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The Muppet Movie

1979. Directed by James Frawley. With Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, James Goetz, Charles Durning, Austin Pendleton, and many guest stars.

Anna Fitzgerald mentioned this movie last March and suggested that its self-referentiality "is perhaps an attempt to explain the nature of movie reality to the younger generation." Intersting point! In fact, self-referential movies may be so intriguing because they take us right to the place where our adult selves ("That's a blue-screen process shot; you can see the wobble around the edges") meet our child selves ("He's flying!"), giving us the brief opportunity to see the same thing from two different perspectives. Self-referentiality seems a particularly appropriate strategy for a movie where the main characters are puppets (excuse me: Muppets) who move through "real" locations and interact with human actors, often famous ones; Muppetry it itself a tour-de-force of expressive artificiality, so why pretend different?

The Muppet Movie begins with those two crochety old-man Muppets en route to World Wide Studios to see a preview of The Muppet Movie. Right off that bat we ve got a movie that contains itself. A boisterous screening room scene introduces the characters we'll be meeting as the story proper unrolls, all eager to see themselves onscreen. The lights go down, the title The Muppet Movie appears on their screen and we have that basic piece of self-ref movie grammar, where the camera moves in toward a movie screen, past the frame lines that separate "their" movie space from "our" movie space, until--Through the Looking Glass!--we ve switched movies. Or switched our own position. The film returns to the screening room once toward the middle when the "film" breaks, and again at the end. And in between, the interior movie indulges in plenty of self-reflexivity of its own.

"I hope that you appreciate that I'm doing my own stunts," Kermit the Frog admonishes us after a leap through the air that only a non-mortal could accomplish. Big Bird makes a guest appearance, explaining that he's en route to New York City "to try to break into public television." Numerous scenes parody movie cliches, and there are cracks about producers, agents, etc.

When Kermit encounter a rock band and start to review their adventures up to that point, they conclude that the audience would be bored by the recap, so they just hand over a copy of the script. The rock band pages through and are delighted to find that the script contains the very scene where the Muppets meet the rock band. And when the rockers reconnect with our travellers later, they explain that they located the Muppets "by reading the screenplay you left us: 'Ext. Desert. Night.' Knew right where to find you." Brings to mind that Escher drawing where the art gallery contains the picture that contains the art gallery that contains the picture, etc. It's very clever.

Nevertheless, I feel some reservation about this movie--a reservation crystallized by but not limited to the guest appearance of Mel Brooks (as, gosh, a sadistic doctor with a German-Yiddish accent). Brooks had made the movie spoofs Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein five years earlier, and by 1979 self-referentiality had become pretty popular, though hardly as ubiquitous as it is today. Like Brooks, The Muppet Movie sometimes substitutes scattershot break-the-4th-wall shtick for originality and conviction. It plays the game on a number of levels, never commiting itself to any of them, deflecting any criticisms by being hipper-than-thou. It's all a spoof, see, it's supposed to be derivative and predictable. For example, a dumb joke about Hare Krisha pops up from time to time, and just it gets really annoying a character says, "Good grief! A running joke!" Does this raise the gag to a meta-level, or just make it seem doubly desperate?



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein