With The Muppets returning to the big screen this Thanksgiving, it's time to revisit their cinematic history. No awkward television specials here - just a most sensational look back on Kermit & Company's six big screen adventures.
When The Muppets is released on Thanksgiving, it will be the first time in 12 years that we'll have a theatrical release from Jim Henson's lovably crazy creations. They may have changed hands a few times since 1999, but I have faith that Disney finally understands what to do with the gang. But before we look to the the (hopefully) bright future, let's take a bike ride down memory lane and see how we got here!
The Muppet Movie (1979)
Plot: See how it all began, from the swamp to Hollywood. While on the run from evil restaurateur Doc Hopper, Kermit meets the gang for the first time as they set out in pursuit of their dreams...and the standard "Rich & Famous Contract".
The Muppet Songbook: "Rainbow Connection", 'Movin' Right Along", "Never Before, Never Again", "I Hope That Somethin' Better Comes Along", "Can You Picture That", "I'm Going To Go Back There Someday", "Finale: The Magic Store"
Notable Humans: Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, James Coburn, Dom DeLuise, Elliot Gould, Bob Hope, Madeline Kahn, Carol Kane, Cloris Leachman, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Orson Welles
Voice & Voice: All the Muppets have their original voices, and the overall humor/tone is just as it should be. Pure, satirical magic.
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
Plot: Newspaper reporters Kermit & Fozzie (with their photographer, Gonzo) travel to London, determined to crack the case of fashion designer Lady Holiday's stolen jewels. Aspiring model Miss Piggy becomes the focal point of a love triangle between Kermit and Lady Holiday's untrustworthy brother Nicky.
The Muppet Songbook: "Hey, a Movie!", "Happiness Hotel", "The First Time It Happens", "Night Life", "Steppin' Out With a Star", "Couldn't We Ride"
Notable Humans: John Cleese, Peter Falk, Charles Grodin, Diana Rigg, Peter Ustinov, Jack Warden
Voice & Voice: All Muppet voices remain the same from the first film. The Muppets are still playing themselves, but now with different occupations. This film is much funnier and more meta (starting with the elaborate opening song and dance number) but still manages to pull your heart strings at all the right moments. The bicycling scene is still a marvel of practical effects.
The Muppets Take Manhattan
Plot: Fresh out of college, Kermit, Piggy and the gang head to New York City to try and get their musical "Manhattan Melodies" to Broadway. But they soon fall on hard times and go their separate ways, forcing Piggy to reunite them all with an amnesiac Kermit and put on their show.
The Muppet Songbook: "Together Again", "You Can't Take No For An Answer", "Saying Goodbye", "Something's Cooking", "I'm Gonna Always Love You", "Right Where We Belong", "Somebody's Getting Married", "She'll Make Me Happy"
Notable Humans: Art Carney, Dabney Coleman, Elliot Gould, Gregory Hines, John Landis, Liza Minnelli, Joan Rivers, Brooke Shields
Voice & Voice: Original Muppet voices are still holding strong, in Frank Oz's directorial debut. The Muppets' running satire of Hollywood gets re-worked for Broadway, with mostly-successful results. Kermit losing his memory is a bit strange, but it's all worth it for the big wedding scene between Kermit & Piggy - AND the first introduction of the Muppet Babies.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Plot: In this surprisingly faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic story, Michael Caine plays the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, with Kermit and the gang rounding out the rest of the cast in a musical holiday masterpiece.
The Muppet Songbook: "Scrooge", "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas", "Marley and Marley", "When Love is Gone", "It Feels Like Christmas", "Bless Us All", "Thankful Heart"
Notable Humans: Michael Caine
Voice & Voice: Steve Whitmire has now taken over as the voice of Kermit, after Jim Henson's death in 1990. Despite the story being told by Muppets, it's for the most part very faithful the original source material. Gonzo acts here as Charles Dickens, narrating the story with his new sidekick Rizzo. Humor is delicately balanced with the more somber overtones of the story, and the results are heartwarming...even if there are next to no celebrity cameos.
Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
Plot: Once again taking on a story from classic literature, the Muppets' adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure features Kermit as Captain Smollett, Fozzie as Squire Trelawney and Miss Piggy as Benjamina Gunn. Tim Curry embodies the human villain role of Long John Silver. High seas antics ensue.
The Muppet Songbook: "Shiver My Timbers", "Something Better", "Sailing For Adventure", "Cabin Fever", "Professional Pirate", "Boom Shakalaka", "Love Led Us Here", "Love Power"
Notable Humans: Tim Curry, Jennifer Saunders
Voice & Voice: Aside from Steve Whitmire continuing on as Kermit, no voice substitutions here. Following the success of the Gonzo-Rizzo team up from The Muppet Christmas Carol, they portray Jim's best friends (new characters) in MTI. While the last classic adaptation was honorable, this one's much more campy and over the top. It's not as much fun when Kermit can't just be Kermit, and so on.
Muppets From Space (1999)
Plot: Not to be confused with the recurring sketch "Pigs in Space" from The Muppet Show, the gang's last theatrical release before a 10+ year absence answers the age old question: What exactly IS Gonzo? Unsurprisingly, everyone's favorite Whatever is an alien, and his family's ready for a reunion on Earth.
The Muppet Songbook: A bunch of non-Muppet-related classic funk nonsense.
Notable Humans: F. Murray Abraham, David Arquette, Kathy Griffin, Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson, Ray Liotta, Andie MacDowell, Rob Schneider, Jeffrey Tambor
Voice & Voice: The voices may be the same, but these aren't yesterday's Muppets. The modernization has begun, from a complete lack of original songs to the inclusion of several new characters introduced in Muppets Tonight. The gang is now all living together in a boarding house. The humor is irreverent and the film is harmlessly charming overall, but the soundtrack and "hip" vibe are a big distraction.
How will The Muppets fare against its predecessors? I'm very hopeful that it will be more Great Muppet Caper than Muppet Treasure Island, but we'll all know for sure come Thanksgiving. While I'm obviously sad that Frank Oz won't be voicing Miss Piggy or Fozzie (they'll sound almost indistinguishable, like in recent TV specials), there's no room in the Muppet fold for bad attitudes. Word on the street is that Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller have written a spectacular movie - one that will return the Muppets to glory. Check back after Thanksgiving for my official review!