for Steve Martin as a put-upon waiter who earns guffaws simply through his delivery of the line, “Oh…may I?” Simply put, the picture is an overwhelming achievement from top to bottom that proves Muppets don’t need an endless stream of cultural references in order to get laughs. Many of the film’s funniest moments are spawned simply from the Muppets’ childlike view of the world, punctuated by a literal fork in the road.
And now, a story. At the 2011 Chicago Film Critics Association awards ceremony, Jason Segel received the Commedia Extraordinaire Award in honor of his work on “The Muppets.” Also honored in person that night were James Earl Jones, Dennis Farina, Steve James and “A Separation” director Asghar Farhadi. Prior to the event, our special guests were interviewed one by one at a press conference. When Segel turned up, I told him that I thought Jim Henson and Frank Oz would’ve loved his film, had they seen it. On the mention of Oz’s name, Segel tensed up. Oz had reportedly read an early draft of the script and so disliked it that he refused to see the finished version. Segel told me that it was his sole intention to honor the original vision of “Mr. Henson and Mr. Oz.” As he left the room, he looked at me and said, “Thank you for being so nice.”
Various tributes were made to our guests during the ceremony. While in town promoting their film, “Red Tails,” Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Nate Parker made an impromptu appearance to pay their respects to Jones, who Parker hailed as his hero. When I went onstage to present an award with my partner-in-crime, Pat McDonald, I couldn’t help concluding my cameo with the line, “And my hero is Jason Segel,” before bowing in his direction. The show ended with a prolonged performance of “Sweet Home Chicago,” during which the critics were invited to go onstage and dance. It sounded like the worst idea on earth, so naturally, I agreed to do it. I was only up there for a few seconds before Segel jumped up onstage and gave me a hug, thanking me again for my kind words. Then we took this picture…
With “The Muppets,” Segel certainly fulfilled Henson’s dream of making millions of people happy, myself included. For that one brief night, I was glad that I could put a smile on his face as well.