Having been turned down by every television studio in America, Jim Henson’s Muppet Show was eventually bankrolled in the UK by legendary cigar-chomping mogul Lord Lew Grade. From its debut in 1976, The Muppet Show was a huge, global success; an instant hit with both children and adults. Three years later, with the Muppets at the zenith of their popularity, Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and company made their big screen debut with The Muppet Movie (‘More Entertaining Than Humanly Possible’) which was one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. Since then a further seven big-screen adventures have been released, including the recent Muppets Most Wanted, as well their forthcoming TV series – not to mention some classic Muppet albums.
The great appeal of The Muppets is its deft blend of childish wonder, a primary-coloured rainbow of felt and ping-pong balls, underscored with a sly, anti-establishment edge and a sureness with adult references that would later influence Pixar’s writers and animators. Henson never patronised any of the age-ranges that loved The Muppets: there was always something for everyone, but for devotees there was especially esoteric treasure buried everywhere. The pre-meta fourth wall breaking; Gonzo’s obsession with chickens; the very names “Bunsen Honeydew” and “Dr Julius Strangepork”? Utter, utter genius.
Behind it all was Henson’s sincere and benevolent world-view. Despite the hip, East Coast sharpness that courses through the Muppet oeuvre, theirs is a cynicism-free zone. The Muppets are the world’s ‘almost’ people: the tryers who never quite make it, but take solace in the fact that they tried and failed as a team. ‘We’ve got a special thing goin’ / We got us.’ As Most Wanted star Ricky Gervais put it, “The crux of The Muppets is that it’s a bunch of hapless friends trying to make it in a cut-throat business. You’re rooting for them because they’re the underdogs. It’s inspirational in a really sweet, fairy-tale, childlike way.”
And so without further ado, it’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the light, it’s time to get things started…
1. THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979) – MOVIN’ RIGHT ALONG
“Didn’t you see our first movie?” reminded Kermit in 2011’s The Muppets, “We drive.”
Having rescued third-rate stand up comedian Fozzie Bear from the unimpressed, bottle-throwing denizens of the El Sleezo Café, Kermit hitches a ride in his new ursine pal’s rusty 1951 Studebaker, en route to Hollywood and fame and fortune. How, you ask, did a bear learn to drive? “I took a correspondence course.” All the while they are pursued by the nefarious Doc Hopper, who wants to use Kermit to promote his range of deep-fried frog’s legs.
The songs in The Muppet Movie remain the best of all their films, written as they are by Bugsy Malone composer Paul Williams (with Kenny Ascher). Kermit’s magical banjo-whimsy The Rainbow Connection was nominated for an Oscar, but don’t forget the Electric Mayhem freak-out Can You Picture That, Miss Piggy’s Streisand-ballad, Never Before, Never Again, and Rowlf the Dog and Kermit aping Crosby and Sinatra with I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along – ‘It’s not often you see a guy that green have the blues so bad.’
Top of the list is the driving anthem Movin’ Right Along, the Kermit and Fozzie duet performed as they make their way across America, footloose and fancy-free. “Bear left!” “Right Frog?” Firstly, this is one of Paul Williams’ finest toe-tappers, with a typically Muppetty mixture of Can-Do optimism and comedy schtick (“Hey LA, where’ve you gone / Send someone to fetch us, we’re in Saskatchewan”). Now add gags so fabulously bad that Kermit can only bow his little green head in shame: exhibit A, the fork in the road. Pushing it into first place is Fozzie’s line, one of the greatest ever delivered in modern cinema, as he surveys the vast swathes of open American land around him: “Ahh, a bear in his natural habitat. A Studebaker.”