The first Muppet Movie came out in 1979. The celebrity cameos included Milton Berle and Bob Hope; Charles Durning played the film’s villain. And in one of the movie’s last scenes, a ‘Hollywood mogul’ directs his assistant to prepare a standard ‘rich and famous’ contract for the Muppets. That mogul was played by Orson Welles. And the late Jim Henson voiced Kermit and Frank Oz voiced Miss Piggie and Fozzy Bear. Sigh.
And now it’s 35 years later, and in the new Muppets Most Wanted, the villain is Ricky Gervais, and cameos are provided by Lady Gaga and Usher (playing, of course, an usher), and Kermit’s voice is provided by Steve Whitmire and Miss Piggy’s by Eric Jacobson. But Kermit and Miss Piggie Fozzie and Gonzo and Dr. Teeth and Beaker and Animal and all the rest of them have never aged. And their newest movie is just as delightful as all of them have been.
How have they done it? How have the Muppets stayed so fresh, so G-rated irreverent, so musically hip, so funny? I think, in part, they’re almost a living time capsule of long-forgotten American comedic forms. They’re always trying to put ‘an act’ together; they’re a company of players, in the world’s longest running vaudeville company, so vaudeville and variety are an influence. Statler and Waldorf’s commentary is very Borscht Belt–the fact that their insults are never actually very clever or funny is itself a lot of the joke. Miss Piggy has always been voiced by a man; she seems less like a diva than a drag queen; or aren’t drag queens always divas? Of course the movies are always musicals, and a lot of the fun is watching Tina Fey or Ricky Gervais or (I’m not kidding), a chorus line of guys in prison attire, including Danny Trejo, Jemaine Clement and Ray Liotta, sing and dance.
And the songs are terrific. Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords wrote seven original songs for this movie, and they’re all great fun. Tina Fey nails The Big House, a doo-wop introduction to a Gulag prison (joined by Josh Groban). A Russian evil Kermit-look-alike sings a duet with Ricky Gervais, I’m Number One. But, for me, the musical highlight was a duet between Celine Dion and Miss Piggy. See this movie, and see Celine and Piggy sing My Heart Will Go On together. I can now die and go to heaven.
The Muppets have never been afraid to make fun of themselves, and the conceit in this movie is that an evil Kermit, a Russian Kermit, takes over the Muppets, all the better to commit various heists along their international tour route. And, of course, aside from Animal, none of the Muppets ever figure out why Kermit’s suddenly speaking in a Russian accent. Mostly, they don’t even notice that he has an accent. Even Miss Piggy, who still adores her frog (and has become ever more insistent that the two of them tie the knot) doesn’t catch on to fake Kermie. The Muppets have always been pretty cloth-headed.
But, aside from Kermit, (and possibly, Miss Piggy), none of the Muppets are interesting enough characters to carry a whole movie. The movie is built along cameos, yes, with Hugh Bonneville and Frank Langella and Tom Hiddleston and Miranda Richardson and James McEvoy and Tom Hollander and Zach Galifianakis and Salma Hayek and Christoph Waltz and Sean Combes and Rob Corddry getting one scene each. (I rather suspect that no one, ever, says no to the Muppets). But really, Dr. Teeth and Rowf the Dog and Dr. Bunson Honeydew and The Swedish Chef, they basically all get cameos too; one short scene each. The movie’s always going to be about Kermit, loyal, brave, earnest Kermit, a frog with a simple dream–to entertain, to make people happy.
And they’ve succeeded for so long, so marvelously, and the franchise never seems to age. I had a great time, visiting old friends, hearing their new songs, groaning at old schtick, marveling at new inventiveness. And their new movie is a ball. And there’s no better news than this: They’re doing a sequel.