by Walter Chaw
The Muppet Movie (1979)
We started quarantine with the best-laid plans and nine months later--the duration of human gestation--find ourselves not somewhere we intended or could have predicted. We had a regular game night, but adding tension to tension proved unwise; we were ready for a couple of months of this, but as it became clear that no help was on the way, I was forced to take a job in the "essential" sector of our nightmare. The toll on my mental health has been extreme--lapping over into home, where I barely had the energy left after a day in a virus bath to leave my clothes in a box by the door and walk to the shower wearing my mask before retiring to the guest room. Watching stuff for the site felt impossible, much less writing about it afterwards. And another casualty was these planned movie nights that provided the grist for Life During Wartime.
As with most things, you develop coping mechanisms and scar tissue, and we're slowly getting back on the horse, if not with everything, at least with watching the occasional movie together as a family.
We restarted with James Frawley's The Muppet Movie, which the kids had seen but not since they were very small. I was drawn to it in my mind repeatedly while performing menial--and now dangerous--tasks just to keep the lights on and food on the table. Revisiting it was an opportunity to try to figure out what it was about this film that, like an anemic's sudden craving for spinach, my body wanted to so badly when I was the most scared and unhappy.
I didn't need to give them much background this time, but I did want to set the table with what the picture meant to me when I saw it in the theatre back in 1979. I was six, and this movie was terrifying. My kids are always amused when I'm terrified--my fear of the ocean being a source of much mirth for them--and so they asked me what it was about The Muppet Movie that could possibly be scary. And I said that the Muppets exist in a world where they can be injured. Physically and emotionally. They were used in "Sesame Street" to teach empathy to my generation growing up with the glass teat: racism, sadness, loneliness, fear. In these little terry-cloth objects were deposited the reflections of my secret traumas. I saw them hurt. I knew it could happen.
When Mr. Hooper of "Sesame Street" died and they didn't replace him, I saw them mourn, too. Which meant not only were they fort/da objects with which I was meant to empathize, but that they, in turn, saw me as something valuable that could, like them, be injured--even die. The Muppets are at once the vesicle for our dismay and witness to it.
The Muppet Movie is an origin story, a now-overfamiliar high-concept that seemed novel back then. It follows our hero, Kermit the Frog (puppeteered and voiced by Jim Henson), as he's lured out of the swamp with the promise of a platform from which to influence millions. So he travels across the country to Hollywood, the dream factory. Along the way, the other Muppet regulars are rescued from their lives of ignominy to join in his holy crusade.
The songs "Rainbow Connection" and "Movin' Right Along" have been mainstays in our family road-trip playlists since the kids were in diapers. I asked them afterwards what it was that Kermit was going to Hollywood to "message" to the masses, just based just on the lyrics of "Rainbow Connection." After a moment, my daughter said, "Is he singing about depression and longing?" He is.
If we draw back a little bit, Kermit hopes to be able to spread a message about the pervasiveness of mental-health issues arising from isolation and the belief that community between "lovers and dreamers" is the answer. That the rainbow is now the widely-accepted symbol for LGBTQ issues lends the song even more power in the modern conversation.
I told them the Muppets were founded by a bunch of pinko hippie peaceniks and that many episodes of their primetime variety show were focused on social consciousness: anti-war, anti-capitalism, pro-love. "The Muppet Show" is where I first heard Jim Croce, Harry Belafonte, that number from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Buffalo Springfield, and more. It may not be an exaggeration to say I owe a good portion of my musical taste to Jim Henson and his team.
I also told them the story of how I was having dinner with actress Mia Sara and her husband when he said to me, "My dad always told me never to film a movie in L.A. He did it once and he vowed 'never again!'" I, in my colossal ignorance, said, "Oh, he did? What was it?" And the answer came: "Oh, The Muppet Movie." Mia Sara is married to Jim Henson's son, Brian. I knew that until I didn't. My kids also like it when I make an ass of myself.
The film opens with the Muppets gathered in a screening room to watch the movie we're about to see--the only reassurance that everyone will make it through to the end. Consider Kermit's discovery of Fozzie Bear: bombing in a terrifying dive bar where the crowd eventually storms the stage to brutalize Fozzie and Kermit, who has tried to help (to no avail). A pun from Fozzie literally saves them.
I was surprised how many puns there are in the film. Watching this several times through the years, I guess I glossed over them. I'm attached to these characters in such a way that their puns are the way they speak. Seeing this with the kids revealed to me how funny some of these moments are and how they're intended to defuse the suspense when our heroes are in physical or emotional peril. They don't work that way for me, but they do for some. I think the problem is that I watched this first when I was six and too young to catch any of the puns, so they didn't register as jokes. It took 41 years for me to get it.
A good thing to do with kids is to trainspot the celebrity cameos that litter the picture. Tell them who James Coburn is, and Richard Pryor, and Bob Hope. Go deep with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy--with Steve Martin, Mel Brooks (setting up a bit of a self-referential Young Frankenstein gag), Telly Savalas, Carol Kane (whom they might know from The Princess Bride), Cloris Leachman (whom my kids knew from Young Frankenstein), Milton Berle, and especially Orson Welles. Talk to them. If you don't know who they all are, do some research beforehand. Focus in on bit player and "Rainbow Connection" lyricist Paul Williams and use him as a means by which you can maybe springboard into a future screening of Phantom of the Paradise.
The main threat to the Muppets in The Muppet Movie is Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who wants to hire Kermit as the spokesfrog for his chain of "French-fried frog legs" restaurants. It's no less a betrayal of species than Charlie Tuna or Mr. Peanut, but it's bad. I knew it was bad when I was a kid, mostly because I didn't want Kermit to be murdered and his corpse mutilated, then consumed. Now, I think of what Dr. Teeth says after turning down Kermit's invitation to Hollywood: "...When you get rich and famous, maybe we'll show up and exploit your wealth."
- What does The Muppet Movie have to say about capitalism?
- When Kermit is asked to betray his species, what does that have to say about capitalism?
- When Dr. Teeth and his band disguise Fozzie's Studebaker with kaleidoscopic artwork, what statement does this make about the counterculture? How does this camouflage come into play?
One of the joys of The Muppet Movie is the cleverness of its sight gags. The obvious ones like the literal fork in the road, but also gags like the psychedelic Studebaker, which not only is a symbol of the death of the progressive dream at the end of the 1960s, but also works as something that hides our heroes from detection by the evil corporate baddie.
I asked the kids what they thought of using Muppets as both characters and conduits for progressive messages. My son, a huge fan of Damon Albarn's supergroup Gorillaz, identified that band's cartoon avatars and fictional personae as a more current example of a similar trope. "You can be a type this way, so it's easier to identify with a specific attitude that you vibe with." I'm hip, buddy, I'm hip.
What qualities does each of the Muppets represent, positive and negative?
Both kids find Ms. Piggy to be insufferable, so I challenged them to empathize with what she's had to endure as a woman, and a woman of a certain size, in a world that even The Muppet Movie has taken pains to describe as misogynistic. I asked them to pick out the female Muppets and identify their strategies for coping--and to remember that with no exceptions here, the girl Muppets are performed by men. While it's possible to forgive Piggy for her solipsism, I think it's more fruitful to consider the circumstances around her animation. This is not merely a human's impression of what a pig would act like--it's a projection of what a man thinks a female pig would act like.
The topic of Karens and white feminism came up. It was interesting to see how closely those behaviours (entitlement, obnoxious self-centeredness, violence) are tied to masculine privilege.
Finally, I shared with them that I had wanted to watch this movie again for months--that in the middle of a difficult period, for whatever reason, this was the thing I wanted to see. I asked them, having now freshly watched it with me, why they thought that might be.
We spoke for a while about why it had been hard. They knew I'd been unhappy and stressed-out, but we hadn't talked details. I told them I was scared to be back in the service industry during a period where it was dangerous to do so--that our guests were generally the worst people in the world: the ones who felt entitled to place others in peril for their own gratification. I told them how hard it was for me to be creative when I was spending so much of my emotional currency on just going to work, and how I felt trapped in that labour because of our government's response to this pandemic. It's hard to feel expendable.
The question ultimately answered itself.
The Muppet Movie is about dreamers and creatives striving for something larger than themselves to give themselves to. They seek to enlighten with their emotional labour in occupations that create community. And the villains of the piece are folks looking to exploit them for material gain--people who would ask the Muppets to use the trust they earn by being decent to trick others into participating in something venal and morally suspect. I think that being a manager in the service industry is a huck. Every level above entry-level in the workforce is designed to manipulate the entry-level employee. I can't do it anymore. The Muppet Movie gives shape to the gorgeous notion that there are others like you.