My first reported word was “Piggy.”
This was by no means a shallow judgment on my parents, or some infantile attempt at self-deprecating humor. “Piggy” was, however, a profound and prophetic utterance, an early declaration of love that I’ve carried close to my heart since that very day.
I was a self-diagnosed Muppet baby; and as I grew, so too did my appreciation of all things Henson. The Dark Crystal was the first film I saw in a cinema. Labyrinth had me spending months on end trying to make my brother disappear (while twirling balls in my hand like the Goblin King, David Bowie). The 1988 TV series The Storyteller had me calling people into my school bag (thank you, Anthony Minghella) and The Muppets Take Manhattan may well have started my longtime love affair with New York. But unlike most childhood obsessions that one eventually and embarrassingly denounces, this Muppet fanaticism of mine stuck through the years. I played “The Rainbow Connection” at the funeral of my mother — a lifelong Kermit devotee — and more recently wrote a screenplay about my hero, Jim Henson, which, long story short, ended in a dream fulfilled.
It’s been 30 years since The Muppet Movie first hit theaters, and although Kermit and pals have had five big-screen outings since, it remains, indisputably, their very best picture. From the vaudeville repartee between Kermit and Fozzie, to Doc Hopper’s frog legs, or even Orson Welles doing a note-perfect impersonation of Muppet producer Lord Lew Grade, there’s something for absolutely everyone in this film.
To put things in context, let’s flash back to 1979. The Muppets had become a household name thanks to their hugely successful television outing, The Muppet Show. But after conquering the tube in only four short years, Kermit dreamed of bigger fish. And that’s how The Muppet Movie was born — an immensely clever, tongue-in-cheek tale about one frog’s journey to Hollywood. It was a self-referential piece of madness, all pinned on a paper-thin plot about how a team of fuzzy singing creatures came to conquer the entertainment world, or, as Kermit tells us, “sort of approximately how it happened.” But the format works brilliantly. Beginning in a swamp and ending with an explosion of song, the movie is nothing short of classic, unfiltered Muppet magic.
At the time of its release, The Muppet Movie was seen as something of a breakthrough. Long before the genius of Pixar, here was a piece of children’s entertainment that could be enjoyed by adults just as much as kids. As Henson himself put it, ‘The most sophisticated people I know — inside [they] are all children.” He knew that a successful family film is one that doesn’t cater exclusively to ankle biters, and that was, from the very start, the absolute genius of the Muppets. Add to that the technological achievements on display, from seeing a Muppet ride a bicycle, to Kermit playing the banjo in the middle of a real-world swamp (requiring Henson to submerge himself in a metal container with nothing but a TV monitor, an air hose and a rubber sleeve). The Muppet Movie was the sum result of everything that was great about Henson’s creation, only amplified and fleshed out for a one-of-a-kind big-screen experience.
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For me, the iconic “Magic Store” sequence at the end of the film, where all of the Muppets stare up at the camera and sing “The Rainbow Connection,” is as memorable a moment from my childhood as my first day of school, or discovering soft-serve ice cream. It’s during this sequence that Kermit utters a line, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending,” which has haunted me ever since, lodged itself in my mind, implanted itself into my psyche. Decades before Forrest Gump summed up life as a box of chocolates, or Kevin Costner told us that if we build it, they will come, Kermit hit the nail right on the head. Life is like a movie, and you should, at all times, remember you’re the one writing the story.
My adoration, appreciation and unabashed deference for Jim Henson continue to grow with each repeated viewing of his work. He was a modern-day Walt Disney, weaving his particular magic across everything he touched. The Muppets speak to an entire generation. Everyone, no matter how hardened or cynical, has a warm and fuzzy place reserved just for Kermit and his zany pals.
If it’s been a while, or even if it hasn’t, do yourself a favor and relive The Muppet Movie one more time. You won’t regret it. Because someday we’ll find it — the rainbow connection — the lovers, the dreamers and me.
The Los Angeles Film Festival’s 30th-anniversary screening of The Muppet Movie is on Saturday, June 20 at 8:30 p.m., on Broxton Avenue in Westwood Village. Admission is free.