Jim Henson

The Great Muppet Caper (1981, Jim Henson)

The Great Muppet Caper is rather easy to describe. It’s joyous spectacle. The film has four screenwriters and not a lot of story. Instead, it’s got some fabulous musical numbers. Director Henson really goes for old Hollywood musical, complete with Miss Piggy doing an aquatic number. It also has a bunch of great one-liners and visual gags. The finale isn’t some masterful heist sequence, it’s the Muppets being really funny in their environment and to one another. It’s delightful. Henson is primarily concerned with creating delight. Not entertaining. Being entertaining, being diverting, these two things are very different from creating delight.

Muppet Caper is also technically excellent–Oswald Morris’s photography, Ralph Kemplen’s editing. Henson directs the film in a matter-of-fact, expository nature, then turns it around and makes the viewing of the film engage with the acknowledgement of that exposition. Down to Diana Rigg explaining to Miss Piggy her dialogue is expository. It’s got to be Henson’s way of making the film appeal to both children and adults. Maybe more to adults and their children than the reverse. The human actors relish their roles–and how awesome is it the film pairs John Cleese and Joan Sanderson as the doddering English couple–and their enthusiasm carries over regardless of if a kid is going to fully appreciate it.

Though the best cameo might be Peter Falk just because he’s got an impossible monologue to deliver and he sells it perfectly.

The Great Muppet Caper is about singing and dancing and making people happy. And Charles Grodin having the hots for Miss Piggy. Sure, you need to be a little familiar with Charles Grodin to fully appreciate having him have the hots for Miss Piggy, but only to fully appreciate it. Muppet Caper only gently relies on its pop culture references. The Muppet Performers are so exceptionally good at what they do, at creating these wonderful felt creatures, the artistry is always there. Henson knows how to make this film; his confidence is stunning from the start.

Because it’s a delight from the start. The delight even gets it through some of the rougher songs–Joe Raposo does have a few great numbers, but the rest are mostly mediocre. Muppet Caper is awesome. Of course it’s awesome. It’s called The Great Muppet Caper and it’s directed by Jim Henson. What else would it be.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Henson; written by Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Jerry Juhl and Jack Rose; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Ralph Kemplen; music by Joe Raposo; production designer, Harry Lange; produced by Frank Oz and David Lazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz as the Muppets and Caroll Spinney (Oscar The Grouch).

Starring Charles Grodin (Nicky Holiday), Diana Rigg (Lady Holiday), Jack Warden (Mike Tarkanian), Erica Creer (Marla), Kate Howard (Carla), Della Finch (Darla), John Cleese (Neville), Joan Sanderson (Dorcas), Robert Morley (A Gentleman), Peter Ustinov (A Lorry Driver) and Peter Falk (A Tramp).


Labyrinth (1986, Jim Henson)

Every so often, Labyrinth plays like an episode of “Fraggle Rock” with special guest star David Bowie. Oddly, the film starts Bowie heavy but pretty soon he’s just popping in to remind the viewer he’s still around. His performance is terrible; his singing sequences are fine, especially how capably he acts with all the puppets.

It’s important too, because there’s nothing to Labyrinth without the puppets. Henson knows how to direct the puppets and his company knows how to make living creatures with them. It’s a shame none of this attention went into the story, which apes The Wizard of Oz more than a little.

Except Jennifer Connelly’s lead is unlikable for a long, long time. There are all sorts of hints at how her adventure in the magical goblin land relates to her real life, but the metaphors are undercooked. The film’s goal is more about showcasing what Henson and company can do.

And they can do quite a bit. Labyrinth is absolutely gorgeous. While the Alex Thomson photography doesn’t especially impress, John Grover’s editing is amazing.

Connelly is likable enough–eventually–but she doesn’t really have a character to play. Labyrinth doesn’t even spend time making the fantasy world seem real, which becomes clearer and clearer. Henson just needed to slow down and enjoy himself. Or maybe he really didn’t want to do anything with human actors.

Problems aside, there are some truly wondrous creature creations in the film and it goes by fast. Just way too fast.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Henson; screenplay by Terry Jones, based on a story by Dennis Lee and Henson; director of photography, Alex Thomson; edited by John Grover; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Eric Rattray; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring David Bowie (Jareth the Goblin King), Jennifer Connelly (Sarah), Toby Froud (Toby), Shelley Thompson (Stepmother), Christopher Malcolm (Father), Natalie Finland (Fairy), Shari Weiser & Brian Henson (Hoggle), Ron Mueck & Rob Mills (Ludo) and Dave Goelz & David Alan Barclay (Didymus).


The Muppet Movie (1979, James Frawley)

The Muppet Movie takes it upon itself to be all things… well, two things. It has to be appealing to kids and adults. The film is split roughly in half between the audiences, with the adults having more to appreciate in the star cameos–some cute, some hilarious (Steve Martin in short shorts)–and terrible puns and the kids have the songs.

To keep the kids amused during the more “adult” parts, there are the Muppets. The level of puppetry on display here is staggering, particularly once one realizes only a couple of the Muppets have moving eyes. The others just give the impression of moving, lifelike eyes through head tilts and reaction motion. Jim Henson and the Muppet performers show a masterful understanding of how the slightest motion implies real animation.

But the adults also have to be kept amused during the song sequences, which is a little harder, even though the Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher songs are great. There’s occasional humor, but there’s also amazing filmmaking. Director Frawley does a great job, as does Isidore Mankofsky’s photography and Christopher Greenbury’s editing. The Muppet Movie‘s beautifully made… and they know it.

The script frequently breaks the fourth wall, including references to how great some of the previous shots came out. The only bad shot is during Dom DeLuise’s cameo, like his close-ups had to be reshot.

The film’s idealistic and infectious. If you can believe the Muppets are real… you can believe in the film’s positive, inspiring message.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Frawley; written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl; director of photography, Isidore Mankofsky; edited by Christopher Greenbury; music by Paul Williams; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Jim Henson; released by Associated Film Distribution.

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Dave Goelz as the Muppets and Caroll Spinney (Big Bird).

Starring Charles Durning (Doc Hopper), Austin Pendleton (Max), Dom DeLuise (Bernie the Agent), Mel Brooks (Professor Max Krassman), Orson Welles (Lew Lord), Carol Kane (Myth) and Steve Martin (an insolent waiter).


The Muppets (2011, James Bobin)

The Muppets is confused.

The screenplay from Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller oscillates between being this lame story about Segel and his brother, a Muppet named Walter (indistinctly performed by Peter Linz), and his girlfriend (Amy Adams) and a better story of the Muppets reuniting.

The better story is, unfortunately, not exactly good. There are some good moments, but Segel and Stoller take a very serious approach to the Muppets. Kermit is a, well, hermit. Gonzo and Piggy have sold out. Fozzie’s working in Reno. Rowlf doesn’t even get a backstory; it’s hard not to read into that slight, since Rowlf was previously the symbol of Jim Henson’s legacy.

But the good stuff in The Muppets can’t outweigh the bad. Segel gives a weak performance, but he’s still leagues ahead of Adams. Adams is shockingly bad and creepily artificial. Neither character matters to the film and much of The Muppets is Segel and Stoller forcing their story into the picture.

Most of the human performances are bad. Chris Cooper is awful, maybe even worse than Adams.

Only Rashida Jones is good and she’s barely in it.

Watching The Muppets, I tried to imagine watching it again and could not. Segel and Stoller have some really stupid details and, until Kermit shows up, the film is pretty dreadful. Bobin is a bad director.

As for the Muppets… Without the original performers, Muppets feels even more like a corporate construction.

It’s not a complete failure, but it’s too close to being one.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by James Bobin; screenplay by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, based on characters created by Jim Henson; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by James M. Thomas; music by Christophe Beck; production designer, Steve Saklad; produced by David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Peter Linz (Walter) and Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman and Matt Vogel as the Muppets.

Starring Jason Segel (Gary), Amy Adams (Mary), Chris Cooper (Tex Richman), Rashida Jones (Veronica) and Jack Black (himself).


The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984, Frank Oz)

There’s something–well, actually a lot–missing from The Muppets Take Manhattan, but when I started the sentence, I was going to write “good songs.” None of the songs are terrible, but when the best song in the movie is the one to advertise the then upcoming “Muppet Babies” series… okay, I’m being a little mean… the “Somebody’s Getting Married” song sequence is really nice. But the rest of the songs are just there. Well, maybe not… I am remembering another good sequence, but the problem is the film is better remembered, than actually engaged, because the story’s so slight, it brings the movie down. But the rest of the songs–those aren’t very good, with the two exceptions and then the “Muppet Babies,” which is cuter than it is good.

Like the other movies, Manhattan uses celebrities in cameos, occasionally to good effect (Dabney Coleman and Gregory Hines), but the cameos are usually throwaways–bits to give the opportunity for Elliott Gould, for example, to show up–instead of actual story content. There isn’t really any story content in Manhattan, because it takes forever to decide what the movie’s crisis is going to be… until the last half hour even. Before that point, it’s all build-up–through possible crises (the Muppets breaking up, Miss Piggy getting jealous)–and the build-up is really boring. The mid-section makes the interesting choice of getting rid of the all the Muppets except Kermit, Piggy in a reduced role, and Rizzo the Rat. I’m not sure if they were grooming Rizzo or something… it sure seems like it, but I think it’s instead just another indicator of The Muppets Take Manhattan’s damning problem–Frank Oz.

As a director, Oz does a mediocre job. He creates a handful of charming scenes, but none of them are particularly special. As a screenwriter, along with a couple other jokers, he breaks the Muppets up and only uses, for the majority of the film, them in vignettes. These vignettes are the best part of the movie, because it’s the Muppets doing what the Muppets do… which should be, I don’t know, the movie… right?

The movie relies a lot on the human cast, particularly Juliana Donald as the object of Miss Piggy’s jealousy–while Donald is fine, she treats the role like a guest spot on the show rather than a person interacting. The other supporting cast are fine too, but their roles are even less import.

The New York locations and setting provides for a lot fewer good scenes than it should; besides a large, amusing Central Park sequence, most of the film takes place indoors. The opening titles suggest a big city adventure–as well as the Muppets, not a reduced cast of Muppets, having that adventure–and Oz delivers a movie centered around a coffee shop.

There’s no grandeur to the movie, nothing exciting overall, and it’s a pleasant disappointment.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Oz; screenplay by Oz, Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, from a story by Patchett and Tarses; director of photography, Robert Paynter; edited by Evan A. Lottman; music by Ralph Burns; produced by David Lazar; released by Tri-Star Pictures

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson as the Muppets.

Starring Juliana Donald (Jenny), Lonny Price (Ronnie), Louis Zorich (Pete), Art Carney (Bernard Crawford), Dabney Coleman (Martin Price), Gregory Hines (Roller skater), Linda Lavin (Kermit’s doctor), Joan Rivers (Perfume saleswoman), Elliott Gould (Cop in Pete’s), Frances Bergen (Winesop’s receptionist), John Landis (Winesop) and Edward I. Koch (The Honorable Edward I. Koch).


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