The Balance of the Sacred and the Silly
I love the Muppets. I cannot recall I time I didn’t love them. I wouldn’t say that a “super fan,” I have not watched every piece of media that they have put out but generally really I enjoy them and especially their movies.
There have been Eight Muppet Theatrical movies released into the world. The first came out in 1979 and the late one was in 2014. But which ones are the best?
Strictly speaking, I think the movies range from pretty good to amazing. But this is not a ranked list of my favorite Muppets Movies. I have some metics to this for list, key word is “some.”
On May 21st 1990 during Jim Henson’s memorial service, Muppet screenwriter Jerry Juhl said in his speech that he will remember Henson “as a man who was balanced effortlessly and quite elegantly betweenthesacred and the silly.”
This balance of the sacred and silly is the metic I’m going to judge the movies on. Sacred meaning artistry and showcasing innovations of puppetry in film as well as genuine heartfelt moments and sentimentality. Silly is subjective, it differs culture to culture and person to person. However the muppets do have a few hallmarks to the humor. They can be witty, weird, surreal, with lots of running gags, one-lines and of course meta fourth wall breaking. Their humor runs the gamut of chaotic to dryly-subtle.
While rewatching these movies, two of them maybe tear up and it wasn’t the one I THOUGHT.
#8: Muppets from Space (1999)
It’s not a hot take by saying that Muppets from Space is widely considered the “worst” of the Muppet movies. It’s not a bad film it’s just lacking maybe even a little half baked. Reading some behind the scene information it’s clear that this movie was pushed out before it was ready.
While Muppet movies are ensemble pieces with Kermit functioning as a focus point, Muppet from Space sidelines the rest of the muppets for Gonzo’s story. In isolation this doesn’t make sense but it does given the other two muppet movies from the 90s period that made Gonzo more or less gave him larger roles, along Rizzo, along with more screen time than the others. However Kermit was still a presence in those movies opposed to Muppets from Space where he and the Muppets are there with some having very minor b-plots
It’s also the ONLY one of the Muppets Movies not to have original songs. While Muppet song covers can be very funny and memorable, they don’t offer much of a substitute for original songs. Original songs give the movie an identity and memorability which the cover songs in this movie do not so as effectively.
There are some funny moments but it feels the most dated of all the Muppets’ filmography.
That being said I liked the Cosmic Fish.
#7: Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
Muppets Most Wanted is the direct sequel to The Muppets (2011). This is a departure from the other movies which are meant to start fresh from one to the next. This one picks up right off from last one and directly references it. That is not the problem with Muppets Most Wanted.
Muppets Most Wanted is fun and has some silly moments but it misses the emotional angle that anchors the chaos. Instead there is a “lesson”about how the muppets needing to appreciate Kermit for reigning them in. This lesson seems most of a plot for episode of the muppet show.
This movie is a little too focused human character and their interactions with muppets instead of Muppet shenanigans with humans.
It’s still a very a fun movie with some great songs but it’s uneven with regards to the well-known muppets characters. Maybe had Constantine been used more since this movie it would helped in retrospect. Though Constantine is one of the few muppet “villains” outside of Treasure Island.
#6: Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
One of the Muppets forays into the waters of classic lit adaptations. Muppet Treasure Island is one of the more wacky and silly of the The Muppets movie offerings. In an opposite approach, the human actors do not play against the muppets straight but act more like Muppets, which works since the tone is more bananas. Tim Curry and Jennifer Saunders were made to play off the the muppets.
That being said, Muppet Treasure Island has a more child-friend, less adult approach to the humor probably to play against the “darker” tones of the material.
Also Muppet Treasure Island features the anthem of 2020 with “Cabin Fever.”
#5: The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
Muppets Take Manhattan has a bit of legacy as it brought into the world “The Muppet Babies.” It’s also the ONLY Muppet movie to not break the fourth wall, which is a trademark to the humor style.
It’s also the most subdue in its style of humor. It is funny but more dry and less wacky, surreal and jokey. That was all by design of Frank Oz. It’s defiantly the most solemn of the muppet movies. However they’re some great moments of puppetry like rats in the kitchen and the ending with the sheer volume of muppets in the final scene. Also just the puppetry being outside instead a studio hits on a visceral level, nothing is wrong with the studio/sound stage approach but being on location just an added level of challenge to the mix.
Real talk, I thought this was going to be one of the movies that would make me cry. More on that further down.
#4: The Muppets (2011)
The Muppets was a creative reboot after a twelve gap since from 1999’s Muppets from Space.
This reboot feels more like a fanfic with the newest muppet, Walter, serving as a self-insert character. That is not a dig. Kermit and Rowlf were extensions of Henson himself and he had the belief of believing in the creativity of others and nurturing that creativity. So the expansion of the Muppets with a new core characters would be up his alley.
The Muppets does have a more “old school muppets” feel to it as it about the Muppets putting on a show with loads of meta-jokes. Most of the jokes are about how The Muppets are passé and antiqued but still venerated. Also they are not up on technology which is still a joke in Muppet Mayhem (2023.)
Despite the self-deprecating flavor to the jokes the movie doesn’t feel overly cynical but instead felt earnest and loving toward the Muppets.
#3: The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
The second of the Muppet Movies made, third on the list but first in my heart. That’s right this one is my personal favorite of the muppet movies BUT I can appreciate the other two movies over it.
The Great Muppet Caper is not AS beloved as some Muppet entries but the sharp silly and quite dry humor mixed with the Muppet’s meta gags makes for an enjoyable and re-watchable flick. A flick which a jewel heist mixed with fashion and derring-do. Three out eight of the Muppet movies involve stealing treasure/jewels.
It doesn’t pull on the heartstrings as much as other ones but there some great moments of artistry that push puppetry. For instance Piggy’s Fantasy that had Frank OZ underwater or advancement with rigging the Muppets to ride bikes.
This one also made me tear up at the end during the finale. That is because of all the Muppets movies I associate Caper and Manhattan the most with my dad. My dad would often quote the AD frogs slogans from Manhattan a lot but I recall watch Caper the most with him. He passed away in 2022 of brain cancer. So for whatever reason I teared up a lot during the finale.
#2: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Most of these movies I rewatched the beginning of December 2023 which was the perfect time to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol.
The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first of the movies produced without Jim Henson. The lack of zany meta humor was in part to stay true to the more ominous nature of the story. This idea is carried in the “casting” of the muppets as the original idea was that some of the well-known muppets would “play” the ghosts. That idea was scarped and new Muppets were created for The Ghost of Christmas past, present and future making it less “silly.” There is also Micheal Caine’s acting decision to play Scrooge straight against the Muppets which is inspired and works well with the tone of the movie.
While the humor is dialed back, the heart and artistry are amped up. In particular, The Ghost of Christmas Past is a great mix of digital effects with puppetry; casting Gonzo as Dickens and having his a narrator/Greek choir added a unique mystic; And the concept of the ghost of Christmas Present aging as time wears on is genius, to name a few.
It’s a different style of muppet movie. It’s more thoughtful, less zany humor style and more focused on the human characters than the Muppets.
This is other muppet movie that made me cry. When Kermit says that “life is made of meetings and partings,” that got me. In addition my dad, one of my best friends passed away October 2023. So this sentiment hit really hard.
#1: The Muppet Movie (1979)
All in all the first of the muppet movies, aptly named The Muppet Movie, is a simple story. The first generation of the movies follow Kermit’s ambitions and this one sees him go from the swamp with a simple dream of making people happy. This dream/ambition parallels Jim Henson’s life, right down to one producer having faith in his dream and vision.
This movie makes no secret that this movie is a movie within movie adding the meta-humor. It also matches the zany humor with a lot of impressive feats of puppetry. From Jim Henson in a tank underwater for the opening, Kermit riding a bike, Gonzo flying, and a 60 foot Animal there is a lot of creativity. However it’s the enduring power of “Rainbow Connection” that keeps us all dreaming and this one of the few times the fourth verse is even sung.
While it’s the first of the Muppets it’s still the gold standard and highly praised for the ingenuity of bringing the Muppets to the big screen. It the perfect blend of the sacred and the silly.Follow thehunchblog