I hate puppets, but like the Muppets. It’s something of a predicament, for the Muppets are puppets.
I’m OK with Kermit and the animalian muppets. But the muppets that are supposed to be human (like Bunsen and Beaker) inspire loathing and horror. I want to mercy-kill them. The way their mouths naturally hang open makes it look like they’re screaming, as if a witch imprisoned the souls of people inside itchy piles of suffering cloth.
Oddly enough, that’s nearly the plot of this movie. The story comes from the Der Froschkönig (lit. “The Frog King”) by the Brothers Grimm: a witch transforms a heroic knight into a frog, true love’s kiss is the only way the spell can reverse, details details details. In effect, it’s another of Henson studio’s “famous story, but with muppets cracking jokes” adaptations.
Henson was a master. Despite this being a cheap TV movie from 1971, he goes balls-to-the-wall, tackling tricky shot after tricky shot. Puppets move around scenes, entering and leaving each other’s space. They interact believably with human actors. We see their feet. We see frog puppets leap and swim, and even a puppet bird flying. King Rupert II’s mouth is perfectly synced up with his words, and his hands gesticulate at the correct moments (I assume there were multiple performers controlling him).
The budget precludes nutso stuff like “Kermit riding a bike” or “Jennifer Connelly exploring an MC Escher castle”, but Henson seems hell-bent on making puppets do things they shouldn’t. Why not? It’s not as if they can unionize and demand overtime and a dental plan.
The star of the dish is Henson’s inspired directing, and the writing is merely adequate. As with Sesame Street, it’s for little kids, with occasional jokes aimed at adults. King Rupert II makes a royal announcement from a castle balcony, and then starts doing hacky stand-up, with a royal advisor reminding the crowd to laugh—that sort of thing. Princess Melora has been cursed by a witch (the same one that transformed Robin) so that she spoonerizes all her words (she says “you’re a wearable titch!” instead of “you’re a terrible witch!”—that sort of thing). Sometimes it’s funny, but they draw from that comedic well a little too much.
The music is fairly weak, and so is the acting. Princess Melora is the movie’s only actress (she would later play a groupie on Pink Floyd’s The Wall—this fact is more interesting than anything she says or does in The Frog Prince). Jim Henson’s Kermit and Jerry Nelson’s Robin are fine, but director Jerry Juhl voices the witch Taminella with an annoying NOOO YAWK accent.
None of the “classic” Muppets appear, aside from Kermit, Robin, and Sweetums. Speaking of the latter, I highly enjoyed the scene where Sweetums goes crazy and smashes a dungeon. It’s hard to go wrong with a good room-wrecking scene, whether it’s Citizen Kane or the muppets. The ending of the film strikes the right sentimental note, and it ends in a cute song.
The strength of the Muppets as a franchise is their adaptability. They could be in anything, and connect with anything. You can have them host a PBS children’s program. You can have them talk to Orson Welles. They had no limits as a franchise, and with a competent director and someone who knew, they could be a reliable money-spinner that stayed relevant for decades and decades.
Weird and disturbing through they could be, the Muppets outlived the man who created them. I wonder how long it took before Jim Henson realized that this would be his legacy—he’d be remembered as the man who shoved a hand up Kermit the Frog’s metaphorical rectum, and little else. How did that make him feel? Defeated, or proud? Or both?
He certainly got to indulge most of his artistic impulses. The Muppets filmography is broad and diverse. Pretty much the only thing they never did was raunchy R-rated comedy (his son Brian directed The Happy Time Murders, which made me tap out 10 minutes in, so maybe Henson Senior’s judgment was correct.)
I’m uncertain as to how well the Muppets hold up for adults.
The Muppet Show and several of the Muppet movies still hold up. The overwhelming, cloying sentiment probably locks The Frog Prince into “kids only”. Although there’s a point where kitsch crosses over and becomes a sort of art in itself.
Here’s Umberto Eco in “Casablanca”: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage:
“When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh, but a hundred cliches move us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves and celebrating a reunion. Just as extreme pain meets sensual pleasure, and extreme perversion borders on mystical energy, so does extreme banality allow us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime. Nobody would have been able to achieve such a cosmic result intentionally. Nature has spoken here in place of men. If nothing else, this is a phenomenon worthy of veneration.”
He wasn’t speaking about the Muppets. He was speaking about the Muppets. I don’t believe Jim Henson ever had any connection to Walter Elias Disney, but they seem like similar artists. They both had an extreme connection to magic, and the ideals of the past. Sometimes this manifested as retrogression, but sometimes it makes the past feel preserving. He was never cynical or mean.
But puppets are creepy – I can’t get over that point. They just hit all the “not right, shouldn’t exist” buttons in my brain. Are people seriously able to watch stuff like this without having their skin shudder completely off their skeleton and roadtrip to Kickapoo, Indiana on a journey of radical self-discovery?
But hey, the fact that the Muppets is the most glowing recommendation I can make.$i;?>
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