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Disney Cartoon #47, Muppets Mayhem Week: "Life's A Happy Song, When There's Someone By Your Side to Sing Along" (November 23, 2011) - published November 26, 2011

by Albert Gutierrez

It's time to play the music
It's time to light the lights
It's time to meet the Muppets
On the Muppet Show tonight!

Over the past three weeks, Saturday Matinee has looked at how soap, clapper boards, and baseball can be tied together with both Muppet and Disney. This week's Saturday Matinee brings us closer to the end of that Muppet Mayhem, but thankfully not the end of the Muppets. Last week, I promised readers a look at the "Most Muppetiest Muppetness ever Muppeted," a rather lofty goal. After all, with over forty years of song and dance, tears and laughter, wocka wocka wocka, etc. how can I pick just one moment that truly signifies what the Muppets are? I spent weeks trying to figure out that moment, and sadly came to the conclusion that such a moment is impossible to find. When all is said and done, the Muppets can't be defined by one moment. They are defined by their journey. Let's take a look at the Muppets' cinematic journey.

Life's like a movie, write your own ending
 Keep believing, keep pretending
We've done just what we set out to do
Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you

1979 saw the first Muppet movie, aptly titled The Muppet Movie. The Muppets were already well-known thanks to their successful television series, which had just finished up its third season. In The Muppet Movie, we learn that the Muppets have made a movie showing their origins, and all of them gather in a screening room to watch it. We see how Kermit was living contentedly in his swamp, when a Hollywood agent named Bernie (Dom DeLuise, the first of many cameos) overhears Kermit singing "Rainbow Connection." He inspires Kermit to go to Hollywood, where he can share his talents with the world. Along the way to Hollywood, Kermit meets up with the people who would become his nearest and dearest friends: Fozzie Bear, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, The Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy, Rowlf, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and Beaker. All the while, Kermit must also escape the clutches of ridiculously-evil Doc Hopper, who wants Kermit to be the spokesfrog for his French-fried frog-leg franchise (say that five times fast!). The movie is heavy on songs and gags rather than genuine story; after all, we're seeing how they come together.

In retrospect, The Muppet Movie serves more as a first act to a three-act play, continuing in The Great Muppet Caper and ending with The Muppets Take Manhattan. The first act is devoted to exposition and allows the audience to get to know the characters. The audience already knew the Muppets from their television series, and now had an opportunity to learn more about their "past." It's an excellent film that re-affirms what made "The Muppet Show" so popular while introducing our felt friends to the beautiful silver screen.

There'll be spectacle, there'll be fantasy
There'll be derring do, and stuff like you would never see
Hey, a movie!
Yeah! We're gonna be in a movie
Starring everybody and me!

The Great Muppet Caper hit theatres in 1981, and the Muppets take to London. Rather than play themselves, as they had done in the show (which had ended its five-year run a few months before this film's premiere) and first film, we see the Muppet directly take on characters. Even so, that line gets blurred now and again in Caper, since the Muppets' characters are so alike to their natural selves. Perhaps the only fiction to be found in the Muppets' characters is the idea that Kermit and Fozzie are twins. The gag is introduced early on, and forgotten almost immediately. Either way, twins Kermit and Fozzie head to London to investigate the case of Lady Holliday's stolen jewels. The Muppets learn that Lady Holliday's brother Nicky is behind it all, and he plans to steal her Fabulous Baseball Diamond next.

Unlike The Muppet Movie, we get a lot of story and action in The Great Muppet Caper, the second act of the three-act film journey. Exposition is generally left to quick explanations rather than the extended introductions we saw in the first film. In fact, the movie pokes fun at their use of exposition by having Lady Holliday provide her brother's backstory to Miss Piggy. When asked by Miss Piggy why she was telling all of this, Lady Hollliday proclaims, "It's plot exposition, it has to go somewhere!" It's one of the trademarks of a Muppet movie, occasionally acknowledging that they're in a movie. Even in the middle of The Great Muppet Caper, we get Kermit and Miss Piggy stopping their scene briefly to argue about her acting, nearly causing her to leave the movie until Kermit eventually apologizes.

 

Together again
Gee, it's good to be together again
I just can't imagine that you've ever been gone!
It's not starting over, it's just going on!

When The Muppets Take Manhattan arrived in theatres in 1984, it began with the most fitting song to re-introduce audiences to the characters. "Together Again" acknowledged the company of players reuniting for another movie, and we see a story that reflects the same idea. Canonicity to other films is slightly ignored, as Kermit and the gang have graduated Danhurst College and are now Broadway bound. Their success with "Manhattan Melodies" prompts them to seek out a producer, only to be turned down over and over again. Frustrated at the lack of progress, lack of money, and lack of morale, the gang decides to split up. They promise to get together if the show ever gets off the ground. Kermit remains in New York City to find ways to produce the show, while working at Pete's Luncheonette with Rizzo the Rat, Jenny, and Pete.

Continuing with our three-act analogy, The Muppets Take Manhattan provides the thrilling and satisfactory conclusion to the audience's cinematic journey with the Muppets. We've grown to know and love them in The Muppet Movie, supporting their underdog rise to fame and the signing of the "standard rich and famous contract." Having already become familiar with them, The Great Muppet Caper gives us an exciting adventure, allowing the Muppets to let loose in the absurdity of their storytelling. When we get to The Muppets Take Manhattan, we get a rich blend of character and story, as we see how their lives are so intertwined and connected that separation seems almost unnatural. And yet, it is through their separation that they eventually become close and are, as the first song tells us, "together again." The Muppets Take Manhattan has the most heart of all the Muppet films, because we see just how much of a family they have become.

The love is gone, the love is gone
The sweetest dream that we have ever known
The love is gone, the love is gone
I wish you well, but I must leave you now, alone

It would be eight years before the Muppets returned to theatres. 1992 gave us The Muppet Christmas Carol, a musical adaptation of Dickens' famous novella. Gonzo serves as narrator Charles Dickens, with Rizzo the Rat as his sidekick and Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. The Muppet Christmas Carol makes sure to establish that Scrooge's coldness is due to the absence of love in his life, and not necessarily a love of money. It's highlighted in the song "When Love Is Gone," which was unwisely cut from the theatrical version of the film, but thankfully re-instated for home video. It helps explain Scrooge's character, especially as we see him trembling through the lyrics. Suddenly, audiences sense a recurring sadness to Ebenezer, which makes his transformation and happiness by the film's end all the more bittersweet. We're happy that he's finally found love, but at the same time, there's still that pervading sadness of "what could have been." Ebenezer and Belle is perhaps the most tragic love story ever written, and The Muppet Christmas Carol is - in my opinion - the best representation of their love story when compared to other adaptations of A Christmas Carol.

But what does Ebenezer and Belle have to do with the Muppets? The idea of lost love slightly gets translated behind the scenes as well. This would be the first major Muppet project done without creator Jim Henson, whose sudden passing in May 1990 shocked and saddened many. As a result, the sadness in Ebenezer's heart can also be indicative of the sadness in the hearts of everyone who knew and loved Jim Henson. Likewise, The Muppet Christmas Carol became the first of the "escape" films, as I call them. We see the Muppets not as themselves, but as characters. It allows them - and viewers - to escape into a world not so personally-affected by real life.

Hey ho we'll go
Anywhere the wind is blowing
Bold and brave and free
Sailing for adventure on the deep blue see

The idea of the "escape" film is most prominent in the Muppets' next theatrical outing: 1996's Muppet Treasure Island. The film follows the same formula created by The Muppet Christmas Carol. We have Gonzo and Rizzo as our "hosts" throughout the movie, with the well-known story punctuated by songs and dance. Unlike the emotional rollercoaster that was The Muppet Christmas Carol, we get a lot of action and adventure in Muppet Treasure Island. This is a classic swashbuckling film, Muppet-style. Humor is much more prevalent here than in the previous film, as the filmmakers even turn one of the novel's more sensible characters - Squire Trelawney - into the rather dim-witted Fozzie Bear who believes "Mr. Bimbo" resides inside his thumb. While the gag is quite endearing, it was also a sign of things to come in Muppet movies.

There's no original song lyrics for this film
So I'm writing some here instead
And with no melody to hum to it with
It fortunately won't get stuck in your head

I don't want to be a Debbie Downer, but 1999's Muppets From Space is a far cry from what a Muppet movie should be. Strangely, all the ingredients are present for a hit: the familiar characters, an engaging story, laughter. Unfortunately, the mixing and baking of the ingredients left us with a porridge of absurdity. Gonzo's background has never been formally addressed on the show, hence the oft-used "Whatever" to describe him. His journey to discover who he is should be an exciting one. Instead, it becomes overshadowed by too much absurdity. He's always been a bit offbeat - that's what made him such a charming character - but Muppets From Space turns his oddities into a reason for others to doubt him. I was never comfortable with the other Muppets' reactions towards Gonzo in this film, especially Miss Piggy using Gonzo's personal journey as a platform for her career. I'm sure the movie has its fans - I still enjoy it when I watch - but Muppets From Space only served to make the Muppets suddenly appear uncool to everyone who wasn't already a Muppet fan.

The twelve years between 1999's Muppets from Space and 2011's The Muppets were not kind to the franchise. Two disappointing television movies and three forgettable specials did little to enhance the Muppets. Aside from viral video productions on YouTube, it seemed like Disney's purchase of the franchise was killing it rather than reviving it. Fortunately, all the errors of the past twelve years are forgiven. This weekend saw the release of The Muppets, a sweet and nostalgic valentine to the Muppet movies of yore.

Without giving too much away, the new film provides viewers - new and old - a reason why the Muppets are still relevant. Forget the expensive summer blockbusters of style over substance. Forget the animated CGI comedies with a dozen celebrity voices. Forget the pretentious dramas with actors who'll only pick "important" roles. The Muppets is the true reason why we go to the movies. We want to laugh, we want to cry, we want to cheer. Most importantly, we want to do all three for characters that are worth our laughs, tears, and applause. Who better to share those with than the Muppets? Whether it be for the first or fiftieth time we're seeing them, the Muppets are here to stay, back in the spotlight, right where they belong. It's been a long time coming. Welcome home, Kermit.

Everything is great everything is grand
I've got the whole wide world in the palm of my hand
Everything is perfect, it's falling into place
I can't seem to wipe this smile off my face
Life's a happy song, when there's someone by your side to sing along

 

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