Hoppin’ it to Hollywood

Kermit’s show business success story

Published: Sep 24 2017, 01:01:am

Tuesday, July 3, 1979.

THE MUPPET MOVIE. Written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl. Music by Ken Ascher and Paul Williams. Directed by James Frawley. Running time: 95 minutes. General entertainment.
THE BEST MOMENT IN The Muppet Movie comes very near the end. Kermit the Frog has spent most of the picture on the run, pursuing a dream of Hollywood stardom, while avoiding the henchmen of the evil Dr. Hopper (Charles Durning).
    Hopper, the national French fried frog legs franchiser, wants the talented amphibian to star in his TV commercials, and will stop at nothing to get his way. Tired of running, Kermit proposes a showdown in the streets of a Western ghost town (in reality, the set built for 1952's High Noon).
    Hopper arrives with a gang of heavily armed toughs and the deadly black-clad Frog Killer (Scott Walker). Kermit, unarmed, is surrounded by his friends: Fozzie Bear, Rowlf the Dog, Gonzo, Miss Piggy and Dr. Teeth's Electric Mayhem band.
    Kermit makes an eloquent, impassioned speech on behalf of understanding, fair play and the American Way.
    Either let us go, or kill me, he says.
    Hopper is deeply moved.
    He shuffles his feet, takes off his hat and scratches his head. Apparently embarrassed and contrite, he turns away from our hero and says, softly, “kill’em.”
    The word, combining “marionette'' and “puppet,” was coined by Jim Henson to describe his unique comedy creations. Believe it or not, Muppets have been with us since the mid-1950s.
    Kermit did guest spots on NBC’s The Tonight Show during the Steve Allen era [circa 1956]. Henson and Associates have been polishing his act for a long time.
    Their big break was Sesame Street, U.S. public television's streetwise show for urban pre-schoolers. Kermit and friends became painless pedagogues, conducting classes in the alphabet, numbers and basic grammer.
    Like Disney’s mouse, Henson's frog was soon overshadowed by a wildly original collection of characters that included Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch. Kermit mellowed, became Establishment and, in 1976, became the host of his own prime-time program, The Muppet Show.
    Viewers loved it. Last December [1978], Time Magazine called it “the funniest show on television,” and “certainly the most popular television entertainment now being produced on earth.”
    It’s seen in 76 countries by an estimated 235 million fans. According to The New York Times, it is “the most popular contemporary television program in the world.”
    But, you ask, can the Muppets make it in the movies?
    “It’s the biggest thing that I've ever seen,” says John Pedersen, assistant manager of Vancouver’s 1,042-seat Stanley Theatre. “We've sold out every performance since Friday. We turned away 600 people at the Saturday matinee, and another 600 at the 7:30 show.”
    The movie,  the summer's surprise hit, departs from the music-hall format of the television show. It's a road picture, a cheeky parody of the standard show-business success story offering its own version of “how The Muppets really got started.”
    It opens with Kermit singing and strumming his banjo in a Southern swamp. Bernie (Dom DeLuise), a Hollywood agent, interrupts him to ask directions. Before rowing away, Bernie shows Kermit an ad in Variety.
    World Wide Studios are holding open auditions for frogs. Why not give it a whirl?
    Why not? Full of hope and ambition, Kermit sets off for tinseltown, following a path strewn with danger, chance meetings, one-liners, outrageous puns and guest stars.
    My own favourite scene has the happy adventurer passing a huge yellow canary who is lumbering along in the opposite direction. “Want a lift?” Kermit cheerfully offers.  
    “No thanks,” says the Big Bird. “I’m on my way to New York to break into public television.”
    A bright, witty screenplay by Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns helps director Jim Frawley maintain a consistently high level of groans, grimaces and gags.
    Paul Williams's score, on the other hand, is a disappointment. The songs are substandard, offering little that is memorable and serving only to slow the action.
     But not for long. Abetted by such stalwarts as Miss Piggy, Mel Brooks, Fozzie and Steve Martin, Kermit can't lose.
    Nor can the audience.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1979. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Jim Henson’s art endures due to the personal complexity he brought to his outwardly simple creations. Influenced by the counterculture of the 1960s — his friend and collaborator Frank Oz called his approach “affectionate anarchy” in an interview with Henson biographer Brian Jay Jones — the Mississippi-born Henson took part in the educational revolution represented by public television’s Sesame Street. In 1976, when the U.S. commercial networks passed on his idea for a prime-time variety program, he took The Muppet Show to England, where independent producer Lew Grade saw the syndication potential in the property, and financed what became an international hit.
    Three years later, the characters Henson created for television made their feature debut in The Muppet Movie. A critical and commercial hit, it was No. 7 on the list of 1979’s top-grossing films. (The music that I called disappointing in the above review earned composers Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher two Academy Award nominations.) Not one to rest on his laurels, Henson struck out in the direction of dark fantasy, collaborating with artist Brian Froud on The Dark Crystal, the 1982 muppet feature he co-directed with Frank Oz. He followed that with the lighter Labyrinth (1986), a return to combining human and muppet performers that featured an unforgettable performance from David Bowie. Henson forged a Canadian connection with his five-season Fraggle Rock (1983-1987), a new series filmed in Toronto in cooperation with the CBC. His 1990 death from toxic shock syndrome, unexpected and sudden at the age of 53, was a shock to fans of his work worldwide. His memory is honoured in a permanent exhibition at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, and in a special exhibition on view at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture until the end of 2017.  

See also: Other artists who have made memorable contributions to the history of motion picture puppetry include Tim Burton, who produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993); George Pal, whose work is celebrated in The Puppetoon Movie (1987); and Will Vinton, director of the Festival of Claymation (1987).