Many children of the 1970s/80s will have The Muppets deeply embedded in their hearts. Their presence felt through TV, movies, music and theatre over the decades proceeding the 1970s. Of course, Jim Henson’s dysfunctional family of foam have been around far longer than a mere 45 years. 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 allowed Jim Henson 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 embraced by the best global puppeteers, special effects gurus and filmmakers. Giving birth to what would ultimately become the Muppet family, a group of creative entrepreneurs who would design creatures for Harry Potter, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and more. All led by Jim Henson’s genius, and his passionate belief in family, shared ownership and imagination.
By 1978 with The Muppet Show reaching substantial 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 Muppet Show came to a close. But one question remained, How could The Muppets transition from the small to the big screen?. And what risks were posed by leaving the safety of the variety theatre and entering 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 essential 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 our essential Muppets Movie picks 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 to ILM in 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 Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem’s raucous energy. But the icing on the cake is the musical score by Paul Williams and Kenny Asher. A score that would give the world 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 an intelligent and witty comedy and 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 one of the finest yet most underrated comedy films of the 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. Their crime adventure wrapped in music, dance and brilliant comedy. 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 a doubt one of the greatest Muppet movies ever made. In turn, taking a cue from Superman the Movie, The Pink Panther and classic Ealing Comedies while wrapping them in a world of Muppet mayhem. In fact, many aspects of its design would be copied several years later by the National Lampoons team for its European Vacation.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Director: Brian Henson
After Jim Henson died in 1990, many wondered whether The Muppets would ever find their voice again. And with Henson’s early discussions of a possible merger with Disney, never amounting to a deal before his death. The Henson company’s future sat in the hands of his son Brian. But, a question remained about the future of The Muppets on-screen. After all, in the years leading up to his death, Jim Henson had focussed on new projects. With Labyrinth, The Witches, The Dark Crystal all having widened the scope of the Henson Company.
Therefore, when Brian found himself approached by ABC television not long after his father’s death; their idea of a Muppet led adaptation of Charles Dickens Christmas Carol, Brian was filled with both excitement and doubt. But, embracing the excitement, he jumped at the opportunity to bring The Muppets back to TV. However, it wasn’t long before the TV script had found the interest of Disney Studio executives. And after tweaks to the project, The Muppet Christmas Carol transferred to Walt Disney Pictures for a potential cinematic release.
Just as Walt Disney battled sizable change in its size and structure, The Muppets provided a safe investment option. However, despite high hopes, The Muppet Christmas Carol was left in the shadow of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Disney’s Aladdin on release.
Despite this, The Muppet Christmas Carol went on to find global success many years later via home video. With the movie now inhabiting the position of one of the most loved Christmas movies of the past 28 years. And it’s easy to see why, as it treats Dickens source material with the utmost love and respect. While at the same time layering his story with the wonder, imagination and joy of Jim Henson’s Muppet world. The result is a film that not only manages to create a unique and joyous adaptation of Dickens’ work but also provides us with a love letter to Jim Henson’s creations. It is a movie that is easily one of the most sincere, loving and beautiful Muppet movies of the past 41 years and one of the greatest 1990’s children’s movies.
Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
Director: Brian Henson
Following the model established in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Brian Henson’s second feature would look to classic literature for inspiration with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The artistic vision once more combining human leads with Muppet characters. However, Treasure Island also enabled a free form Muppet translation to the screen, allowing the comedic dial to be turned up to maximum. The result, a wild Muppet adventure, where Tim Curry steals the show as Long John Silver. While a young Kevin Bishop shines as the 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 lead as a problem in its box office takings.
While I 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. It also marks the final successful big-screen outing for The Muppets under the stewardship of the Henson Company. With Disney already waiting in the wings.
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 engaged with years before. The rise of PIXAR and digital animation casting a shadow over more traditional puppetry and model work. Simultaneously, Disney 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 glories were 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 Oscar for best original song.
In many ways, the 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 Henson’s magical and tender world.