What are the ingredients to a good Muppet movie? I would argue that these are the five essential rules to making a solid film with our furry, fuzzy felt friends;
-Make us laugh.
-Celebrity cameos who actually have something to do.
-A human is not the main character.
-Give us something to truly care about.
With Muppets Most Wanted being released this past weekend, this is as good a time as any to reflect on the Muppets. They’ve been delighting audiences for decades, whether it was on TV in The Muppet Show, on one of their many film soundtracks, or on the silver screen in an impressive eight films as of this writing. But do all eight of those Muppet films hold up? So yes, from worst to best, here are my thoughts on all eight theatrically released Muppet films;
8) Muppets in Space
When the Muppets are being used badly, it usually means humor that panders to it’s audience, singing contemporary songs for the sake of singing contemporary songs, and an extremely serviceable plot with very little heart. That’s what we got with Muppets From Space, the only film on this list that I would seriously call a misstep in the Muppet film franchise. Released on the cusp of the new millenium, the film had some potential; it’s about Gonzo trying to find his family and his sense of purpose. That’s something to care about.
But when you relegate Kermit to being a side character, introduce Pepe the Prawn (my least favorite Muppet of all time), and make the funniest character in the whole film a villain (That would be Bobo, the bear pictured above), it’s really hard to keep your investment in the picture. Even the revelation that Gonzo is an alien feels a little cheap, though his decision on Earth to stay with his new family, the Muppets, is a touching one, albeit a predictable one. Anyone who says this is their favorite Muppet film is a liar.
7) The Muppet Christmas Carol
In the beginning of the ’90’s, after Jim Henson’s unfortunate passing, the Muppets were brought back into the fray, but rather than making original films, the idea was planted to just take stories from the public domain and SHOVE THE MUPPETS RIGHT IN THERE. It’s not the worst idea in the world, but the problem with both The Muppet Christmas Carol and the number 6 entry below is this; the Muppets are side characters! I’ve always been confused by this choice to have main characters not be Muppets in a MUPPET movie. It sidelines the characters who make this the magical experience it truly is. That’s my own bias, but I think it’s a semi-valid one to stand on.
But Muppet Christmas Carol is a fine movie in it’s own right. Michael Caine is an impressive Scrooge, Paul Williams’ songs are charming, if unmemorable, and the movie actually stays fairly true to the original Dickens story. It’s a sweet film, but one that maybe has a little too much heart, and not enough humor, even for a Christmas film.
6) Muppet Treasure Island
Even though this is at number 6, I totally understand peoples love for this movie. I too grew up on it as a child, and yes, it’s a damn hilarious movie. My guess is they took a look at Christmas Carol and thought “Ok, let’s stick with this formula, but we actually need to make it FUNNY again.” We do come across the problem again of having a human Jim Hawkins, but the film fills itself with enough humorous Muppet side characters that ultimately, he’s forgotten about. And then of course you have the one-and-only Tim Curry as Long John Silver, which practically writes itself.
I will say that this is probably the Muppet movie with the weakest original songs, all of them being slightly memorable, but really there to service the plot. But with characters like Polly the Lobster, Blind Pew, and Big Fat Ugly Bug-Faced Baby-Eating O’Brien, it’s the rip-roaring humor that makes Muppet Treasure Island a fan favorite among Muppet movies.
5) Muppets Most Wanted
The most recent entry on the list (released less than a week ago of this writing), Muppets Most Wanted sort of sits in the same boat as Muppet Treasure Island in that it’s a hilarious movie, no doubt, but the heart just wasn’t there for me. Not to mention the use of WAY too much blue-screen effects (it becomes truly distracting in the last song sequence). I truly felt that this was a very funny movie, but there isn’t that signature “Muppet movie” feel to it. However, I do think there is a culprit; the celebrity cameos.
My god. This is how to do celebrity cameos the WRONG WAY in a Muppet movie. The films lower on this list barely had cameos at all, while the films coming up on this list used them very well. But Muppets Most Wanted commits that most heinous of crimes; having cameos just for the sake of having cameos. You want Chloe Grace Moritz to deliver newspapers with no funny lines? Sure! Toby Jones as a museum guard for literally ONE SECOND? Sure, why not! How about Tom Hollander (In the Loop) and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) to play characters who could’ve been played by literally anyone else? The point I’m getting at is, don’t have celebrities for the sake of having celebrities. If they can deliver a joke? Yes! That’s great! But give them something to do!
Okay, rant over. Point is, outside of pointless cameos and overused blue screen, the film makes up for it with amusing songs, hilarious human characters (especially Ty Burrell as the clueless Interpol officer), and impressive new Muppet characters (Kermit’s doppelganger Constantine is a riot). Muppets Most Wanted isn’t a great Muppet movie, but it’s a great enough movie that it’s at number 5.
4) The Muppets Take Manhattan
Now we’re getting into classic Muppet territory! The Muppets Take Manhattan is a delightful movie, even though it’s my least favorite of the original three classic Muppet movies that had Jim Henson’s involvement. But you have the heart! You have the silly humor! You have the wonderful Broadway-style songs! You have those damn Muppet babies! This has all the makings of a great Muppet movie.
And of course because it’s about Broadway, Musicals, and Muppets, there’s no way I can’t enjoy this one. It follows the beats of a classic Muppet film perfectly. There’s nothing revelatory about the film, nor is there anything that bad or offensive. It’s a charming film with a very sweet ending that’ll warm your heart.
3) The Muppets
Yes, Jason Segel is essentially the main character here. Yes, of all the original songs here, only two are actually that great and memorable. And yes, the film has Camilla and her chickens singing “Fuck You” by Cee-Lo Green. But damn it if this wasn’t an amazing way to bring the Muppets back into the public. The Muppets found a way to combine that old school Muppet charm with contemporary humor that doesn’t seem too forced or cheesy. And those two songs exemplify that point to a tee.
“Life’s a Happy Song” has an absolute classic Muppets sound to it. It’s memorable, it’s up-tempo, it’s a great way to bring us into this world. “Man or Muppet” is totally a contemporary pop song, but with a silly Muppet twist on it. It’s a hilarious song, and it won the Muppets their first Oscar. The Muppets totally found the spirit of the original films again, and will hopefully inspire more films with that spirit to come.
2) The Great Muppet Caper
“Look, dad, it’s a bear!”
“No honey, that’s a frog. Bears wear hats.”
The Great Muppet Caper is the funniest Muppet movie out there. The jokes don’t stop, not even in the opening and closing credits. It’s a laugh-fest through and through, and maybe about 5% of the jokes don’t land. But the British jokes, the jokes about female models, the fact that Kermit and Fozzie are supposed to be playing twin brothers. And everyone believes them. The comedy in this film is gold, and you’ll find yourself laughing so much, you won’t even believe. This include memorable cameos by John Cleese, Peter Falk, and Peter Ustinov.
If you’re not laughing, then you’re probably listening to the GORGEOUS songs that fill the rest of the film. They’re of an impeccable quality, the care that is place into this film is something that should be admired. The Great Muppet Caper shines like the diamonds at the center of the film’s heist plot. I suspect this is what Muppets Most Wanted was trying to emulate, but had a lot of trouble doing so. It’s hard when you have a film as perfectly humorous as this one.
1) The Muppet Movie
Yes, it’s the very first Muppet film, and with good reason. This film checks off every ingredient on the list, and then some. Memorable original songs (“Rainbow Connection!” “Can You Picture That!” “Movin’ Right Along!”), absolutely hilarious scenes, amazing celebrity cameos (Steve Martin! Richard Pryor! Bob Hope! Orson FUCKING Welles!), and the Muppets take center stage in a story that pulls on your heart strings just as Kermit strums on his banjo.
This is the Muppet origin story. The Muppet road movie. How the Muppets became….the Muppets. Every scene works, I can’t actually think of a scene or a joke that doesn’t land in this film. And not only that, the film gets really, really deep. Kermit ends up having an existential conversation with himself in the desert. Don’t remember that? Well, that’s what decades of plain, paint0by-numbers storytelling does to the Muppets. Back in the day, they weren’t just telling ordinary stories with these guys. They were experimenting, going against the grain, finding new ways to tackle topics like one’s purpose in the universe, the meaning of friendship, and the pursuit of your dreams. And they managed to tackle these themes while being hilarious all the way along!
I always find myself laughing with this movie, but when the end comes along, I’m weeping like a baby. It cuts deep, I’m telling you. If you haven’t seen the original Muppet Movie, you’re missing out. This is the true potential of the Muppets. Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry. For the lovers, the dreamers, and me.