The Muppet Movie is a consciously meta work of art. It’s the story of how a bunch of weirdos found their people, and came together to make a film; being told by a bunch of weirdos who found their people, and came together to make a film; being told by a bunch of weirdos who found their people and came together to make a film.
The framing device of the film is that The Muppets we all know and love are settling into a theater to watch the movie they’ve just made - their first, which tells something like the story of how they found one another and came to Hollywood to become ‘rich and famous.’ That film within a film, begins with Kermit the Frog sitting on a log in a swamp, strumming his banjo and singing one of the better songs to ever open a film, “Rainbow Connection;” and concludes, with Kermit having collected his troupe, the Muppets signing their rich and famous contract, and, now on their very own soundstage, proceeding to create the story we’ve just watched. All of this culminates in a musical finale, being sung while, in typically anarchic Muppet fashion, their film sets collapse all around them, leaving the audience with this final message:
“Life’s like a movie
Write your own ending
We’ve done just what we set out to do.
Thanks to the lovers,
The film is so knowingly self-aware that, more than once, part of what moves the plot forward is the characters in the film reading the screenplay of the film that they are currently living through in order to figure out what to do next. Beyond The Muppets themselves, though, we can delve even one layer further, because of how much the story of Kermit and friends also doubles as the story of Jim Henson and his friends, and how Jim started out as a kid in Mississippi, and went on to collect his own bunch of weirdos to create the world and characters and stories that we’ve been enjoying all of these years.
This idea is highlighted a bit by that chaotic musical finale mentioned above. The scene winds up being a bit of a mid-career capstone to everything Henson had done up to that point. As the final song swells, we pull back to see more Muppets than had ever been on screen before - not just the characters from the film we’ve been watching, but also characters from most of the projects Jim and company had done to date. By one account, 250 Muppet characters appear in the scene, from projects like Sesame Street, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, and even the Muppets from The Land of Gorch sketches that Jim did for the first season of Saturday Night Live. Much of the Muppet production family is on screen, or at least their Muppet clad arms, because of just how many capable puppeteers Jim needed in order to pull this scene off. In the film, we’re seeing something of Kermit’s dream come true, as he is surrounded by everyone that helped get him there, while in reality we’re also seeing something of Jim Henson’s own Hollywood dream come true, as he too is surrounded by everyone that helped him get there.
The Muppet Movie was made on the heels of the breakthrough success of The Muppet Show, the TV program that ran for five seasons starting in 1976. The show was an unexpected phenomenon when it launched, but hardly an overnight success for Jim Henson, as it debuted over 20 years after his first tv performance as an 18 year old puppeteer on The Junior Morning Show in 1954. It’s interesting to go back to watch Jim’s earliest work because you can see how much of his voice and sense of humor were already present, along with the novel look and feel of his expressive fabric hand puppets. But you can also see how much had yet to be filled in, too. His wife, Jane Henson, was already working with him early on, but it was a while before Jim collected other familiar voices like Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, or Dave Goelz to bounce off of; Or someone like Jerry Juhl to write with; Or a master craftsman like Don Sahlin to build Muppets and creatures for him; Or someone like Paul Williams to write songs for him; and so on, and so on. It took decades of collecting and playing with these kinds of weirdos, working with them all, over and over again, before Jim evolved The Muppets into the cultural institution they would become; An outcome that would have been impossible for Jim working alone.
The actual plot of The Muppet Movie is a bit of a curiosity in how besides the point it ends up being. The film is built from scenes and songs that are strung together to get the audience from Kermit’s swamp to that Hollywood soundstage, but the film’s priority is always having fun and being entertaining in the moment, as opposed to obsessing over how those scenes tie together. Paul Williams has even commented on how Jim didn’t even want to hear the songs he was writing while they were still in progress, trusting that Williams would do his best work without needless interference, and that it wouldn’t be a problem to find a way to make whatever he came up with work within the film. Jim’s underlying idea seemed to be that, if all the pieces worked and were entertaining on their own, then the whole film would work, regardless of any minor mismatches and inconsistencies.
That bears out, as the film does hang together just fine, but it’s interesting to actually break down those pieces to see some of the fraying at the edges. The points I’m going to make may wind up sounding like criticisms, but I do think everything in the film works like gangbusters independent of these quibbles, and I only bring them up to make a larger point about why I think the film works anyway.
At the beginning of the film, Kermit is singing his ‘I want’ song, “Rainbow Connection,” in his swamp, however, based on that song, Kermit isn’t really thinking about anything like going to Hollywood until the Hollywood agent inexplicably rowing through his swamp happens upon him and tells Kermit about the upcoming auditions for frogs interested in being rich and famous. There’s even some hesitancy on Kermit’s part, as the idea of being ‘rich and famous’ doesn’t get him to jump, but the idea of making millions of people happy does. So, he sets out for Hollywood.
Kermit interrupts his trip almost immediately to stop at a dive bar - ostensibly to eat, although he never gets around to doing that - where he comes upon Fozzie Bear bombing in front of an increasingly angry audience. Kermit jumps on stage to help him out, but fails spectacularly, making the audience even angrier. The new duo flee the bar to climb into Fozzie’s Studebaker, and hit the road together. Fozzie even makes a joke about how little reflection it takes him to decide to join up with Kermit. It’s what the plot demands, though, so on we go.
Now Kermit and the troupe aren’t just traveling to Hollywood; They’re being pursued. Early in the story, shortly after beginning his journey, Kermit is spotted by Doc Hopper, the owner of a chain of restaurants specializing in deep fried frog’s legs. Over the course of the film, Doc Hopper becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that if Kermit was his restaurant’s mascot, he could grow his business into a nationwide chain. It’s not exactly a coherent plan, but it is an effective plot engine to lend some stakes and urgency to Kermit’s quest, while also being overtly silly enough to make clear that neither this device, nor anything in the film really, ought to be taken all that seriously.
After connecting with Fozzie, the two of them come across the all Muppet band, The Electric Mayhem, who are practicing in an abandoned seeming church. In lieu of bringing the band members up to speed on what they’ve been through so far, Kermit and Fozzie give the band a copy of the screenplay to the movie, which they read while Kermit and Fozzie nap. The band learns that Kermit and Fozzie are being pursued by Doc Hopper. To help the duo evade Doc Hopper, the band decides to give Fozzie’s car a psychedelic makeover, accompanied by a music montage with the song, “Can You Picture That.” Like Kermit’s plan to rescue Fozzie from the angry crowd, this plan also fails spectacularly as immediately after leaving the Electric Mayhem behind to continue their journey, they are instantaneously spotted by Doc Hopper.
All of the scenes of the film have this kind of self-contained consequence-free vibe. Kermit and Fozzie meet Gonzo by crashing their car into his, only for his car to flip perfectly on top of theirs. Gonzo climbs down from his car into theirs and immediately joins up with them on their journey. They go on to meet Miss Piggy by seeing her winning a beauty pageant at a local fair, but it’s never mentioned why they’re interrupting their trip to stop at the fair in the first place. Miss Piggy and Kermit go out for a date that night, just the two of them. Piggy leaves to take a phone call, seemingly abandoning Kermit, which allows him to meet piano playing Rowlf the Dog, who will also go on to join their troupe with little discussion.
Miss Piggy didn’t ditch Kermit, she was actually kidnapped by Doc Hopper. Kermit goes to rescue Piggy and is captured himself. The pair are tied up, and Kermit is doomed to have his brain scrambled by the Nazi-seeming doctor that Doc Hopper has secured to force Kermit to be his mascot. When Kermit is being taken to the machine that will scramble his brains, Piggy gets a surge a emotion that allows her to break free of her bonds and single handedly defeats all of Doc Hopper’s henchman, raising the question of why she couldn’t have just done that sooner.
The moment the two of them are free, Piggy gets another call from her agent, and she unceremoniously takes off to film a commercial to end the scene on a laugh. Their separation is very short, as they’re reunited only moments later, when Kermit and the troupe see her unexpectedly hitchhiking on the side of the road. What’s happened in the interim is not explained, but she gets in the car and immediately rejoins the troop.
They’re on the last leg of their trip, seemingly with a clear path to Hollywood, when Fozzie’s car breaks down, stranding the troupe. They build a campfire, feeling forlorn that they’re going to miss the auditions, Kermit in particular struggles with the idea that he’s let himself and everyone down. Structurally and tonally, it’s a scene that makes sense going into the final act of the film, but its resolution is The Electric Mayhem showing up to rescue them, having read the script from earlier.
Again, everyone takes to the road, but we still need to wrap up the storyline with Doc Hopper. Kermit agrees to face him in a conveniently located old west ghost town. Before Doc Hopper and his gang arrive, Kermit and company meet Beaker and Bunson Honeydew, who have set up a laboratory in this old west town to work on inventions. Kermit goes out to stand up to Doc Hopper, and he makes a fine speech illuminating the importance of having friends and following your dreams, and that if Doc Hopper is going to stand in the way of Kermit following his dreams, he might as well just kill him. And, again, like most everything Kermit has set out to do in the film, his plan fails. Doc Hopper orders his men to kill Kermit, but Kermit is rescued by a last minute Deus ex Muppet as Animal, who has gotten into Bunson’s insta-grow pills, briefly grows taller than the buildings of the ghost town, scaring Doc Hopper and his men away. Unencumbered, the group heads off again, finally making it to Hollywood.
I go through all of this, not in a nitpicking way, to say that nothing that happens in the film matters to the story. Because there is one decisive choice that Kermit and the characters make again and again throughout the course of the film that is very important. Every time Kermit encounters a new character that wants to join him, however odd they might be, he welcomes them with open arms. In that sense, the decision that friends are the family that you get to choose, he chooses these weirdos over and over again. And they choose one another. They all sign onto Kermit’s dream, and it becomes their dream. They’re all heading to this place where they’ll get to make things together that they hope will make other people happy.
In many ways, despite some occasional creakiness, The Muppet Movie, winds up being the purest and most successfully executed project of Jim Henson’s career because of how well it understands the themes it’s working with, and so, it perfectly reflects the sensibilities of both Jim Henson and The Muppets. A big part of what has made The Muppet Movie so relatable and loveable, for so many, for so long, is how strongly the themes of the film echo the very same motivations that animated the lives of the people behind the scenes: finding and accepting your people, chasing your dreams while helping others chase theirs, and reveling in any opportunity to put on a show.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.