“There’ll be heroes bold. There’ll be comedy and a lot of fuss that ends for us real happily. Hey! A Movie!” For the Muppets, 1981 meant a new movie and a new television special to plug that movie! The Muppets Go to the Movies starred the Muppets and special guest stars Dudley Moore and Lily Tomlin who parody and pay tribute to classic films such as The Three Musketeers, Godzilla, The Wizard of Oz, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Frankenstein, The Seventh Seal, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Tarzan, Wild Strawberries, and A Bridge Too Far. It is set in a slightly updated Muppet Theater and includes clips of The Great Muppet Caper.
Peter Harris, director of The Muppet Show, returned to direct this special. Whereas The Muppets Go Hollywood made you feel like you were peeking in on a glamorous Hollywood premiere and party with snippets of a television show edited in, The Muppets Go to the Movies plays as an episode of The Muppet Show. The show is quick and fun, relying on a barrage of music, puns, and sight gags. There are no sentimental scenes that the Muppets will become known for later. Although such scenes add a special heart to the characters, they often slow the pacing of the movies and specials, a sacrifice that is usually worth it. This is almost like a typical episode of The Muppet Show with just enough clips of The Great Muppet Caper to pique the audience’s interest in the next Muppet movie to hit the box office.
Lily Tomlin and Dudley Moore, both of whom share a long history of guest appearances with the Muppets, are perfect additions to this special. Other than their talents and name power, I am not sure why they were selected to appear in this show as neither one appeared in The Great Muppet Caper. John Cleese, Diana Rigg, or Charles Grodin would have been better guest stars from a promotional point of view, however, Moore and Tomlin bring professionalism and comedic sensibility that Grodin and Riggs certainly would have lacked. Both Moore and Tomlin play off the Muppet quite well. In The Muppets Go Hollywood, most of the special guest starts seemed amused by the novelty of the Muppets. They reminded me of an older aunt or uncle chuckling at the musings of a child. They would often smirk and try to think of something funny or witty that just fell flat. In this special, the Muppets are treated as fellow comedic actors instead of an act.
The Three Musketeers and Frankenstein sketches leave me wanting more. I WANT these sketches to be actual Muppet movies. The Three Musketeers would have been a laugh riot. Starring Scooter, Link Hogthrob, and Gonzo, this could have been a great Muppet movie. Too bad it was not made in the 1990s when the Muppets were routinely seeking inspiration for classic literature. This would have fit in nicely. The story itself would have contained plenty of opportunities for musical production numbers. It also would have reinforced the themes of a quest, friendship overcoming all odds, and good conquering evil that most of the Muppet movies contain.
Apart from the Vincent Price and Alice Cooper episodes of The Muppet Show, the Muppets really have not done anything with a horror or Halloween feel. Henson and the Muppet builders have created a menagerie of Muppet monsters, so a Halloween special almost seems to be a perfect match for Henson. Perhaps a Halloween special is one of the many “might have been’s…” that would have come to fruition had Henson lived longer. There is a fine line between Halloween-ish feeling stories and shows that terrify children and it would have been hard to keep the Muppets on the light-hearted side, but if Garfield could do it, so could the Henson creative team members.
As I watched the show, another “what could have been” haunted me. In 1990, Jim Henson and Michael Eisner publicly introduced the idea of Disney purchasing the Muppets while keeping Henson on as a writer, performer, and consultant. Sadly, Henson died and it would take Disney another fourteen years to acquire the Muppets. Muppet*Vision 3D is one of the results of that pending merger. Thanks to the Interwebs and Henson and Disney insiders, it has been reported that the Muppets were to be featured much more prominently in Walt Disney World. Muppet*Vision 3D and walk around Muppet characters were just the start.
In fact, one of the proposed rides was The Great Muppet Movie Ride which included parodies of classic movies (such as Frankenstein) and was to feature Mel Brooks and the Muppets. Henson and company liked to revisit ideas and characters, but always improved upon them, making them fresh and entertaining. Perhaps this special inspired that ride. This show may have also inspired the direct-to-video The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.
During the entire show, you feel that Henson and the gang are not making fun of the different movie genres; they are instead paying tribute to them. One of the best parts of the special is a little detail. Before each movie parody, a vanity card is shown depicting the logo of a fake production company. Fozzie Bear roars in one and Miss Piggy stands holding a torch as the trademark of the production company Cholesterol in another! This special could be viewed time after time and the viewer still would not be able to see all of the allusions to Hollywood.
Of course no special would be complete without a song from the Electric Mayhem Band! Floyd Pepper and Janice sing “Act Naturally” backstage. In it, they casually predict the inevitable, that the Muppets are going to yet again be successful as they jump from the small screen back to the big screen.
The entire cast sings a bittersweet and somewhere ambitious “We’ll Meet Again.” If The Great Muppet Caper were to have flopped, this could have been the last time the Muppets were heard from. The franchise had been incredibly successful, but 1981 also marked the end of The Muppet Show’s television run. To fickle Hollywood and audiences, you are only as good as your last picture.
The only complaint I have about this special is that I wanted it to be longer. I could have easily watched hours of the Muppets, Dudley Moore, and Lily Tomlin. The stars aligned and it was just a perfect combination. There was no profound meaning behind it all. It was just fun. The sketches were brief and jam packed full of music and joke after joke. It all moved so quickly that it did not allow the audience to get bored. Today’s Saturday Night Live writers could learn a few lessons from the Muppets.
The Muppets Go to the Movies has not been released commercially in the United States, although it did air on Nickelodeon along with The Muppet Show in the early 90s. It was released on VHS in the United Kingdom in the 80s and on DVD in Israel. This special would be a great special feature on the DVD or Blu-ray release of The Great Muppet Caper. *hint hint wink wink Disney! It without a doubt totally blew Muppets Go Hollywood out of the water. I give it 4.5 out of 5 rubber chickens!