Many children of the 1970/80s will have The Muppets deeply embedded in their hearts. Their presence felt through TV, movies, music and theatre over the course the decades proceeding the mid 1970s. However, Jim Henson’s dysfunctional family of foam have of course been around far longer than a mere 45 years. With many early versions of the gang appearing from 1955 to 1961. Including regular appearances on Sesame Street from 1969, where Kermit the roving reporter was born. However, for many the birth of The Muppets as we now know them came in 1976. When British TV mogul Lew Grade gave Jim Henson the opportunity to develop a brand new TV series; The Muppet Show. The format and vision of the show having been turned down by every major American TV studio. Before Grade gave it the green light as part of his thriving ATV network on ITV.
Based at Elstree Studios, the home of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Jim Henson found a creative home in the U.K. His vision for the Muppet Show embraced by the best British puppeteers, special effects gurus and filmmakers. Giving birth to what would ultimately become the Muppet family. A group of creative entrepreneurs who would go onto design creatures for Harry Potter, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and many more. All led by the genius of Jim Henson, and his passionate belief in family, shared ownership and imagination.
By 1978 with The Muppet Show reaching huge international audiences, Henson’s band of misfits were ready for the big screen. Their first appearance set for the summer of 1979 in The Muppet Movie. Its release coming just two seasons before the final Muppet Show. But one question remained in how The Muppets could secure the transition from the small to the big screen. As they left behind the safety of the variety theatre, and entered the human world. Thankfully, Henson and the Muppet family knew exactly what to do, in combining comedy with practical effects and music. Creating a rainbow connection that to this day sings with joy, hope and friendship.
In 1990 Jim Henson was pulled away from the world suddenly by bacterial pneumonia. His final appearance with Kermit being The Arsenio Hall Show on May 4, 1990. With a loving tribute and rebirth of his creations coming just two years later, with his son Brian’s directorial debut A Muppet Christmas Carol.
In over fifty years Jim Henson’s Muppets have continued to play an important role in TV, film, theatre and music. Always managing to remain relevant and timeless, while maintaining the love and imagination of their creator. So join us as we explore the essential Muppet movies that everyone should see at least once.
The Muppet Movie (1979)
Director: James Frawley
Now celebrating its 41st birthday, the first Muppet Movie remains the benchmark for every Muppet film since. Its style, grace, humour and music captivating a whole generation of children. While its physical effects set the template for puppeteering work in Hollywood. Acting as an inspiration too ILM in filming of The Empire Strikes Back while creating The Jim Henson Creature Workshop.
The Muppet Movie oozes love for the characters Henson created, and the family of performers and artists he embraced. From the first magical scene of Kermit playing his banjo in a swamp, to the raucous energy of Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. But the icing on the cake is the musical score by Paul Williams and Kenny Asher. A score that gave birth to the Rainbow Connection, a song that beautifully summarised everything Henson’s Muppets stood for; hope, creativity, love and family. And with over 250 Muppet characters appearing in the finale. The Muppet Movie is not only an intelligent and witty comedy, but also an emotional journey into belonging, acceptance and dreams.
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
Director: Jim Henson
Just two years after the Oscar nominated success of The Muppet Movie, Jim Henson’s team was back in cinemas with The Great Muppet Caper. Cleverly opting for a very different narrative to the gangs first outing. One that placed the Muppets into the crime/comedy genre, while maintaining their ability to question their own performances in front of the audience. Ultimately delivering was one of the finest, yet most underrated comedy films of 1980s. While in turn further advancing technical effects in puppetry, leading to a film that still feels fresh 39 years later.
The Great Muppet Caper took the Muppet family back to London, the birthplace of their TV success. Wrapping their crime adventure in music, dance and highly intelligent comedy that still sings with originality. And whether your favourite scene is Piggy’s house invasion of a bewildered John Cleese and Joan Sanderson or the whole Muppet ensemble cycling through Hyde Park. This is without doubt one of the greatest Muppet movies ever made. Taking cues from Superman the Movie, The Pink Panther and classic Ealing Comedies, while wrapping them in a world of Muppet mayhem. With many aspects of its design copied several years later by the National Lampoons team for its European Vacation.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Director: Brian Henson
After the death of Jim Henson in 1990 many wondered whether The Muppets would ever find their voice again. Henson’s early discussions of a possible merger with Disney, never amounting a final deal, leaving the company in the hands of his son Brian. A man who had grown up on the set of every Muppet adventure, and who truly valued their cultural significance, fanbase and enduring love.
Therefore, when Brian was approached not long after his fathers death by ABC television. With a rough vision of a Muppet led take on a Dickens classic, he jumped at the opportunity. The early script for a TV outing of a Muppet inspired Christmas Carol subsequently brought by Walt Disney Pictures with a view to a cinematic release.
However, It had been eight years since The Muppets had appeared on the big screen. With the late Jim Henson focussing on Labyrinth, The Witches and a range of TV specials in the intervening years. Therefore, a question hung over whether The Muppets were still able to pull in cinema audiences. But despite these concerns Disney believed in the project, its own studio system going through radical change. With the company hoping The Muppets could prove to be a Christmas box office success. However, on release hopes quickly faded as the film was forced into the shadows by Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
Filmed at Shepperton Studios in the UK, The Muppet Christmas Carol went on to find success through home video. Eventually becoming a staple of Christmas entertainment, that now inhabits the position of Christmas film royalty. And it’s easy to see why, as it treats Dickens source material with the upmost love and respect. While equally layering it with the wonder, imagination and joy of Jim Henson’s Muppet world. Ultimately creating a film that not only managed to reflect Dickens work better than many other adaptations. But also enabled Brian Henson to embed the whole creative process in love and respect for his fathers characters. Creating what is easily one of the most sincere, loving and beautiful Muppet movies of the past 41 years.
Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
Director: Brian Henson
Following the model established in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Brian Henson’s second feature once again looked to classic literature for inspiration. Finally opting to adapt Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. By once more combining human leads with Muppet characters in a thematic style similar to its predecessor. However, Treasure Island also enabled a more free Muppet translation to the screen. Ultimately allowing the comedic dial to be turned up too maximum. Resulting in a raucous Muppet adventure, where Tim Curry steals the show as a melodramatic Long John Silver. While a young Kevin Bishop shines as innocent and loving Jim Hawkins. However the very fact that Muppet Treasure Island is remembered more for Curry than Kermit did lead to criticism. With many pointing to the lack of clear Muppet leads as a problem.
While we understand this concern and criticism, Muppet Treasure Island is a beautifully made picture. One that continues to build on the emerging confidence of Brian Henson, while returning to a style of comic delivery last seen in the Muppet Show.
The Muppets (2011)
Director: James Bobin
By the time The Muppets found themselves under the ownership of the Walt Disney company in 2004. The house of the mouse was a different beast to the company Jim Henson had worked with. With the rise of PIXAR and digital animation casting a shadow over more traditional puppetry and model work. While Disney also ploughed millions into acquisitions, TV development and big budget films such as Pirates of the Caribbean. In turn leaving The Muppets in the cold, as their past glory’s were simply re-released on TV and Blu-ray.
However, in 2008 long time Muppet fans Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller pitched an idea that could bring the Muppets back to the cinema screen. In a film that would focus on the Muppets reclaiming the derelict theatre of their birth. Finally leading to a screenplay that Disney approved for filming in 2010. Never imagining the success it would bring, not only in box office takings, but also in claiming the best original song Oscar.
In many ways the end result is a nostalgia piece, allowing the memory of The Muppets that had sat dormant in adult minds to spring free. Lovingly transporting the viewer back to the wonder, imagination and love of Jim Henson’s dysfunctional family. However, the success of The Muppets also sat in its ability to find new fans. With the new character of Walter acting as a bridge between Muppets old and new. While equally reflecting the love of the fans who had stayed with The Muppets through the years. His journey one of self discovery and belonging, as he discovers a rainbow connection of new friends.
Ultimately The Muppets proved that Kermit and the gang still had a magic ability to shine on screen. Especially when coupled with the creativity of those who grew up in the magical and tender world of Jim Henson’s creations.