If you want to make a grown man cry, all you have to do is bring up “Rainbow Connection.” Few characters carry the cultural cache of the Muppets, who have been delighting children and moving adults for nearly 40 years. Jim Henson’s genius creations made it okay to love talking animals made out of cloth and, more importantly, they starred in countless hours of entertainment that bridges the entertainment gap between kids and their parents.
With the gang returning in Muppets Most Wanted, it’s time to do what any Muppet fan worth his salt is probably doing already: obsessively rank all of their theatrical adventures from worst to best.
(NOTE: Muppets Most Wanted will be added to the ranking on Friday.)
7. Muppets from Space (1999)
Although not nearly as awful as its reputation suggests, Muppets from Space is the rare Muppet-themed project where the felt heroes at the center of the action seem, well, just a little tired. Fans of Jim Henson’s iconic creations have all but accepted Kermit and company as living, breathing entities at this point, so it feels doubly sad to see them get trotted out for a dull story that attempts to shed some light on the nature of Gonzo, a character whose most amusing attribute has always been the fact that he’s an unknowable weirdo. Anyway, the Muppets go with science fiction like vinegar and peanut butter, the jokes are dull, the production value cheap and the whole thing feels like a made-for-TV production that made the leap to the big screen. You can’t blame Disney for relegating these characters to the realm of television specials for the following decade.
6. Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
The biggest problem with Muppet Treasure Island is that it takes a joke that worked well once and tries to make it work again without that much retooling. The joke is, of course, “What happens when you recast an iconic literary work with the Muppets?” and it turns out that it’s only amusing the first time around. We’ll get to The Muppet Christmas Carol in a bit, but that film’s admiration and gentle mocking of the work of Charles Dickens felt perfectly in line with the general Muppet sense of humor. Robert Lewis Stevenson’s tale of swashbuckling and adventure feels at odds with the quietly ironic and good-natured Muppets, making this a much louder, busier movie. It never manages to nail the proper tone for its felt heroes or the classic book they’re retelling, putting the movie in an unfortunate limbo. It’s totally watchable, pleasant even, but there are better Muppet experiences to be had.
5. The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
With great songs, hilarious gags and the title characters’ specific brand of sweetness, The Muppets Take Manhattan is a superior Muppet movie and a must-see (or a must-rewatch) for anyone with a fondness for these guys. The only reason it’s ranked this low is that’s it’s an inexplicable reboot of the entire franchise only three films into the series. Only a few years after The Muppet Movie followed Kermt, Fozzie and the gang as they journeyed to Hollywood, The Muppets Takes Manhattan follows the crew as they head to New York City to try their hand at Broadway. Continuity doesn’t have to exist in the Muppet universe, but it’s odd to see another “origin story” so soon. However, the film is ultimately a different beast than its predecessors. It’s not shy about the difficulties of making it in the entertainment industry and allows its characters to fail miserably, time and time again, before the inevitable happy ending. The Muppets are always at their best when they’re treated as flesh-and-blood people, and The Muppets Take Manhattan is surprisingly ruthless with their dreams. Melancholy looks good on them.
4. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
The Muppet Christmas Carol works because it finds balance between its two subjects. It’s not only a funny, clever and endearing Muppet movie, it’s a shockingly faithful and on-point adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Michael Caine turning in a fantastic performance as Ebeneezer Scrooge. The Muppets, with their puns, wordplay and observational humor, feel right at home in Victorian London. Most importantly, the film respects its source material, utilizing actual text from Dickens to move the story along and even going full-on dramatic when the moment calls for it.
Of course, the Muppets also get to parody their source material, but it never feels out-of-character like it does in Muppet Treasure Island. Of course the Muppets would put on a restaging of A Christmas Carol. That’s exactly what a troupe of actors, even felt ones, would do when the holiday season rolls along. The subject matter may limit your viewings of The Muppet Christmas Carol to one month out of the year, but there’s a reason it’s become one of the most beloved holiday movies in recent memory. Family movies are rarely this warm and hilarious and educational.
3. The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
The Great Muppet Caper has one goal and one goal alone: to make you laugh. It doesn’t have the sweetness of The Muppet Movie or the moving melancholy of The Muppets or The Muppets Take Manhattan, but it does have the best jokes in the entire franchise. The fourth wall is nonexistent this time around, with the opening musical number literally telling the audience that the Muppets are playing characters, not themselves, and that everything you’re about to see is a complete fabrication created for our amusement. The fact that we’re watching a movie within a movie universe means The Great Muppet Caper can skewer not only the filmmaking process, but narrative convention, intentionally pushing logic and sense to the breaking point.
The result is a movie where Kermit and Fozzie can play brothers and no one finds it even slightly odd. This is the most detached and sarcastic Muppet movie and some fans will decry the lack of genuine emotion, but there is no better example of how great these guys are as tools of satire and parody. There’s a reason grown adults love the Muppets as much as their kids and all of the evidence you need is right here.
2. The Muppets (2011)
Like The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppets assumes that Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest of the gang are living, breathing entities, each with their own fair share of dreams and regrets. Sure, it’s a funny movie, but it’s the second best Muppet movie because it’s unafraid to take a jaunt into darker territory to make the happiness and joy of the rest of the film feel earned. By openly acknowledging the dry spell that began with Muppets from Space, the franchise showcases its sense of self-awareness and uses that self-awareness to create fascinating dramatic stakes. If the Muppets fail in the movie, they lose their theater.
If The Muppets itself fails, their ongoing cinematic legacy dies on the spot. This results in a truly fascinating movie that’s all about the legacy of the Muppets and why they’re such an important part of popular culture. It helps that the movie as a whole is really funny and charming and well made, but there is no Muppet movie with bigger thematic ambitions.
1. The Muppet Movie (1979)
Come on… did any other movie even have a shot at the number one spot? The songs are perfect. The puppetry invisible. The jokes hilarious. The cameos never ending. Everything about The Muppet Movie just plain works. If magic existed, it would be the reason why this movie works. Since it doesn’t exist, you can only attribute the film’s success to Jim Henson, who somehow created a cast of animal puppets who could be simultaneously gentle and sharp edged, sweet and biting, kid friendly and mature. The Muppet Movie is ambling and the story loose, but it’s less of a typical Hollywood narrative and more of a playground for all things wonderful. The Muppet Movie would never get made today and that’s a shame… but it also means it’s truly one of a kind.
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