Playful Anarchy: The Muppet Movie at 45

One of the pilot episodes for the variety show that would become The Muppet Show was entitled “Sex and Violence.” For anyone who associates the Muppets with their current corporate overlord, the Walt Disney Company, it may be difficult to square the squeaky-clean image of the felt characters with the notion of such adult concepts. But the Muppets of the 1970s were massive, leaping from the first season of Saturday Night Live to the playfully anarchic The Muppet Show and eventually their first film, naturally titled The Muppet Movie

Arriving 45 years ago, on June 22, 1979, The Muppet Movie may have been appropriate for all ages, but it still had a notably edgy bent. The film does boast G-rated adventure, in documenting how Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and the rest all met and arrived in Hollywood. But it also features an extended setpiece in which a cartoonishly nefarious German doctor (Mel Brooks, because of course) tries to melt Kermit’s brain, suggesting someone only slightly removed from his demented Nazis in The Producers. Other sequences include Kermit and Fozzie’s first meeting at an outrageously sleazy dive bar, Kermit evading capture by a cruel fast-food franchiser with a thing for frog legs, and a climax in which Kermit has to face off against a jumpsuit-wearing assassin. The Muppets always walked a tight balance between the pleasant and the perverse, and it’s on display far more in the original Muppet Movie than in its follow-ups.

That’s in spite of the fact that The Muppet Movie was directed by a relative outsider, James Frawley. Though Frawley directed a few other features, he was primarily a TV hired hand brought in to bring a dose of sanity to the proceedings. One of the human co-stars, Austin Pendleton, later noted “That was a very unhappy set, because [Frawley] was very unhappy directing that movie. I noticed that was the only time the Muppet people used an outside person to direct a Muppet movie.”  

The Muppet Movie, at least, gives you a warning from the top about its one-screw-loose approach: the film’s framing device is that the Muppets are sitting down in a Hollywood screening room to…watch The Muppet Movie. During the story, the film projector breaks (as it’s being overseen by the hapless Swedish Chef) and the conclusion is punctuated by the human-size Sweetums literally bursting through the film screen, after chasing the Muppets through the film-within-a-film simply to become one of their friends.

The hallmarks of future Muppet movies are present throughout The Muppet Movie, but they are vastly fresher in the first incarnation. There’s a romantic subplot with Kermit and Miss Piggy, who come together, split apart, and come back together, all while Piggy karate-chops her way out of one scrape and balances an off-screen agent to angle for better parts. There’s a glut of celebrity cameos; though Peter Falk’s walk-on role in The Great Muppet Caper rivals it for laughs, there’s no beating Steve Martin as a casually dressed and perpetually put-upon waiter. Of course, no Muppet movie is truly a Muppet movie without original songs, and “Rainbow Connection” is arguably among the five most iconic songs in film history. (“Rainbow Connection” gets to wear as a badge of honor the fact that it lost the Original Song Oscar to “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, a song whose lyrics and melody you’ve surely memorized). 

The reality of diminishing returns for future Muppet movies is only partly because The Muppet Movie set the bar so high. Roxana Hadadi at this very site once wrote about Charles Grodin’s undeniably excellent and hilarious work as the villain of The Great Muppet Caper, but that film doesn’t have the top-to-bottom killer songs that Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher wrote for the original. Only the first three Muppet movies feature the legendary Jim Henson and fellow Muppet performer Richard Hunt, each of whom passed away in the early 1990s, before production on The Muppet Christmas Carol began. And at the end of the day, the heart of the Muppets was with Henson as well as his comedic partnership with Frank Oz. 

Every so often on social media (less so now that the formerly-named Twitter is the garbage fire known as X), someone will reshare this video, featuring test footage of Henson and Oz performing as Kermit and Fozzie Bear in the run-up to filming on The Muppet Movie. The comfort and ease with which the performers improvise with each other is reflected in those first three Muppet movies, but nowhere stronger than here. People knew who Kermit and Fozzie and Piggy and Gonzo were before this film opened in the summer of 1979, but they became larger-than-life icons (and in the case of the drum-loving Animal, that was literal) with this quintessential piece of all-ages entertainment.

“The Muppet Movie” is streaming on Disney+.

Josh Spiegel is a freelance film and TV writer and critic, who you may also remember from his truly ridiculous March Madness-style Disney brackets on social media. His work has appeared at Slashfilm, Vulture, Slate, Polygon, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post, and more.

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