By the time Jim Henson spearheaded the Muppet Movie in 1979, his signature creation, the Muppets, had become a massive hit—beloved by millions of pre-schoolers by way of Sesame Street, and millions more (plus many of their older siblings and parents) through the runaway hit that was the Muppet Show. The big question wasn’t if they could make a movie starring the Muppets. The question was whether the magic that made the Muppets work would translate to the big screen. But one has only to watch the first few minutes of this movie to know that the earnest devotion of oddball humor and the power of friendship shines through here as much as it ever did anywhere else. And the result is one of the most genuine and kind-hearted movies ever produced.
The story involves Kermit the Frog, who, while strumming on his banjo one day in the swamp, is discovered by a talent agent who is canoeing nearby. He urges Kermit to seek his fame and fortune as an entertainer, since he could make millions of people happy with his singing. The money and fame don’t really compute to Kermit, but making people happy sure does, and so he sets off. Almost immediately, he encounters the nefarious Doc Hopper, a fast-food magnate who runs a sprawling network of fried frog’s legs joints across the country. He wants Kermit to be his spokes-frog, and he not only won’t take no for an answer, he’ll kill Kermit rather than leave him alone. As Kermit tries to stay ahead of Hopper and make his date with destiny in Hollywood, he befriends a bunch of fellow Muppets who swiftly form a deep kinship with each other and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can’t stop the dreamers if they don’t stop dreaming.
The Muppet Movie is a delightful road trip that re-introduces us to the likes of Fozzie the Bear, Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, Rowlf the Dog, Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker and more. The story, to be fair, is hardly the makings of great cinema, being a kind of guided tour of Jim Henson’s own storytelling influences as he makes homages to all kinds of corniness that used to dominate yesteryear. But what makes it all work so well is how earnest it is. The Muppets are sometimes sarcastic, but they’re never cynical. So when one by one the various characters decide to follow the big-time dreams of a humble frog with serious self-esteem issues, it makes sense. We believe it. Because we believe in Kermit and anybody with a big enough heart to believe in him, too.
Not a lot of movies are this wholesome and don’t ultimately turn off its audience, but this one is. And a lot of it has to do with Henson’s unique worldview, which blends a resigned melancholy with irrepressible optimism. And, like Kermit, Henson has a unique charisma to draw to his cause like-minded weirdos, misfits and hopeless romantics. When the movie ends with a sudden catastrophe and then a serendipitous rainbow shining through the new hole in the ceiling, it’s not just some cheesy way to quickly end the movie. Nor is it the kind of thing that could only happen in the Muppets universe. That’s just life.
Perhaps the truest expression of this is in the movie’s music, which casts a wonderful spell over the whole show, practically daring the holdouts in the audience to dislike it. From the moment the curtain draws on Kermit singing “The Rainbow Connection,” we hear a tune that only the lonely dreamer in green could sing, a kind of mission statement for the world that Henson and Kermit choose to believe in. It’s a song that perfectly captures Henson’s sense of futility, love of the possible,and belief in the long shot. It’s a three-minute journey through Kermit’s world, and if you didn’t love the guy before, you surely do after. What other frog could cut so many onions with just his sweet voice?
But from there, we get the catchy road ditty “Moving Right Along,” the Electric Mayhem’s church-rumbling rocker “Can You Picture That?”, Miss Piggy’s hilarious epic love ballad “Never Before, Never Again,” and Rowlf and Kermit’s heartache duet “I Hope Something Better Comes Along.” Each one of these captures a specific wavelength that is great in its own right, but with each new song, we find ourselves so surrounded by what these characters represent that don’t dare look away from it.
The moment of truth here isn’t when our heroes finally make it to Hollywood, or even when they manage to scare off Doc Hopper and his frog-killing assassin, Snake. It happens in the scene before, when the gang’s ride breaks down in the desert and they realize that they will not get to Hollywood in time. Their dream is over. As they sit around the campfire, Gonzo the Great—Gonzo! Of all Muppets!—sings the unbelievably heartfelt “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” a paean to how much he still believes in his dreams even though this one didn’t come true:
There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met
Part heaven, part space, or have I found my place?
You can just visit, but I plan to stay
I’m going to go back there someday
Pretty deep stuff for a deeply strange Muppet who even Kermit can’t identify beyond “kind of like a turkey.” Gonzo’s real talent, though is self-awareness, and that’s true for all of the Muppets in this story. Even Kermit, who sometimes needs the kind of reminder that he gets from Gonzo’s tender lyrics. We all have crazy dreams, we’re all oddballs, and we all feel a little small and lonely. But we’ve all got friends out there, too, even if we don’t yet know their names. All we have to do is be true to ourselves, and we’ll find ’em. The lovers, the dreamers and me.