The Muppets have been around since 1955. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, they were a constant presence on television, lunch boxes, and in movie theaters. Sadly, during the 1990s, the franchise struggled and declined in both popularity and quality. The creator, leader, and protector of the Muppets, Jim Henson, died and the property changed hands to multiple companies who seemed to have no idea how to market or what to do with the gang of self-described weirdoes. The brand was eventually sold to Disney, a sale that Jim Henson himself was negotiating until his sudden death also killed off Disney’s plans. The characters continued to falter until they were reintroduced to the public with 2011’s film, The Muppets.
Muppets Most Wanted, the sequel to The Muppets, or as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew pointed out, the eighth sequel to the first Muppet film, has spurred a huge marketing campaign. The Muppets are featured on talk shows, car commercials, tea commercials, and QVC. The new movies have revived the brand and returned it to high quality family entertainment it once was. That being said, there are tons of other Muppet-y gems out there just waiting to be watched and rewatched after years of collecting dust on old VHS tapes or long forgotten $5 bargain bin DVDs.
Tales from Muppetland was a series of fairy tale-themed television specials. The only mainstays among them were the Muppet performers, Muppet humor, and Kermit the Frog. Although the puppets used would resurface in The Muppet Show, the characters were not members of the main Muppet cast of characters except for Kermit and Sweetums. In fact, the 1971 Muppets’ adaptation of The Frog Prince is the first appearance of Sweetums. He was originally an ogre who wanted to eat Robin the Frog!
The story is classic. Sir Robin the Brave (Gordon Thomson), a fearless prince, is wandering in the woods when he comes across Sweetums, an ogre. He is about to fight the ogre when, suddenly, a witch, the evil Taminella, turns him into a frog! He is transformed from a man into a Muppet frog. Robin the Frog, at that! All he has to do is befriend a princess who must kiss him and he is saved.
Robin finds himself sitting on a well, when he meets Kermit. Kermit and his other frog friends are more than happy to teach him the many benefits of being a frog. Luckily, the well is in the courtyard of a palace where Princess Melora (Trudy Young) lives.
Princess Melora has also been enchanted by Taminella. Everything Melora says comes out backwards. Well, it is meant to be backwards, but it is some kind of strange Muppet Latin where she mixes up the consonants of her words. For instance, Melora urged Robin to “Bake the hall in the candle of her brain” in order to destroy Taminella’s powers. What she meant was for Robin to “break the ball in the handle of her cane.” Taminella has tricked King Rupert II into thinking she is his long lost sister and has convinced him to step down as king and name her as queen. If Melora speaks plainly, then she can tell her father that he has been duped.
I know this special backwards and forwards or, as Melora would say, “wackbirds and worfards.” I watched it over and over on my old VHS. I loved the songs, the jokes, but Sweetums and Taminella terrified me! The Sweetums featured in the current Muppets movies and ads looks like a much smaller, tamer version of the bulky, hunk of a giant puppet that had glowing yellow eyes in this special. Yes, whenever he tried to attack Robin with a club, his eyes glowed yellow! Plus, Taminella had this scary theme that played whenever she waddled around. She was a puppet too, and my nightmares were filled by her and the lumbering Sweetums.
This show had a sense of freedom about it. Things were included that may not get passed into a children’s show today. Not only did it contain the terrifying Sweetums, but Kermit the Frog gets a little bit tipsy from drinking too much elderberry wine. The character of Kermit was also pretty fun in this special. He is the Zack Morris of the court yard. He is the popular guy who does not worry about anything, everyone is his friend, and he likes who he is.
It could be because it was 1971. He was a much younger frog. It was five years before The Muppet Show debuted and he had a lot less stress in his life. With fame and women… um.. pigs, comes a lot of stress. It can change a frog. Kermit’s signature collar around his neck also looks different. It is pointier and has two layers.
The Muppet humor really shines through in this special. After Robin tells his heart-breaking story of being transformed into a frog, another frog says that he loves fairy tales. Warning… there are many frog puns in this special. Another great bit is Featherstone, King Rupert II’s faithful servant and the royal announcer. Not only does he announce when the king is going to speak, he also alerts the peasants to know how to react appropriately to what the king is saying such as “large cheer,” “spontaneous applause,” and, my personal favorite, “expression of regret.” My daily social interactions would go much more smoothly if I had Featherstone nearby.
Other than scary glowing eyes, there are some neat puppetry tricks. Kermit and Robin swim in the well with Henson and Frank Oz hidden from view, a technique that will be used again in The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie. A waterlogged Robin also spits water out of his mouth. King Rupert II, Taminella, and Featherstone are large humanoid puppets that walk and have moving/gripping hands. The most disappointing part would be the peasants. These are generic puppets that Henson called “whatnots.” They have basic human features that are easily interchangeable. There are only a few peasants, but the members of the middle and back of the crowd almost seem mechanical in their movements while the peasants in the front are much more animated.
Not only The Frog Prince a nostalgic family favorite at my house, it is a prime example of Henson’s earlier work. It lands smack dab in the middle of the success of Sesame Street and just before the break out of The Muppet Show.
I give it 3.5 out of 5 rubber chickens!