nostalgia fact-check

Nostalgia Fact-Check: How Do the Classic Muppet Movies Hold Up?

Photo: Henson Associates

The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. This week, we consider the classics of the Muppet canon: The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and The Muppet Show.

Background: By the time The Muppet Movie came out in 1979, the Muppets themselves were already pervasive and iconic: They’d been appearing on SNL and Ed Sullivan for years, The Muppet Show was in its fourth season, and Sesame Street’s eleventh season started a few months later. Kermit guest-hosted The Tonight Show, and the classic John Denver Christmas special aired later that year. The Great Muppet Caper followed in 1981, and The Muppets Take Manhattan in 1984 — and in the meantime, Jim Henson et al. were working Fraggle Rock, a variety of Sesame Street side projects, The Dark Crystal, and several holiday specials. It might feel like the Muppets have never left, but back in the late seventies and early eighties, the Muppets were everywhere.

Nostalgia Demo: Anyone who can remember Jim Henson’s death in 1990. Everyone younger still likes the Muppets, but they don’t feel nostalgic about them.

Nostalgia Fact-Check: Lester Bangs said we’d never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis, but he was wrong: We’ll never agree on anything as we agree on the Muppets. They teach us to count. They teach us to share. In the world’s saddest YouTube clips imaginable, they teach us to mourn. We may outgrow the Disney characters or dinosaur books that populate our childhoods, but we don’t outgrow the Muppets in the same way. Pixar is kid entertainment adults like, but the Muppets (post-Sesame, anyway) are adult entertainment kids like. We grow into our appreciation of Jim Henson’s whimsy and decency, and the more media we consume the more clear it becomes that the Muppets are a kind of oasis. Comic-book lore gets divisive, Star Wars enthusiasm turns fans crazy. But “Mahna Mahna” lives on.

At least “Mahna Mahna” lives on for me. I hadn’t watched any of the older Muppet movies in years, and what stood out — more than how much Miss Piggy’s face has changed, more than how overwhelmingly male the Muppets are, more than how cringe-inducing some of the puns are — was how perfect some of the high points manage to be. The parts you like are still wonderful, even if the parts you forgot are pretty forgettable, actually.

The Muppet Movie is a loosey goosey origin tale that makes up in dreaminess what it lacks in narrative velocity. It’s the story of how the Muppets found one another, starting with a slimy Dom DeLouise discovering Kermit plucking his tunes in the swamp. There’s not a ton of movie here — episodes of Cheers are more heavily plotted — but the pure emotion that comes through at certain points just knocks me out. “Rainbow Connection” is the most famous song from the movie, but there’s a more wistful song that touches on similar themes of wanting to belong, wanting to be oneself, and marveling at the mystery and loveliness of one’s surroundings: Gonzo’s “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.”

Try to collect yourself. And then realize that there are no other characters in popular imagination more able to engender affection than the Muppets. “There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met,” Gonzo warbles, sublimely — and simply — articulating both the thrill of newfound platonic love and the almost painful need to feel worthy of it. “I’ve never been there, but I know the way,” he sings. The idea of a lonesome Gonzo is almost too much to bear.

The Great Muppet Caper took a different approach; if The Muppet Movie is akin to the backstage scenes on The Muppet Show, then Caper is like the big production numbers, in which Kermit and Fozzie and Rowlf are all playing characters. The Muppets are extremely literal and deeply earnest, which makes them excellent satirists, and in Caper, old-timey jewel-stealing movies are right in the crosshairs. Kermit plays an intrepid reporter looking for a story, Gonzo plays his hapless photographer, Miss Piggy plays the receptionist accidentally at the center of a crime ring, and the panoply of celebrity cameos fill out the London setting. At the time, Caper was considered a decent but not-up-to-par successor to The Muppet Movie, but 30 (yikes!) years later, the two seem about even. Caper is less bittersweet and a bit more buoyant:

(This pattern is reflected later in the criminally underrated A Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. Carol’s sadder and more mature, while Island is goofier and freer, but both are terrific. They lack some of the ecstatic emotions of the earlier films, but they have better story structure and more consistent humor. Here’s your six, and your half-dozen.)

The Muppets Take Manhattan is more of the same: charming but not saccharine, bright and emphatically corny. This time it’s back to the original model of the Muppets playing themselves, now trying to stage their own Broadway musical. It’s slightly sharper than its predecessors, but it lacks any kind of cynicism. Even when it lobs criticism at the advertising industry (courtesy of an amnesia-induced career change for Kermit), the Muppets aren’t critiquing its insidiousness or civic bankruptcy. The worst thing you can say about ad execs Phil, Jill, and Gil is that they’re boring and lack imagination. The same certainly cannot be said for the creative minds behind “Somebody’s Getting Married”:

The moment at 1:24, as Kermit looks longingly at Piggy while his comrades drag him out of the bakery? Ah, perfection.

Unsurprisingly, the most indelible Muppet moments are in song. Going through episode after episode of The Muppet Show, the banter became a little tedious. But I must have watched 50 musical numbers, and they never lost any of their magic. Gilda Radner explaining that she wrote parrot not carrot? Meh. Gilda Radner and a 7-foot-tall carrot trading numbers from The Pirates of Penzance? Now we’re talking:

Robin singing “Halfway Down the Stairs”:

Fozzie and Harry Belafonte singing “Turn the World Around”:

Joan Baez doing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”:

Yes, those visual effects in the Baez video are a bit dated now (I’m pretty sure there’s an 11-year-old out there who can do the same thing on her phone), but I don’t want to live to see a day on which I’m unaffected by Joan Baez bringing civil rights to the rats of the Muppet world.

The Muppets aren’t perfect. (Let us not speak of Muppets From Space.) Good chunks of all the classic movies drag a little, and the Muppet world never met a deus ex machina it couldn’t slap some adorable eyes on to endear it to audiences. But those shortcomings seem so inconsequential when taken as part of the entire Muppet world, one that seems uniquely able to pierce into humanity’s heart: the bouncy walks, the slightly agape jaws, Kermit’s crumpled face of fear and disgust, or Gonzo’s rare extra-wide eyes, the background characters that each still have incredible detail (watch for the hair rollers in “Somebody’s Getting Married”), the singing food, the goofiness of Miss Piggy’s high heels. The Muppet reality relies on such a distinct suspension of disbelief that all its small joys become personal. We feel connected to the Henson world in an individualized, special capacity that gives Muppet love a permanent place in our emotional vocabularies. The Rainbow Connection isn’t just for the lovers and dreamers. It’s for the lovers, the dreamers, and me.

Nostalgia Fact-Check: How Do the Classic Muppet Movies Hold Up?