Forget lights, camera, action. It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights! Yes, with a new Muppet movie on the way to us next year and the full proper trailer finally arriving, we thought we’d take a quick look back at Kermit and the fuzzy faction’s history in the cinema. While we’ll always love the Muppets, not all of their films are winners...
Meta from its earliest moments, the Muppets’ first trip into the cinema is ostensibly an origin story for how they all got together, though as Kermit himself admits early on, it’s a somewhat fictionalised version of events, and one which they’re already watching in a screening room. But it’s loaded with iconic Muppet moments, including a Jim Henson-performed Kermit playing The Rainbow Connection for the first time (and scoring an Oscar nomination for writers Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher). There’s room for a Sesame Street crossover, and Charles Durning as scheming, Colonel Sanders-style villain Doc Hopper, who wants Kermit to be the spokesfrog for his new frogs legs restaurant. Add to that a plethora of cameos from Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Telly Savalas and more, including Orson Welles as a spoof version of Lord Lew Grade, who gives the thumbs up to a little TV series called The Muppet Show.
Caper keeps to the format of blending musical numbers with the usual madcap Muppet behaviour. This time around, they cook up a criminal mystery, with Kermit and Fozzie as reporters dispatched to England alongside photographer Gonzo to track down the victim of a jewel theft. Along the way, they confront cheating toffs, light-fingered clothes models and Miss Piggy, who has been trying to kick-start her own career as a fashion star. Never letting logic get in the way of a good gag (Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem are seemingly permanent residents of a run-down London hotel), it’s a knockabout romp in more ways than one, particularly since Piggy gets to deliver a flurry of karate chops.
For those playing spot-the-famous person-in-a-small-role? John Cleese, Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley are among those who show up besides more featured cast members Charles Grodin, Diana Rigg and Kate Howard.
Frank Oz, the voice of Miss Piggy, Animal, Cookie Monster, Sam the Eagle and loads more, takes over directing duties and launches his own career behind the camera in the process. The Muppets Take Manhattan is also a little bittersweet because it was Jim Henson’s last film with the team before his death. Plot-wise, we find Kermit and co as struggling graduates, desperate to get their variety show on to the Broadway stage. After being ripped off by a con man and rejected by reputable producers, the gang goes their separate ways across America in an attempt to find work to support themselves. But Kermit – and new friend Rizzo the Rat – keep the fame flame alive and eventually manage to get everyone back together for a triumphant show. Oh, and he also ends up married to Miss Piggy. The cameo count remains high, with John Landis, Frances Bergen, Liza Minnelli and Joan Rivers all among those who show up to play.
After having taken nearly a decade-long break from the big screen to focus on other projects and recover from their beloved chief Henson’s death, Team Muppet returns in style for the first (and still best) of their two flat-out literary parodies. Roping in a game Michael Caine as Scrooge and tinkering only slightly with the source material, this Christmas Carol finds Gonzo posing as Charles Dickens and relating the familiar story of the miser changed by supernatural encounters. Highlights include Statler and Waldorf as Jacob (and Robert) Marley, some solid work from the rats who work with Scrooge and Bob Cratchit (Kermit) and a batch of truly catchy musical numbers. Unusual in that it focuses more on humans than the Muppets themselves (though most of the regulars still get high-profile roles), it’s by turns spooky and cheerful. One big change? No cameos this time around, though plenty of familiar faces in small roles, including a youthful Steven Mackintosh as Scrooge’s nephew Fred.
Though not quite as much fun as Christmas Carol, the gang’s take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate tale nevertheless delivered strong reviews and even more booty at the box office than their dally with Dickens. Keeping to a similar format, the cast is front-loaded with real people, including Kevin Bishop, Tim Curry and Billy Connolly, while also offering prime parts to Kermit and the rest. Thanks to the positive response to their roles as joint narrators on the last film, Gonzo and Rizzo were squeezed into the plot as friends of hero Jim Hawkins. Music and mayhem build around the central plot, and Tim Curry finally finds a cast who enjoy OTT performances as much as he does. It’s once again a cameo-free zone, though there are small roles for Jennifer Saunders and Jerry Nelson. Fun fact: US produce company Hormel tried to sue the production for using the name Spa'am (a riff on Spam) for one of the tribal warthog characters in the movie. They lost, with the judge snarkily commenting, “one might think Hormel would welcome the association with a genuine source of pork.”
Despite their success with Christmas Carol and Treasure Island, the Muppets have not gone back to the literary well since then (at least not on the big screen – though they did tackle the Wizard of Oz in a TV movie). Nope, for Muppets in Space, the producers looked to craft an original epic, albeit one that affectionately pokes fun at sci-fi tropes in everything from Close Encounters to The X-Files. The story follows Gonzo – heretofore always classified as a “Whatever” - learning that he’s actually an alien, and trying to meet his outer space family. Another big change was the switch from being a flat-out musical, though there’s plenty of soul and funk to be found littering the soundtrack. The likes of Jeffrey Tambor, Ron Schneider and F Murray Abraham crop up, and there are funny, self-spoofing cameos from Dawson’s Creek veterans Joshua Jackson and Katie Holmes. It’s just a shame that this most recent release was nowhere near as successful, creatively or critically.
Technically, the next Muppet movie arrives in 2011, since it has a Thanksgiving weekend release date set in the US. We just won’t see it until February next year (booo!) Still, from the trailers that have been stuck online to date, it hopefully promises to be a worth-the-wait return to form, with Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segel and Flight of the Conchords director James Bobin cooking up a brand new Muppet outing that finds the characters trying to save their old theatre from the clutches of an oil tycoon with demolition on his mind. We expect plenty of music (since Bobin roped in Conchord veteran Bret McKenzie to help with the songs), loads of silly gags and plenty of cameos including Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Donald Glover and Billy Crystal. Plus with the full Muppet support team (minus Frank Oz) on board, we’ve got high hopes.