Monday, April 30, 2012

Small and Insignificant

If there is one Sesame Street character that got the short end of the straw, it would be the aptly-named Little Bird.

Remember me?  That's okay...so have the producers.

Those who remember this character will recall that he was supposed to be Big Bird's best friend and counterpart.  He has been with the show since the beginning, but, unlike his companions (Cookie Monster, Grover, Oscar, Bert, and Ernie), his presence on the show has decreased significantly.

The inclusion of a character such as this makes sense.  Big Bird was the lead character, so what better way to teach kids the difference between "big" and "little," than by explicitly using a character who is the opposite of Big Bird.  Even though Big Bird's point was that he was a giant version of a tiny creature, it didn't help to reinforce the difference.  Rather than make a new puppet, Henson reused a puppet that he voiced who was the mascot for a series of advertisments for the toy brand Kenner (makers of Easy Bake Ovens).


The bird didn't really have much of a personality, outside of his excitable frenzy over Knner-brand products.  But he was a small, yellow bird, and, therefore, perfect for the role on Sesame Street.

The children's show gig would be a lot safer.

Henson continued to voice the bird in his first appearance on the show.  This is where Big Bird and Little Bird would meet, in an origin story that would cement the two as an unforgettable fictional duo, like Holmes and Watson.  Since early Big Bird was depcited as very dopey, Little Bird would be smart.  Unfortunately, he came off as rude and sarcastic.  Nonetheless, Big Bird announced that the two would remain best friends forever.


Over time, Big Bird's personality developed into one that was more childlike and endearing.  Little Bird changed as well, becoming more supportive.  Ownership of the puppet transfered from Henson to Fran Brill, who gave the bird a sweeter voice, fitting to the new nature of the character.  But, outside of the initial "big/little" lesson, there wasn't much else for Little Bird to do.  So Little Bird began to appear in his own segments, interacting directly with the children at home.  Like an early Dora the Explorer, Little Bird was able to keep children engrossed in a conversation with their TV screens.  Little Bird's most famous lesson about imagination manages to get away with having children watch a silent, black screen for an extended period of time.  How amazingly progressive for a TV show.


As you can see by the end of the sktech, Little Bird's new shtick would involve scary run ins with larger monsters.  While most little Muppets would find themselves on Muppet monsters dinner plates, Little Bird only had to deal with personal bubble invasions.


Unfortunately, the show around Litttle Bird grew too fast for the bird to handle.  Big Bird's optimistic infantile attitude became better suited for interactions with the intelligent and pessimistic Oscar the Grouch.  The human adults would teach Big Bird his lessons.  And he would gain a new best friend by the name of Snuffleupagus.  Also, the monsters that once tormented Little Bird were established as genial creatures that wished him no harm, so there was no need for scary encounters.  Little Bird's role became reduced to minor appearances that required a bird to fly by, and eventually he only appeared in the merchandise.

Where the concept of size differences could reach a more literary audience.

Such is the fate of the tiny character.  He was brought in to be a permanent star, but he faded quickly.  The bird hasn't appeared on the show for over a decade now and there are no signs of his return.  Sesame Street has taught us many lessons, but the harshest one of all is that nothing, not even friendship, lasts forever.

Always remember the little people who helped you get to where you are today.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Great Muppet Caper, Part 5: Postmodernist Fun for the Whole Family

I briefly touched on this aspect earlier, but in case it wasn't clear, the Muppets are attacking this movie with comedy, literally.  The weapons they have chosen to stop the heist involve typical joke-shop gags, like rubber chickens, whoopee cushions and Groucho Marx glasses.

How could they possibly lose?

They don't explain why they have chosen these items, and it's not as if these items are particularly specific to the Muppets (except perhaps Fozzie).  These are just common elements that remind the audience of the comedy genre, and they are being forcibly inserted into the film in the climax where they have absolutely no business.  Like the toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Muppets biggest weapon is laughter.

Piggy, meanwhile, has escaped from prison and it always bugs me how people are always escaping from prison in movies and TV shows.  Not that they make it look easy, or anything.  The fact that they are doing it at all, even if they are innocent (especially if they are innocent).  Isn't it illegal to break out of jail?  Won't that just add further charges and prolong their sentence? ...Anyway, Piggy breaks out, and if that weren't already a crime, she hijacks a truck to drive to the Mallory Gallery.

Allowing for two final cameos from Peter Ustinov and Oscar the Grouch.

The Muppets have trouble getting past the guards, even with their disguises and paper towels, so they create a new plan that "depends" on the visual resemblance between Kermit and Fozzie.  They pretend to be the "Pizza Twins" delivery boys so that they can be allowed through the gate.

So the audience can tell them apart, Fozzie (left) dons a thick Italian accent.

Once through, the Muppets make their way up to the roof and Beaker gets his moment in the sun by checking the burglary alarm system.  I've noticed that each puppet apart from the lead four get one memorable line or moment to warrant their inclusion.  Beaker's is exactly what you'd expect.

He seems okay, but he is being burned internally.

Finally, with thieves and heroes in the building, we get to see the fabulous Baseball Diamond.

Visual puns for visual fun!

In case you can't tell by the picture, the diamond is the size and shape of a baseball, and it's time for the film to finally take a crack at sports movies in the moments before the ending.

With Louis Kazagger giving us the play-by-play out of nowhere.

I was going to say that the villains and Muppets fight over the diamond in a rousing game of baseball, except, the villains don't partake in any of the tomfoolery.  The Muppets just continue to toss the diamond around even though they have it in their possession and could easily put it back where it belongs.  Nonetheless, as a kid, I found this to be the most hilarious scene in the movie.  It's just so confusing and slapsticky that it works.

That is, until Nicky puts an end to the madness and holds the diamond and Kermit hostage, explaining that he has to do this because he is the bad guy.

Oh right, he's a competent villain.

Now, I know you're wondering, "Didn't the poster for this movie feature Miss Piggy riding a motorcycle?  Why hasn't that happened yet?"  Don't fret!  Miss Piggy has become an action star extraordinaire while everyone else was playing around.  She has ditched the truck and swiped a motorbike and, in a crowning moment of awesome (and spoilers?), busts through the stained glass window on the bike, landing on Holiday.  Unfortunately, there is only one clip of this on Youtube and it is of poor quality, so you will have to enjoy this scene through the wondrous magic of The Great Muppet Caper promotional tie-in glasses distributed through McDonalds!

VROOOOOM!!!! CRASHHHHH!!!!

And so, the day is saved, and Miss Piggy is our hero!  As Nicky is carted away, Piggy reveals that she learned a lot about love and loyalty.  She may want to be glamorous, but it's better to be good.

The whole gang gets to fly back to America, including the Happiness Hotel residents because stop worrying about the plot, it makes no sense.  I particularly enjoy Scooter's one great line of the movie about how he had lost all of his luggage except for his radio which is frozen to his wrist.  I am positive this line was ad libbed since in order to make it look like Scooter was holding a radio, it had to be awkwardly glued to his hand.  Anyway, the movie is over, and the gang gives us a reprise of the opening, telling us that we have just watched a movie.


We have made it through the second Muppet movie and Henson's first stint as a director.  How does it fare compared to The Muppet Movie?


Well, you are going to find hardcore fans for each and it makes sense because the two are completely different takes on what a "Muppet movie" should be.  The first one is a movie about the Muppets.  It tells their story, contains their humor, and most importantly, is sweet.  There is a lot of heart and emotion in The Muppet Movie that is almost missing from Caper.  Kermit basically speaks to the audience and tells them to follow their dreams, just like he did.  It's a lot of fun and is exactly what one would think of when they envision a movie about the Muppets.

Caper is the inverse of The Muppet Movie.  It assumes its audience is familiar with movies and the Muppets and decides to move beyond that.  The Muppet Movie is like the origin story of a superhero series, in a way.  It was Henson's chance to expand his audience and have them fall in love with the characters.  This movie knows you love them and runs with it.

Any sort of continuity or canon is thrown out the window from the starting scene, as the audience is drawn into a world where movie conventions will be played with mercilessly.  It's quite clever and the focus is purely on humor.  That isn't to say there aren't moments of genuine emotion and intelligence.  Fozzie sitting alone at the supper club is subtly heart-breaking, Gonzo cleverly uncovers the whole mystery and, Kermit and Piggy's romance takes on a certain weight that had been absent from any production prior.

In fact, I would say this may be Piggy's best performance to date.  She isn't overbearing or violent or manhungry.  She is excitable and has high aspirations of grandeur, but they aren't exaggerated to the extreme as she usually is (save for her meltdown in the park).  Piggy in general can be a very grating character, but here, she is very likable.  The first couple of scenes show her as clumsy and insecure.  She is humanized in this movie, and it makes us root for her.  The ending may be ridiculous but it totally makes sense that she would be the one to save the day.  This is her movie, and she has to prove us that she can be a lovable protagonist.

Having the Muppets appear as actors in a non-Muppety story was a great decision and I am saddened that they have yet to follow this up.  Part of me wishes that Muppets could start appearing by themselves in other movies in supporting roles.  It would be great to see Gonzo in The Fast and the Furious or Scooter in Superbad.  This movie proves that just because the Muppets are present doesn't mean that the story has to change.  They certainly added a lot of humor to the scenes, but the basic plot wasn't altered in the slightest.

If I had to change one thing about this movie, it would be the appearance ratio of the supporting Muppet cast.  The rest of the Muppet gang had very little to do, save for a couple lines here and there.  Since I don't see how their parts could have been made larger given the story, I would have reorganized them so that they made smaller cameos throughout the film.  Happiness Hotel is a great location, but did all of the Muppet have to be stuck there?  They could have been spread throughout London at various points and then, they would all be on hand for the finale.  But this is just a minor gripe because they still provided quote-worthy moments.

Lew Zealand earns his keep with this scene alone.

So, for people who complain that their aren't enough Muppets in the movie, or that the story doesn't fit with the other films or that it doesn't have enough heart, I say, who cares?  That's not what this movie was supposed to be.  It was supposed to be a celebration of films in general.  Despite being made in the '80s, the film is surprisingly not dated at all.  The plot seems to be lifted from the '30s, yet nothing seems out of place.  Every aspect of this movie is self-referential, and for many children, it was their first taste of postmodern art.  If this was the first movie you saw, you would be scratching your head the whole way through.  But if it's the second to millionth you saw, then you are the perfect audience.

This is my favorite Muppet movie because it is so unique.  Everyone looks like they are having the time of their lives making this movie (especially Charles Grodin).  I feel that the jokes hold up to this day and it is presented in a neat little package.  They will be making more Muppets movies in the future, but I doubt they will ever be able to capture the spirit that this one had.

*          *          *

One last thing I want to mention about this film is that there was a companion book released in conjunction with the movie about the "making of the masterpiece."  This touts the film as the most influential movie ever made.  Just like the film it represents, it is pure parody and satire.  

Add it to the wish list!

The book is filled with "true" stories about the plot's conception (it was based on a short story from the pulp fiction magazine Pardon My Guts!), deleted scenes (Fozzie parts the Red Sea, the infamous Lew Zealand shower scene), and descriptions of the horrible mishaps that befell the cast and crew during shooting.  This is a very rare treasure and would make a great gift for any fan of the film.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Great Muppet Caper, Part 4: In the Pig House

It is now the night of Lady Holiday's fashion show.  Piggy runs around backstage trying to keep things organized, but she cannot escape the leering presence of Nicky, who has become instantly smitten with the hog.  He's sleazy, but he manages to deliver one of the most genuine backhanded compliments ever stated has he professes his attraction to her because she is not like the "attractive" models he usually sees every day.  Despite his scheming, falling for Piggy was not on the menu.

One is lead to believe that Grodin isn't even acting.  He just got caught up in the moment.

It breaks Nicky's heart to go through with the next stage of his crime: framing Piggy for the earlier robberies.  In order to plant the evidence on her person, he has her replace one of the swimsuit models during the middle of the show.  Piggy, over her head with joy, doesn't think twice about the offer to step in and she shocks the crowd and Ms. Holiday as she enters the stage.  Beauty has a new name, and it smells like bacon.

Piggy instantly begins imagining an elaborate fantasy synchronized swimming sequence, all while Nicky croons about her beauty, in the aptly titled "Piggy's Fantasy."


This is another one of Henson's trademark technological feat involving puppetry.  Almost half of the shots involve Piggy being submerged in water as she swims along side the human swimmers.  Some of the shots are easy to figure out (like when she comes out of the water with lit sparklers) but other times the images on screen make less sense the more you think about them.  Again, Henson does not fail to impress.

Have you ever submerged a stuffed animal in water?  It's not a pretty sight.

Of course, the piece de resistance is the culmination of all the ridiculous elements of the song, combining for an epic final note as Piggy is serenaded by her two suitors, one of whom is horribly/amazingly dubbed with an operatic voice.

Again, Nicky Holiday proves to be a far more versatile villain than Doc Hopper.

The fantasy ends as Piggy tumbles off the runway into the fountain at the end, snapping her back into reality.  In the confusion, Nicky places the stolen necklace (minus the diamonds) into Piggy's coat, and Piggy is arrested for the robbery.

Kermit and his friends know that Nicky is behind this and decided to hatch a plan to prove Piggy innocent.  Gonzo had overheard Nicky and the models talking about stealing Lady Holiday's famed Baseball Diamond and Kermit decides that they must catch them all in the act.  The Muppets are less than enthused about risking their lives, so Fozzie has to put his foot down in order to deliver the movie's big inspirational speech.  It's the bear's time to shine!


Kermit quickly visits with Miss Piggy in prison to tell her about the plan.  He sneaks in as her lawyer "Mr. Rosenthal," using a disguise fitting of a Muppet movie.

Dat 'stache!

The heroes and villains each prepare for the heist in a montage that emphasizes how out matched the two groups are.  Nicky, despite being a spineless weenie, is armed with expensive gadgets that will allow the heist to run smoothly.  The Muppets only have an assortment of joke items, and even then, most of them have gone missing.  This scene reinforces the idea that two kinds movies are clashing together, and shows that without the Muppets, this could have been a straightforward dramatic thriller.

Piggy, tired of waiting in her cell, gathers her strength to bust out, so that she can join in on the fun, too.

Go for it!

Tomorrow, we conclude with an action-packed finale filled with motorcycles, sports, grouches, and pizza.  Get ready for one great Muppet caper!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Great Muppet Caper, Part 3: Whirlwind Romance

Taking the earnest advice from Neville, Piggy/Holiday and Kermit head off to dine at the Dubonnet Club (which is really more of a supper club than a restaurant).  Piggy must first endure a ride on this movie's equivalent of the Electric Mayhem bus from the first film, with every puppet along for the ride.  The band jams on the roof, singing the song "Night Life."  The vehicle looks cool, but the number isn't up to usual Mayhem standards.

"Can You Picture That?" it ain't.

Fortunately, the tagalongs stay in the caravan as the main four proceed inside the club for dinner and the interview.  And, it immediately becomes apparent that their money will be no good at this upscale establishment.

Swanky!

Gonzo decides to hustle patrons for cash by providing them with "complimentary" photo souvenirs that cost $10.  I understand that the customers will be wealthy enough to forgo the cash, but did we forget that this movie is set in England?  Why would people be carrying American cash?  Oh well, this just gets Gonzo moving around the room to set up a plot point later.

And to work in a Henson cameo.  Hi, Jim!

While Piggy/Holiday and Kermit make googly eyes at each other on the dance floor and Fozzie combats his loneliness by adding heaps of sugar to his martini, the actual Lady Holiday arrives to dine, along with her leech of a brother, Nicky.  And he is the best!  It doesn't even matter that he is American while she is British.  Charles Grodin makes the most of this role as soon as he appears on screen.

I wonder who the jewel thief is going to end up being...

Grodin takes a great deal of pleasure in becoming the slimiest, whiniest man who ever graced the screen.  While some celebrities act awkwardly during their Muppet interactions and others act naturally,  Grodin acts Muppety.  He is completely over-the-top, yet it's clear he is not forcing it.  He knew he was going to be in a Muppet movie and so he was going to make the absolute best of it.  In case you didn't catch the opening scene, Grodin is our villain, and he puts Doc Hopper to shame.

Meanwhile, the next musical number is about to begin, and it is the movie's centerpiece.  It is a love song called "The First Time It Happens," and without warning, Piggy is the center of an elaborate dance routine, even though it doesn't make any sense at all.  But it is still a spectacular moment for all you Kermit-Piggy shippers.


This is Caper's "Rainbow Connection."  It's straightforward, but it captures that moment of falling in love in a way that makes sense.  It deliberately inverts the common tropes of love, such as birds singing and skies clearing.  It states that nothing dramatic occurs and there is no magic, but you know in your heart that something significant has occurred.  On its own, it is a very sweet song.  Matching it with the show-stopping performance that the whole club participates in serves to remind us that our expectations are being toyed with.

Such a quiet moment, the first time it happens.

After the song, the lights go out and Nicky pockets Holiday's diamond necklace.  The lights come back on and Holiday shrieks, prompting Grodin/Nicky to provide some golden quotes in the chaos to deflect blame away from him: "She screamed right in my EAR!" and "I JUST SPILLED KETCHUP ALL OVER MY CUMMERBUND!"  I wish I had this clip, so just imagine a grown man acting like a spoiled baby.  That's our villain.

Kermit now learns the truth, that Piggy was not Holiday.  She dashes off, leaving behind a glass slipper, because DUH.  But no time for that, because Gonzo got a picture of the thief!  They convert the Happiness Hotel's loo into a dark room to develop the film, and right when they discover Nicky as the culprit the rest of the guests open the door and over-expose the picture.

At least Fozzie and Gonzo were able to pat their heads and rub their tummies at the same time first.

So, even though the gang has just figured out who the thief was...the film has to resolve the Piggy/Kermit issue first.  Kermit heads to the park to wallow in pity, as Peter Falk walks by to help the poor fellow.  If John Cleeese weren't in the movie, this would be the best cameo scene.


As Kermit attempts to get the movie back on track, he runs into Piggy who tries to explain her actions.  And, because the fourth wall means nothing in a Muppet movie, Piggy has a meltdown when Kermit criticizes her acting (as she is wont to do).


Don't worry, all is eventually forgiven and love can blossom in the form of a bike ride.  Now, in The Muppet Movie, Kermit rides a bike for about half a minute during the beginning.  And that was all anyone would talk about when discussing the movie.  Henson always felt that the more complicated aspects of the movie were overlooked for this cheap trick.  So this time, he decided he is really going to wow people.  Not only will Kermit ride a bike, Miss Piggy will, too!

And Kermit will do stunts!

Oh heck, why don't we just have EVERYONE ride bikes!

THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED!!!

Tomorrow, the romance will ht another speed bump as Nicky decides that jewels aren't enough for him;   he is also very fond of pork.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Great Muppet Caper, Part 2: A British Farce

A farce is that special brand of comedy that I once heard described as "door comedy." This refers to the trope in which the madness of the story has escalated to that frantic moment where characters run in and out of doors, narrowly missing each other, as seen in many a Scooby Doo episode.  While doors are not a requirement for a farce, the confusion felt by the characters is.  Mistaken identities, fast-paced action, and an improbable situation are the key hall marks of this genre.  And it just so happens that the next three scenes in the movie showcase these three elements!

As Lady Holiday leaves Piggy to tend to her receptionist duties, Kermit and his crew arrive to interview Holiday for the news, barely missing Holiday's top three models scheming over their attempts to rob her.  Kermit walks into the office as Piggy parades around the room, excited to be on her way to becoming a model.  When Kermit mistakes her for Holiday, of course, Piggy plays along with it.

She looks just like Diana Rigg.  It's easy to see how Kermit got confused.

This development further emphasizes the idea that we as the audience are not supposed to perceive these characters as playing roles intended for the Muppets.  Piggy and Holiday are just as identical as Kermit and Fozzie are.  Of course, Kermit never really got a good look at Holiday in the first scene.  Piggy, however, gets a good look at Kermit and instantly falls for him.

And here's the movie's token jab at Disney movies.

The two arrange to meet for dinner for the full interview, but it's clear that this will be a romantic evening between the two.  Piggy feeds Kermit a fake address in on a highbrow street so that she can keep up the charade all night.  And now we have our first box checked on our Farce Scoresheet.

Up next, is the madcap action sequence.  As a way of introducing another recent addition to the Muppet Show cast, Beauregard the dim-witted janitor appears as a taxi-driver.  And, like the other "local" Muppets, he isn't British at all.  He takes them on a wild ride back to the hotel (where he is also a resident, of course).  This scene was reused in the special The Muppets Go to the Movies as part of their tribute to action movies and stunts.  Basically, this scene is like a pointless car chase sequence used to make a movie more "exciting," except it's even makes even less sense because there is only one car involved.


The trip ends as any Muppet sketch should.  With mass destruction....

Random chaos.  Henson's trademark.

...and another Swedish Chef dish ruined.

The secret ingredient is wiper fluid!

Up in the bedroom, Kermit and company prepare for a night out.  While some drama is established, hinting at Piggy/Holiday potentially driving a wedge between the twin brothers, the plot has to be put on hold for a Gene-Kelly-esque musical number.  They literally stop the story and drop all hints of tension just for the song, and it is picked right back up at the end as if nothing happened.  Because that's how it goes in the movies!

There's always time for a song!


At the end, Kermit agress to let Fozzie tag along on the date and, by proxy, every other Muppet gets to come too.  Sure, why not?

Okay, we now come to the most British scene in the movie.  This will complete your farce trifecta.  So as not to ruin the moment, I implore you to watch it in it's entirety.  Remember, Piggy has given Kermit an actual address in order to pass herself off as Lady Holiday.  (Pay no mind to the Greek subtitles.)


Did you watch it?  Go back and watch it.

This scene has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the film.  It doesn't affect the plot and it could have easily been skipped.  But then, we wouldn't have this brilliant send up of the British upper class, beautifully illustrated by Joan Sanderson and John Cleese.  Cleese, really, is what makes this scene.  I would say that this may be even better than his entire Muppet Show episode (which he co-wrote).  His attitude throught the whole dry conversation provides a snarky undercurrent to the whole thing, where you can't quite tell how geniune his reactions are.  This is clearly a couple who have nothing left to talk about.  Even without Piggy's interruption, this scene would have been great.

But since we must play out our farce, we are allowed to enjoy the mild-mannered hijinks that ensue.  Henson and Oz barely have to do anything with their characters.  It all rests on Cleese's shoulders and he manages to steal the show.  Serving as a strong contrast to the rage-driven tirades of his rude signature character Basil Fawlty, Neville is the most genial fellow Piggy could hope to encounter.

He's not bored.  If he were bored, he would buy a jar of calf's foot jelly.

As many times as I've seen this scene, I never tire of it.  It doesn't even seem as if it was written by the same writers.  This scene captures what many people cite as the universal appeal of the Muppets.  The ability to create humor that both children and adults alike can enjoy.  For kids, the dialogue is much too heady, but they can understand that a wacky pig is infiltrating a house of boring adults.  For adults, it is the subject of conversation that is humorous.  It's quite passionate how dull they are.

Thanks to this scene, the film can now be officialy considered a British farce, and the movie as all the better for it.  Tomorrow, in Part 3, we finally meet the villain, and we'll learn how to properly act when you find yourself with a starring role in a Muppet movie.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Great Muppet Caper, Part 1: Going Through the Motion Pictures

Muppet movies generally come in two types.  In Type A, the Muppets appear as themselves, usually trying to put on some sort of show, working as a loose extension of The Muppet Show. In Type B (the common post-Henson type), a public-domain story is reenacted by the Muppets, like an elongated theme episode of The Muppet Show.  Then there is Type C: The Great Muppet Caper.

It defies all known conventions.

This was the second feature-length Muppet movie and the first full-length film directed by Jim Henson.  It is also the only Muppet film directed by Henson, and when compared with the others in the original triliogy (The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan), it stands out as the quirkiest, the cleverest, and the Hensonest of the bunch.  In kind of a weird combination of the two types mentioned above, Caper tells an original story about a jewlery heist in London, featuring the Muppets as themselves (except, not themselves).  It can get a little confusing, but it is all quickly explained during the opening number.

Basically, this is a movie that is a parody of a movie.  It's not a parody of a heist movie.  It's just a parody of a movie, in general.  Wasn't that what The Muppet Movie was for?  No.  That was a movie about trying to make a movie and the road trip that led up to it.  While they did break the fourth wall occassionally to play with movie clich├ęs, it was a personal story about the Muppets' journey.  Caper is result of when someone takes a basic movie script and spills a bottle of Muppets all over it.  This is evident from the very first image.

ROAR!!!

Right away, we have Animal replacing the MGM lion as a little visual gag.  This is just a minor hint towards the meta-commentary on movies that is about to unfold.

We pan past Animal into the bright blue sky.  Before the title even appears, we are presented with Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo riding in a hot air balloon.  Why are they in a balloon?  It's never explained.  What do they do in the balloon?  Why, they float through the title and opening credits of course!

Don't stare at the sun.

There is no clue as to what the story will be yet.  Kermit and company just comment on the credits themselves, noting that this is going to be a very fun movie is so many people worked on it.  Eventually, Fozzie gets board with sitting through them all and Kermit assures him that the movie is about to start.  And then, they literally drop right into  the movie as it is taking place.  Cue the opening number, "Hey, A Movie!"

I've discussed this song before, but feel free to watch it again.  It's fun!

And what a movie it is!  Mayhem and dancing and singing and slapstick.  Everything great about the movies is captured in this brief moment.  We also let Kermit explain the movie's premise.  He and Fozzie are playing "Kermit and Fozzie, investigative journalists."  And that is all we need to know.  The movie expects you to be familiar enough with the characters and stereotypical plot elements to draw your own conclusions about what is going on.  We're now ready for a movie.

During the chaos of the opening scene, we witness a wealthy lady (Diana Rigg) get her jewels stolen by some masked burglar (played by Charles Grodin).  Kermit and Fozzie of course, miss the big story, instead presenting their boss with the story of themselves being journalists.  Identical twin journalists.  So, the audience is now expected to make a further leap in logic and must constantly remind themselves that Kermit and Fozzie are visually identical in this story.  If that isn't a Henson-style joke, I don't know what is.

They are the spitting image of their father.

Their boss gives them one last chance to get the big story about the missing jewels.  Along with their photographer Gonzo, they travel to London to meet the victim, Lady Holiday.  And, because they have no money, they must travel via the cargo bay.

So that's what Gonzo is!

They are unceremoniously dumped out of the plane over England, and receive a piece of advice from a kind local for a cheap (free) place to stay.  He recommends the Happiness Hotel, which can also be known as "The Place We Stick Every Other Muppet Apart from the Main Four Because It's a Muppet Movie and Fans Would Be Upset If They Didn't See Their Favorite Characters."

The gang's all here!  They just aren't important this time!  See you guys during the film's climax!

Seriously, this movie feels is if it was completely written, with Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and Piggy's story and then the writers remembered, "Crap! We have to fit in 50 more puppets!"  So, this "Muppet-Show-away-from-home" is the low-low-low-scale Happiness Hotel, which only has one positive quality: there are Muppets living there.  So at least we know we'll get a song out of it!


You may notice as you watch the hotel scenes that a couple of characters who were not created when the first movie was made get more lines then the others. It's basically the creators' way of giving theatrical introductions to their newer characters.

Finally, it's Pops's time to shine!

Even though they are shoehorned into the script, the other Muppets make the most of their glorified cameos, filled with wonderful jokes.  And, they do not overstay their welcome.  Henson understood that they were not essential to the plot, so he used them sparingly and effectively.  The crappy hotel is a wonderful set piece to house them all and it is crucial to the movie, if only because these scenes provide plenty of zany humor.

Does the movie have a malfunctioning Murphy bed, you ask?  Don't worry, Henson's got you covered.

Back to the main plot, we drop in on Lady Holiday, who is a high-class fashion designer.  Despite her stiff demeanor, she haphazardly treats her outfits in a great piece of physical comedy that is masked by her eloquent dialogue.  With prissy models acting catty about her alterations, the audience may begin to wonder where Miss Piggy is in all of this?  Surely she'd be right at home in this setting.

Right on cue.

Piggy, in a rare turn, is instantly humbled in the presence of Lady Holiday, and despite her lackluster portfolio and unreasonable demands to become a high-end fashion star, Piggy gleeful accepts Holiday's offer for becoming her receptionist.

Although, "Reeking Grandeur"shows great potential.


Holiday uses this moment to explain to Piggy all about her playboy brother Nicky, who constantly preys on her wealth. Every bit of background info we need on these characters is laid out in great detail. Why is she doing this, Piggy asks. Because all of this exposition "has to go somewhere," replies Holiday.

And with that, everything is set in place for our movie to unfold. Tomorrow, in Part 2, Kermit and Piggy's stories will intertwine in a most humorous fashion.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Milton's Paradise Lost

In honor of Earth Day, I wanted to look at Henson's specials that promoted environmentalism.  I hoped to include all of them, but as my research went further and further, I found far too many examples.  Fraggle Rock episodes, such as "The Great Radish Famine" and "The River of Life," are filled with messages promoting care for the eco-system.  Sesame Street got on a huge environmental kick in the '90s, featuring Earth-heavy songs, such as "We Are All Earthlings."  And then it seemed as if every other episode of Dinosaurs was about saving the environment, including the dramatic final episode that showcases the horrible aftermath of an eco-ignorant society.  This is too much to cover in one sitting, so instead I shall focus one one aspect of the Earth that Henson seemed to be the most passionate about: the well-being of frogs.

Because the earth is their home too.

In 1990, ABC produced a two-hour special that brought many celebrities together to promote Earth Day.  Many of these appearances were by fictional characters, such as Doogie Howser, Doc Brown, and ET.  So of course, Kermit the Frog made an appearance, and his segment of the show was directed and written by Jim Henson.  Jump to 3:50 in the video below to watch.


Henson uses Kermit, Robin, and a swamp full of frogs to discuss that while most of the special is focused on the benefits of saving the earth for humans, animals like them are also suffering due to pollution.  They point out that human interference has caused their predicament and they have to rely on humans to get them out of their situation, lest they go extinct.

Henson had produced a special that covered the same idea in more detail one year earlier.  It was called The Song of the Cloud Forest and it featured puppets and special effects unlike any that had been seen before in a Muppet production.


Using the Bunraku technique that places the puppeteer in the background mixed with a green screen, Henson brought a vibrant world to life, as he took us through his rainforest.  The neon colors practically dominate the special, adding a transfixing beauty to the show.

ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD!

The story concerns a young Golden Toad named Milton who is the last of his species living in the rainforest.  He knows that it's been a lonely couple of years, but he has know idea that his species is on the verge of extinction.  Everyday, he sings his mating call from his tree to draw a mate closer to him.

He only succeeds in attracting outrageous looking howler monkeys.

All of the other creatures in the forest worry about Milton, and they grow even more worried when they overhear some humans or "Uprights" who have come to the forest attempting to capture him so they can breed him in captivity with the female they have captured.  Although a female is present, they warn Milton not to sing his song so that he does not get captured.

Milton's friends are a colorful bunch.

The gang gets even more fearful when a robin named Ralph who has flown south for the winter, posits his theory that Uprights destroy rainforests so that they can eat all of the plants and animals (he isn't very far off).  This leads to the token nightmare-inducing song of the special, where the animals imaginations run wild.

This is how they picture humans, because they have only seen the ancient statues that dot the landscape.

The humans, however, aren't villainous at all.  They feel they are doing the right thing, and when they hear Milton's call, they set up traps all around the forest to capture him.  Milton runs away to the deepest part of the forest, wondering what to do.  If he keeps singing, he'll be captured, but if he doesn't, then he'll never find a mate.

An introspective moment.

A wise alligator hears his plight and tells him that the humans need to hear his music.  So Milton sings the best mating call he has ever performed as the entire jungle joins him in song.  This manages to convince the humans that they should not interrupt the music and upset the balance of the forest, so they let their female go, so that nature may do its work.

Which is sweet and all, but now the toads are not protected whatsoever.  Oh well, let's go build a mall.

Milton and the female finally meet and set to work filling the forest with frog spawn.  But first, can they get through the awkward first date?

DUN DUN DUN!!!

While the show may be sending some mixed messages, it is clear that this was one of Henson's more passionate projects.  The art-direction is amazing (save for some awkward '80s effects) and the story is really sweet.  Dave Golez (Gonzo, Boober Fraggle) plays Milton, so he is able to create a purely sympathetic character with his shy voice, which seems to be his best talent.  It may be hard to say if this special helped save the rainforests in anyway, but at least it was well-received critically.  If there is one thing this special achieved, it was reminding us how beautiful our Earth is.  This is probably the closest he came to showing us how he saw the world every day.