We’re going to do our best to keep from setting you up for a disappointment by overselling The Muppets (out in theaters tomorrow). Seriously, we’re going to try. But the fact of the matter is, it’s utterly delightful — a charming, witty, and frequently heartbreaking little gem. If we’re responding to it with more enthusiasm than it deserves, so be it; we grew up loving the Muppet movies, and this new effort somehow manages to summon up the spirit of (to borrow the Star Wars parlance) the “original trilogy” while also existing as its own wonderful addition to the Henson canon. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll leave singing “Mahna Mahna.” So, in celebration of the franchise’s return to form, we’d like to pause and enjoy a few of our favorite moments from the earlier Muppet movies; add your own in the comments.
Kermit rides a bike, The Muppet Movie
“Jolson sang, Barrymore spoke, Garbo laughed, and now Kermit the Frog rides a bicycle,” began Roger Ebert’s original 1979 review of The Muppet Movie. “If you can figure out how they were able to show Kermit pedaling across the screen, then you are less a romantic than I am: I prefer to believe he did it himself.” It apparently had something to do with invisible strings and marionette crane, but never mind; the point is, early on in the gang’s inaugural screen effort, it was clear that it was going to be a magical experience. (Never ones to rest on their laurels, the Muppeteers put the whole gang on bikes for their next film.)
The heist checklist, The Great Muppet Caper
The climax of the Muppets’ second movie, The Great Muppet Caper, concerns the gang’s attempt to break into the Mallory Gallery and catch a gang of jewel-thieves red-handed (“What color are their hands now?”), in order to clear a framed Miss Piggy. Thus, the film becomes a deft and funny send-up of the clichés of the heist movie — including the pre-caper checking of supplies. In this scene, we see the gang of thieves (led by Charles Grodin) running down the checklist of their supplies, intercut with the Muppets’ gathering of their own necessities. (Bonus fun: the heist elements of Muppet Caper led, years later, to one of our all-time favorite mash-up trailers.)
Muppets Meet Mad Men, The Muppets Take Manhattan
When Kermit gets hit by a car and ends up with amnesia in the gang’s third feature, 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan, he ends up stumbling into a lucrative new career as an adman. We can’t explain exactly why, but his detour as “Phil,” accidental advertising genius and colleague of Bill, Gil, and Jill, has always been one of our favorite things about this particular Muppet movie.
“Movin’ Right Along” and Big Bird’s cameo, The Muppet Movie
Kermit and Fozzie’s high-spirited ode to the pleasures of the road is one of the musical highlights of the entire Muppet series. Finding the frog and bear in their natural habitat (a Studebaker), it’s a toe-tapping number, full of inventive cutaways, little jokes, and unintentional education (to this day, the lyric “Hey I’ve never seen the sun come up in the West?” remains a navigational tool for your author). Best of all, it features an appearance by Sesame Street‘s Big Bird, who refuses the duo’s offer for a ride: “No thanks — I’m on my way to New York City to try to break in to public television!”
Janice’s unfinished story, The Great Muppet Caper
In The Great Muppet Caper, a raucous cacophony of characters talking over each other are quieted by Kermit, leaving only the hilariously hippy-dippy Janice, guitarist for Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, still talking, in mid-story: “Look, Mother. It’s my life. OK. So if I want to live on a beach and walk around naked… Oh”. If we know one thing, it’s that the Muppet writers knew the value of a good running gag; in The Muppets Take Manhattan, Janice’s unintentional outburst indicates a more uptight attitude about going au naturale: “So I told him ‘Look, buddy, I don’t take my clothes off for anybody, even if it is artistic,’ and… Oh”.
Roll call, Muppets Treasure Island
It is easy for those of us who grew up watching those first three films to look upon the later, post-Jim Henson Muppet movies derisively, and to be sure, they’re no match for the originals. But they do have their moments — like this one, in the 1996 film Muppets Treasure Island (directed by Henson’s son Brian), in which Kermit’s Captain Abraham Smollett is introduced to his crew of “cutthroats, villains, and scoundrels.”
Orson Welles as Sir Lew Lord in The Muppet Movie
One of the many pleasures of the Muppet films — and one carried through to their latest effort — are the cameo appearances. The Muppet Movie sports perhaps the series’ most envy-inducing cast of human co-stars, including Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, Elliot Gould, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman. But our favorite is the appearance of cinematic legend Orson Welles as “Sir Lew Lord” (the name’s a play on that of British impressario Sir Lew Grade, who bankrolled The Muppet Show), who arranges “the standard ‘rich and famous’ contract for Kermit the Frog and company.” It’s a lovely scene — and a bittersweet one for film fans, as Welles’s Lew Lord is exactly the kind of powerful mogul who Welles was himself unable to appeal to in this period.
Miss Piggy channel Esther Williams, The Great Muppet Caper
Henson and company’s affectionate parody of the water ballets of MGM star Esther Williams also served as one of Miss Piggy’s most memorable sequences in The Great Muppet Caper (or GMC, as it is apparently known in Muppet fan circles). It’s a very funny scene — but it doesn’t go for cheap shots, relying instead on the silliness of the form and the incongruence of a puppet pig in the middle of it. But when it all falls apart at the end, we’re not laughing at poor Piggy, but sympathizing with her. Plus, gotta love those Grodin inserts.
“Saying Goodbye,” The Muppets Take Manhattan
The Muppet filmmakers were equally skilled at pulling heart strings as they were at tickling funny bones, and “Saying Goodbye” is one of the series’ most moving numbers — even more so when one realizes that this was Jim Henson’s final time voicing Kermit on film. It’s a heart-breaking little number, nearly as much a tearjerker as their most iconic song…
“The Rainbow Connection,” The Muppet Movie (and The Muppets)
The Muppet Movie‘s opening song is, quite simply, a little masterpiece of longing and heart, sung by Kermit (Henson) with all of the melancholy the little fellow can convey. It’s actually a pretty heavy note to start the movie on, but the sweetness of the tune and the emotional resonance that it carries sets up what follows as much more than a simple “kid’s movie.” That extra dimension was part of what made those Muppet movies so special, and that’s what the new film recreates so masterfully. And just wait until you see how they use “Rainbow Connection” in it.