Mike Myler’s 7 of the Best: When Muppets Run Amok!
Written by Mike Myler
My family have been muppetheads forever. We’ve still got half the cast in the basement, I’ve probably gone through Jim Henson’s Muppet Vision 3D about two dozen times (grew up and still live in Pittsburgh, far from Orlando), and every year we make a thing of watching some of their movies on the holidays. Obviously not everyone is raised with this sort of obsession but it’s a fairly safe assumption that you at least know that The Muppets are puppets by the Jim Henson Company. Theirs is a long and storied dynasty with a huge array of stories however, tales that go way back to 1974 (and depending on who you’re asking, even before then).
If you’re thinking something along the lines of, “oh come on, puppets?” check yourself—the second pilot for The Muppet Show was titled Sex & Violence (see #4 below) so you might be missing out on something more up your alley than you’re thinking. On top of that The Muppets raised the game of puppetry and kept a consistency to characters that’s laudable. Mind you we’re talking about a very refined taste, one honed over decades to walk the line between child and adult entertainment more adroitly than anything else I’ve seen. I’ve always found it remarkable that they manage to continue to be humorous without faltering to becoming cheesy or losing luster with time, but Jim Henson really knew his craft and Brian Henson might not always hit the bullseye but he’s no bad shot either.
The Muppet Movie (1979)
Not familiar with The Muppet Show or first introducing your kid to Jim Henson’s marvelous creations? As the definitive jumping board for everything else this is the first thing you should knock off your Muppets list—Sam the Eagle is funny in Muppet Christmas Carol, but if you know who he is he’s much funnier. All of the Muppet movies are good or appealing in one aspect or another but of the many things the Muppets have done this best encapsulates their themes of diversity, inclusion, originality, and having figures from popular culture in the mix. Your kids probably won’t recognize Dom Deluise, Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks, Bob Hope, and the like, but it goes to show how surprisingly wide the Muppet’s influence has been and how well they incorporate mainstream entertainment without losing that special showmanship that keeps folks on the bandwagon. If for any reason you have not seen this yet, you absolutely need to.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
As far as the best movies that star the Muppets go, this is my number one and I do not let the holiday season go by without watching it at least once (bawling my eyes out without fail). The only reason this film isn’t at the top of the list is context. It is genuinely funny, a surprisingly faithful rendition of the classic tale, and you’re not going to find a Christmas movie with more heart. Michael Caine kills it as Ebenezer Scrooge, there is no better Ghost of Christmas Present in all of existence, and this begins a trend of following around two of my favorite characters (Gonzo and Rizzo) as narrators of the story. As a lifelong weirdo and fellow with rogue levels I strongly identify with both of these Muppets (Gonzo in particular) so as far as I’m concerned they couldn’t have picked a better pair for viewers to pal along with. Everybody who celebrates Christmas should try to watch this on the holiday.
[Editor’s Note: Michael Caine’s star turn as Scrooge in this Muppet vehicle is one of the most satisfying portrayals of the Charles Dickens character that we’ll ever see. – TC]
A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
This is another great example of a Muppet movie that embodies what they’re about. While it might lack the panache and polish of a film with a blockbuster Hollywood budget, the Muppets honestly don’t need it to put on a wicked good show. This made for television movie has a genuinely entertaining story that weaves together all of the various characters throughout the Jim Henson-verse, Fraggles and Sesame Street included, in a really heartwarming tale that manages not to feel overly cheesy. Tune into this for something less emotionally demanding than The Muppet Christmas Carol—just make sure to watch out for the icy patch!
The Muppets: Sex & Violence (second pilot, 1975)
I know this isn’t a movie but most people have no idea it exists and that’s nearly a crime. The second pilot for The Muppet Show was aimed at adults and frankly it’s hilarious, using a quicker stream-of-consciousness tempo that fans of Robot Chicken will find familiar—when the Swedish Chef’s bit popped on with subtitles in kanji I laughed out loud until I coughed. Way, way, way ahead of its time. If you loved the Muppets as a child and have 30 minutes, dig this gem out of the internet because you are not going to be disappointed.
For that matter The Muppet Show is a cultural treasure. Each episode has a guest star and it was one of the most highly sought-after spots of the day so they got Diana Ross, John Cleese, Steve Martin, Gilda Radner…there’s even Mark Hamill doing a skit as Luke Skywalker. I can’t think of a proper comparable show in today’s lineup of TV/Netflix/Hulu series and it’s a pity.
Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
Everybody loves this movie and rightly so—there are pirates, a lot of Tim Curry, one of the best Muppet soundtracks, excellent storytelling, all of the sets are great, and the Creature Shop put together really amazing Muppet buccaneers. Even if you’re normally averse to the Muppets and their insistent singing, you will have to hate music not to get into the sea shanties woven into this movie. Again you get a lot of Gonzo and Rizzo which is just tops as their commentary will make you genuinely laugh even in remediation. Also: Jim Jimmy Jim Jim Jimmy Jim…Jim!
Lady Gaga & The Muppets Holiday Spectacular (2013)
Nah I’m just kidding on this one. Wakka wakka! More power to you if you dig it though. There are a lot of really cool TV pieces by The Muppets—too many to mention here—and you’ll be in YouTube for hours chasing all of them down.
[Editor’s Note: Having not yet seen this special, it’s the one which I am admittedly most curious to see. -TC]
The Dark Crystal (1982) & Labyrinth (1986)
Talking about the Muppets and not mentioning these two movies is an invitation for trouble. Seminal works in their own right, each is a wonderful exploration of extremely original fantasy that plays exceptionally well with the master puppetry of the Creature Shop—parts of these films are genuinely creepy and unsettling. Both also hit this stride of 80’s fantasy (Legend, Neverending Story, Princess Bride, Time Bandits, Willow) that nobody has quite been able to capture since. Muppets or not, they deserve their runtime’s worth of attention.
In Labyrinth you get David Bowie playing the Goblin King, talking door knockers along with a host of other really weird creatures and locales, and insane set pieces all moved along by probably one of the best soundtracks in any fantasy movie. While Dark Crystal has no baby kidnapping it is way dark and disturbing, really showcasing what Jim Henson and his people were capable of accomplishing. Skeksis are the stuff of nightmares (you’ve seen memes of them) and even the main characters are unnerving in their dysfunctional similarity to humans. Everyone should see both of these films but I think if you play D&D, you absolutely have to get a really solid viewing of each.
Runner-Ups: The Storyteller (1987) & The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1990), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), Muppets from Space (1999), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), The Christmas Toy (1986), The Muppets (2011), Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
I’d like to include all of these movies in here for various reasons but this is meant to be a list of just seven. Highlights: John-freaking-Hurt narrated The Storyteller, the 1980s Muppet movies have a charm that is truly unique and totally their own, Jeffrey Tambor crushed it in Muppets from Space, there’s a profoundly cherished quality to The Christmas Toy, and even the most recent Muppet films have their high points (despite a few failings—Jason Segel I think you’re great and you obviously were trying hard but dude they really needed to block you out of like every dance number).
Ultimately I think this 7 of the Best list is going to be different for everybody. Really all of the Muppet films are dependably worth checking out and I encourage you to whether you’re young or old. This wholesome, genuinely entertaining comedic troupe can simultaneously appeal to adults and children without being lame as all get out—a true rarity in a world increasingly filled with fake crap. This is all from somebody long ago brought into Muppet fandom however, and I’m keen on your thoughts! If you’re not a fan of The Muppets, what’s stopping you? If you’re a fellow fan what makes these puppets special to you? What makes a Muppet movie a proper Muppet movie? What are your favorite Muppet movies and why?