Monday, November 28, 2011

Cameos, Music, Puns, Oh My: Dissecting The Tropes Of The Muppets

Crossposted on and commissioned by

Before the fantastic reviews for The Muppets came flooding in, the concerns among fans included questions like, "Will this be the Muppet movie we've been waiting for" and "Will this be a real Muppet movie?" Even if the movie is indeed great, there are still certain elements fans will be keeping an eye out for - the elements that actually make a Muppet movie a Muppet movie. So what are the tropes that define these films and what notes does the new one have to hit to fit in properly with the Muppet movies of yore? We took a look at each of the six theatrical Muppet releases and created a refresher for you. Take a look below for the results.

The Muppet Movie (1979)
The first, the original, the classic, featuring the stellar tunes of Paul Williams and all star cast featuring every single person who was famous in 1979, The Muppet Movie is widely considered the best of the bunch. Perhaps the darkest as well, the film features a villain whose goal ends up being to KILL Kermit. This first movie sets up the foundation of what makes a proper Muppet movie, including meta jokes, puns, the aforementioned celebrity cameos and an ultimately heartwarming message. This story of Kermit deciding to go into show business not for fame or fortune, but to make people happy, and refusing to sell out in the process, is still poignantly relevant, and combining motifs from westerns, 30s gangster flicks and 60s road movies helps add to the films timelessness. All the original muppets are in the house for this movie about a movie about a movie, including a couple brief appearances from Crazy Harry, the muppet who has an affinity for explosives, who was more or less put into forced retirement over the next several films. Self-referencial, violent, and sweet without being saccharin, The Muppet Movie is a rare gem.

Cameos: Everyone was in this. From Steve Martin to Richard Pryor to Johnny Carson to Mel Brooks to Mr Television himself Milton Bearle, the list goes on and on and on until we get to the final cameo of the film from Orson Welles. Can't handle it.

Meta Humor/Breaking the Fourth Wall: Tons of it. It does feature movie within a movie within a movie after all, framed around the Muppets watching The Muppet Movie at a cast & crew screening. Perhaps the best use of breaking the fourth wall in the movie within a movie is Electric Mayhem following the script to know where they are supposed to pop up next. A narrative paradox!

Puns: Tons, perhaps my favorite being when Fozzie declares "drinks on the house!" and all the shady bar patrons run up to the roof, this classic from Kermit - "That's pretty dangerous building a road in the middle of the street. I mean, if frogs couldn't hop, I'd be gone with the Schwinn." or of course, the visual pun of an actual fork in the road.

Heartwarming Message: Making people happy, not selling out, staying true to you and your dreams will come true. This film perfectly meshes subversive humor with a genuine message.

Running Gag: Several here, all fantastic. The best appears three times, the first at the very beginning, Bernie: "You, you with the banjo, can you help me? I seem to have lost my sense of direction!" Kermit: "Have you tried Hare Krishna?" The second time it's mentioned, Kermit even *refers* to it as a running gag. It finally appears on a sign in front of a church, reading "Lost? Have you tried Rev. Harry Krishna?". Another great running gag is the classic Carol Kane "Myth" "Yeth?"And of course Sweetums chasing after the group of Muppets to go with them to Hollywood.

Sesame Street Cameos: The original and the best - Kermit and Fozzie run into Big Bird on the road, and offer him a ride, but he tells "No thanks! I'm on my way to New York City to try and break into public television!" Brilliant.

Musical Numbers: ALL great. Music by Paul Williams and the world's introduction to karaoke staple The Rainbow Connection, though my personal favorite is Moving Right Along

Dark Moments: Pretty dark in general, with Charles Durning wanting to kill Kermit, Mel Brooks trying to lobotomize him and so on. But rather than just one or two moments, the whole film has an edgy vibe.

Piggy fight scene: Piggy takes Kermit by utter surprise and beats up all of the bad guys. Amazing.

Slapstick Humor: In the bar, Kermit and Fozzie getting violently thrown around, Gonzo gets lifted by balloons and drops onto Fozzie's Studebaker, etc.

The rest after the jump!

Great Muppet Caper (1981)
The second in the series, this film follows the Muppets to London where identical twin reporters Kermit and Fozzie and their photographer Gonzo try to solve the mystery of who took Lady Holiday's jewels, ultimately joining together with the band of misfits working and living at the Happiness Hotel to take the culprits down.  The Great Muppet Caper still has a lot of the same charm as the one, while being slightly bigger budget. I found it a little too focused on one character (Piggy) with not enough of the side characters. Even Fozzie sort of gets the shaft, seeming more grumpster than waka wakaster. But some fantastic Gonzo humor, amazing throwaway lines, and a delightfully oddball performance from Charles Grodin keep it one of the best. Plus, Sgt. Floyd Pepper gets some screen time and that's *never* a bad thing. Oh, and it features GROUP bike riding!

Cameos: John Cleese and Peter Falk do the best work here as a bored old man and a homeless guy trying his watch sales pitch on Kermit to less than stellar results. Mostly, I simply didn't recognize anyone else.

Meta Humor/Breaking the Fourth Wall: The most meta film of the group, perhaps. The whole opening number over the credits is a comment on itself from start to finish, and hilariously so.  From this exhange: Fozzie: "Nobody really reads those. Do they?" Kermit: "Sure they do. They all have families." to this when "BSC" is listed after a crew members name, Fozzie: "What does "BSC" stand for?" Kermit: "I don't know". and more. Later, when Lady Holiday explains a lot of information about her life to Piggy, Piggy asks "Why are you telling me this?" Holliday responds "It's plot exposition, it has to go somewhere" But my favorite moment of breaking the fourth wall is during an argument between Kermit and Piggy where she is begging for his forgiveness which turns into an epic aside between the REAL Kermit and Piggy about her overacting, wherein she threatens to walk off set. Genius.

Puns: Not as many in this one as in the previous, but still some. The one I remember best is when Kermit tells Piggy she is "hamming it up" during the aforementioned meta-fight.

Heartwarming Message: Honestly not so sure about this one. Perhaps they went full subversion with this film? If anything, it's the usual, stick with your friends, be honest and true, etc. etc.

Running Gag: A running gag about getting caught "red-handed." While in prison for being framed, Piggy jokes "What color are their hands now?", knowing it's a silly joke. Later, cab driver and Happiness Hotel resident Beauregard asks the question and means it, therein acting as the perfect follow up to Piggy's "in on the joke" set up earlier. At the end of the movie, a "Caught Red Handed!" headline is featured in the paper.

Sesame Street Cameos. Oscar the Grouch hanging in the trash outside (Truck Driver: What are you doing here? Oscar the Grouch: A very brief cameo. Truck Driver: Me too)

Music numbers: Many lavish musical numbers, emphasis on LAVISH, including the opening, Piggy swimming, Piggy in the ballroom and more.

Dark moments: Gonzo. In general. Plummeting joke, (Gonzo: I'd like to try this without a balloon. Kermit: Try what? Plummeting? Gonzo: Yeah. Kermit: I suppose you could try it once. and Gonzo: I wonder how far you could plummet before you blacked out. Kermit: Uh, don't try it, Gonzo. We need you for this movie. Gonzo: Sure is tempting.) jumping in front of a cab, getting his nose stuck in elevator and liking it, his obsession with poultry...he's WEIRD. And I love it. One of the strongest elements of the film.
Piggy Fight Scene: She saves the day by taking down the bad guys in the end!

Slapstick Humor: Gonzo, Kermit and Fozzie keep getting thrown from high distances i.e. off a plane, on a pretty regular basis

Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
The first slightly Hollywood one of the bunch, despite taking place in New York City, everything is just a tad more glossy. More sentimental, less subversive. It also is the first to appear to be a story that actually takes place currently, about The Muppets themselves, instead of being a movie within a movie or having a bookended meta-structure. The comedy is a bit more deliberate and the cameos a little more scene-chewy. This is also the first time we see humans as benevolent co-stars. Here, we have a diner owner and his daughter helping them along the way, and later, Broadway star Lonny Price. This also the first time Rizzo begins to have his own wise cracking personally on screen. This was a chance for characters to stretch, as Jim Henson himself touches on in his interviews packaged in the special features on the DVD. Still, despite the sentimentality, it has some truly stand out moments, including introducing the Muppet Babies to the world in one of the best sequences in film history. ... What?

Cameos: 19 year old Brooke Shields is a great one here, rendering Masterson Rat speechless with her beauty and sass. Other cameos include Gregory Hines, Dabney Coleman, Joan Rivers and Art Carney.

Meta Humor/Breaking the Fourth Wall: When the group isn't being successful, someone remarks "Kermit, should we change the script?" and during the wedding, Kermit inquires, "Piggy? I thought Gonzo was going to play the minister." But overall, there is VERY limited meta humor in this one, "I'm a frog" after meeting Jenny could possibly count, but for the most part, it's played as an actual story. Our biggest clue that this is muppets playing themselves in a movie is the fact that the film opens with them in college, and we all know they mostly met during a road trip thanks to The Muppet Movie.

Puns: Oddly not many, though there is this: Pete: "Is grits! Grits! Hominy grits!" Rizzo: "How should I know how many? Count 'em yourself. "

Heartwarming Message: Treasure your friendships, support each other, stick together to follow and achieve your dreams

Running Gag: GREAT gag of Pete the diner owner giving incoherent advice a couple of times. (Hey, I tell you what is. Big city, hmm? Live, work, huh? But not city only. Only peoples. Peoples is peoples. No is buildings. Is tomatoes, huh? Is peoples, is dancing, is music, is potatoes. So, peoples is peoples. Okay?) Also, continuing a joke established in The Great Muppet Caper, the group is chatting and everyone gets silent just as Janice reveals something personal about herself. Even better the second time around. "So I told him 'Look, buddy, I don't take my clothes off for anybody, even if it is artistic,' and... Oh"

Sesame Street Cameo: A lot in this one! Puppets of some Sesame Street characters on a Manhattan street corner, Big Bird toy in the Muppet Babies sequence, and the whole cast attending Kermit and Piggy's wedding.

Music numbers: Many, as usual, but Together Again, the opening/closing number is the one you'd remember most, especially after Kermit plays the main notes on his cups at the diner during his reunion of sorts with the gang. Obviously the Muppet Babies number is my favorite because it's the MUPPET BABIES and is 50s themed, since that's the decade when they would have been born.

Dark moments: The darkest moments in this one involve Dabney Coleman getting into an all too physical altercation with Gonzo and Camilla, construction guys whistling at Piggy, and Animal chasing after women yelling "WOOOMMAAANNN!!". Overall, a lot less subversive than the first two, but still has a pretty grim plot line with Kermit losing his memory and the gang trying to find him.

Piggy Fight Scene: She bends metal, chases down the man who steals her bag and later hits Kermit's memory back, but no actual fight scene. But still enough strength that she feels like the real Miss Piggy.

Slapstick Humor: The Dabney Coleman fight and most of Miss Piggy's antics fill the category here

Muppet Christmas Carol
The first Muppet film of the 90s, the first produced without Jim Hensen, and the first co produced and released by Disney, Muppet Christmas Carol displayed a marked difference from the previous three installments. Genuinely frightening and sweet, this film is probably one of the best Christmas Carol movies, if not a "true" Muppet movie. It does away with many of the classic Muppet tropes and instead opts for a relatively faithful retelling of a classic story, peppered with light Muppet humor. This film also features the return of Paul Williams, is the first with a human as a main character, has a cast of principles and extras seeming to be a mix of muppets and humans, instead of mostly humans, and is the most cinematic yet, even opening with a long tracking shot (how did they do it?!) Rizzo makes the official jump to Gonzo's bff, as the two narrate the story we're watching. Overall, the characters are a little more subdued, and a little less in Muppet character. Oddly enough, the ones most true to their characters are folks who normally don't get major roles like  Statler and Waldorf and Sam the Eagle, all of whom have full fledged roles here.

Cameos: One of the Muppet staples that is completely done away with in this film, as the goal is to do a faithful retelling of this story, with some muppet humor and muppet brand thrown in, (making it not a traditional muppet movie)

Meta Humor/Breaking the Fourth Wall: Credits have muppets as characters right off the bat, including Gonzo as Charles Dickens, framing the story, who Rizzo calls out for not actually being Charles Dickens. Something is noted at one point as being"for dramatic emphasis" and Rizzo comments on Gonzo's omniscient storytelling by calling him a "Hoity Toity Mr God-like smarty pants"  One of my favorite moments is when Sam as Scrooge's old headmaster, lets his patriotism seep through a bit, so Gonzo has to correct him.  ( Sam: It's the American way! Gonzo: Sam... Sam: It's the British way!) I also love how it ends with Gonzo noting "If you like this, you should read the book!"

Puns: The only one I noticed was the rats who work for Scrooge saying, "Our assets are frozen"

Heartwarming Message: It's A Christmas Carol. The heartwarming message is built in. The true meaning of Christmas and what not! We must always be loving and giving and caring.

Running Gag: Another trope somewhat done away with unless you consider Rizzo being kind of an idiot to be a running gag

Sesame St Cameo: Zip zero none.

Musical Numbers: Paul Williams is back, so naturally this film has the best music since The Muppet Movie. Much more the structure of a musical, with the intro song introducing the main character, sung by the whole ensemble, and songs spread throughout at proper intervals to advance the story.

Dark Moments: Dark is built in with a retelling of Christmas Carol. Scrooge says the homeless should die if they don't want to go to a shelter.  His family compares Scrooge to a cockroach, rat and leech. The only time we revisit Gonzo's weirdo leanings is with his line when Rizzo falls and lands on a hot flaming goose, "Aw, you have all the fun"

Piggy Fight Scene: Not even any crazy strength for Piggy in this one, she just plays the part of loving wife to Kermit's Bob Crachett, but she does start to get violent at the very end when Scrooge shows up at their house unannounced on Christmas, in a nice nod to Piggy's true character.

Slapstick Humor: Mostly centered around Gonzo and Rizzo falling and breaking things. Everyone else is too concerned with telling the story at hand.

Muppet Treasure Island
The second directed by Brian Henson, and second that features the Muppets retelling a classic story. This one is less concerned with following the letter of the story however and takes more care into trying to be a classic Muppet movie, acting as more of a send-up of Treasure Island, reintroducing some previously absent tropes, and showcasing more of the Muppets themselves. And it's actually better than I remember it being! Once again we get Gonzo and Rizzo as themselves, with their relationship and humor even more defined and Rizzo finally becomes who we know him to be now and gets some of the best lines of the whole movie. Interestingly enough, Muppets seem to make up most of the universe, in a complete 180 from The Muppet Movie, with humans only appearing in the beginning, as the main lead and main villain, and popping up as pirates here and there.

Cameos: Listed as actual roles, but Jennifer Saunders and Billy Connolly are in the first fifteen minutes

Meta Humor/Breaking the Fourth Wall: Significantly more than in Manhattan or Christmas Carol, mostly in the form one one liners, including  Rizzo - "He died? And this is supposed to be a kids movie!" Statler and Waldorf - "It could be worse, we could be stuck in the audience" , Zoot: Hey man, I can't figure out what side we're on. Are we with the pirates or the frog captain? Floyd: Oh, hey, man. Just play the gig. Never get involved in politics. Animal: Politics! Politics!", Long John Silver:  Upstage Lads, This is my only number" and when Swedish Chef randomly shows up on a Pig island, a veggie he is about to chop notes "How else did you think we'd get him into this movie?" Oh and how can we forget the rat tour to the set of Muppet Treasure Island?

Puns: The film goes more for topical/cultural humor (Mickey Mouse, NBA, Evita, Marlon Brando etc.) than nailing a good pun, and where they exist, they are more visual than verbal. Still, there's this:
Benjamina Gunn: You left me standing at the altar. Captain Abraham Smollett: I was on a ship headed for Zanzibar. I got cold feet. Benjamina Gunn: You're a frog. You're supposed to have cold feet.

Heartwarming Message: You should always be honest and true, that's what it is to be a real friend and a hero? That's what I decided anyway.

Running Gag: The closest I could find was the vacationing rats and how everyone goes to or wants to go to Zanzibar. Other than Kermit mentioning it to Piggy, we get this sort of exchange a couple of times:
Jim: "Wherever the wind may take us!" Gonzo: "Off to Zanzibar to meet the Zanzi-barbarians!" Rizzo: "Oh brother, here they go again...

Sesame St Cameo: Again, none. A trope left in the 80s.

Musical Numbers: Yup! The best is Tim Curry's number about being a pirate. The worst is the bizarre Cabin Fever.

Dark Moments: The return of weird Gonzo! Gonzo "He's got demons?! Cool!" "He said he'd throw a line out the back and let me drag along the bottom!" While being tortured, "Look at this I'm taller, this is so cool!" And of course this exchange, Gonzo: "It feels weird...My pants are filled with starfish" Rizzo: "You and your hobbies" Plus, the film has all of the dark elements of the adventure story, including mutiny, kidnapping, torture, and off screen massacres.

Piggy Fight Scene: She HI-YAs Kermit when they first see each other on camera, then she and Kermit fight the pirates together with the rest of the group in a massive fight scene.

Slapstick humor: Once again, Gonzo and Rizzo mostly hold down this fort. But the blind muppet pulls some weight too at the beginning and there is plenty in the ending fight scene.

Muppets From Space
Perhaps the only film that actually takes place in the Muppet's real life (maybe denoted by the fact that it's the first that isn't a musical), this film, which reveals what Gonzo actually is, is known as the worst of the bunch. Here, all of the Muppets live in a big house together and Gonzo and Rizzo are roommates, carrying on their friendship from the previous two nineties films. New characters from Muppets Tonight pop up here, including Clifford, Pepe and my favorite, Bobo the Bear. As much as it may nuke the fridge in its final act, points must be given to the film for returning to a more classic type of Muppet Movie with an original plot, starring the muppets, filled with celebrity cameos and featuring a human in a main role only as a villain. Still, it misses a lot of the charm and subversion of the original Muppet films and seems way too commercial. When there's only one SHOT of Electric Mayhem, you know there's a problem.
Cameos: They're baaaack. Featuring F Murray Abraham as Noah (yeah, the kids will definitely get THAT one), Jeffrey Tambor, Kathy Griffin, Ray Liotta, David Arquette and Rob Schneider, Hulk Hogan and Josh Charles, the best is Joshua Jackson and Katie Holmes appearing IN CHARACTER as Pacey and Joey from Dawson's Creek.

Meta Humor/Breaking the Fourth Wall: Breaking the fourth wall: Piggy says to the camera "Aw please, you think Ted Kopel never gets excited?" Then nothing until Pepe points out to Joey and Pacey that they are in a Muppet Movie. For the most part, this would lead me to believe this takes place in the actual Muppet universe.

Puns: Actually not many, but a great one is Jeffrey Tambor asking Gonzo, "No nostrils. How do you smell? and Rizzo responding, "Awful. I'm his roommate" Much more of a focus on cultural humor. Spice Girls, Oscar Meyer, HMOs, and film references to Independence Day, Star Trek, Field of Dreams and The Shawshank Redemption replace puns and wordplay.

Heartwarming Message: Power of friendship and accepting yourself, Kermit: "He's one of us and no matter what, we never forget one of our own"

Running Gag: Really not much, actually, the closest being Pepe and Rizzo tricking Gonzo into building a jacuzzi by pretending the aliens asked him to, and Gonzo never figuring out why the aliens wanted him to build it.

Sesame Street Cameo: Will they ever return?

Musical Numbers: First muppets movie that isn't a musical, opts for soundtrack filled with classic songs instead. The closest musical number is to "Celebration" by the aliens at the end. Ugh. Oh. God. it's awful.

Dark Moments: Since this IS a movie about Gonzo, there are still quite a bit of weird Gonzo moments. Someone mentions to him, "You never miss an opportunity to shoot yourself out of a canon", Gonzo reads "insanity faire" he tells Rizzo he had "that weird dream again", and Rizzo asks if it's "the one with the goat and the dwarf and the jar of peanut butter", and so on. Plus Sam the Eagle ogles a woman in a bikini and Pepe hits on Katie Holmes. Odd.

Piggy Fight Scene: Fights a sexy Josh Charles, her platinum belt vs his black belt. Pretty awesome.

Slapstick Humor: Exploding oven, Piggy falling down while strutting, Jeffrey Tambor during the whole ending. The aliens end up finding him "amusing" because of his series of accidental physical gags and ask him back to their planet with them.

So will The Muppets, opening this week, nail everything that makes a Muppet movie true? Will it be more in line with the edgier Muppets of the 70s/80s or the more kids-friendly Muppets of the 90s? Will Rowlf and Floyd get lines? Will Crazy Harry make an appearance? Will Miss Piggy kick some ass? Will Gonzo demonstrate strange and unhealthy behavior? If I've forgotten any tropes or examples of them appearing in any of the films that are your particular favorites, feel free to mention them below!
(And head here for my dissection of tropes in Werewolf movies. Like the Muppets, but not!)


Patch said...

I think it's time for a Muppet Movie box set. All the movies including the latest one, bluray/DVD, lots of bonus features. Come on Disney!

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