2. Muppet Treasure Island (1996)

Hey, A Movie!: Overview

This 1996 film ostensibly operates within the same basic template as The Muppet Christmas Carol four years earlier. It’s an adaptation of a well-known British novel, featuring one recognizable British actor in a key role, and also featuring a lot of Muppets doing their thing. But what The Muppet Christmas Carol is missing is what Muppet Treasure Island has in spades: anarchy.

In the same vein as the more delightfully chaotic sketches on The Muppet Show, Muppet Treasure Island is a lot goofier, more meta, and gleefully silly than any cinematic Muppets project in years. The premise is familiar enough to anyone who’s read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel: a boy named Jim Hawkins embarks upon a big adventure to find buried treasure while running afoul of a nefarious pirate named Long John Silver. Here, Silver is played with over-the-top brio by Tim Curry; he’s as outsized as the Muppets themselves are.

Curry’s performance is matched by lots of goofy humor from the Muppets, from the warped version of a financier played by Fozzie Bear, whose character speaks to an invisible man that lives in his finger; to Jim’s friends Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat, the former of whom at one point is stretched out as a form of torture that he delights in. Muppet Treasure Island does also feature a romantic subplot for Kermit and Miss Piggy, but this film’s strengths are in its wacky, idiotically funny tone.

Someday, We’ll Find It: Signature Moment

The Muppets are at their best when they’re at their weirdest. And the straight-up oddest setpiece in this film is a musical number entitled “Cabin Fever”. As the name would suggest, the pirates stuck on the Hispaniola are exhausted and feeling odd, so they bust into a number full of Carmen Miranda-style headdresses, dancing, spotlights, and more. It’s a full-on show-stopping production number on the middle of a stranded ship, and peak goofy Muppets.

The Standard Rich and Famous Contract: Best Quote

This film’s humor is at its height when it’s loopiest. To wit: many of the pirates on the ship are quite fearsome, based on their names. But some are just…weird, like Dead Tom. Late in the film, Long John, in the midst of an uprising, shoots and kills Dead Tom. One of his friends is anguished, but another pirate reminds him, “Dead Tom’s always been dead. That’s why he’s called Dead Tom.” It’s such a strange non sequitur, but no less delightful.

Have You Tried Hare Krishna?: Best Running Gag

One of the other humans in the film is Kevin Bishop as Jim Hawkins. Bishop’s performance is fine — he’s the straight man in the story, so he doesn’t have a whole lot to do — but it’s also the foundation for the film’s best, surprisingly nasty running gag. Jim has to correct Muppets, multiple times, that he’s not a girl, despite his high-ish voice and long hair. One of Bishop’s best line readings is early, when a blind Muppet says “Ah, a pretty little girl!” His reply: “There’s no one here, and I’m not a girl”. It sounds very pointed, almost as if he…maybe didn’t like the joke at his expense. But for the audience, it’s gold.

There’s An Informed Opinion: Conclusion

Muppet Treasure Island is the most underrated film featuring Jim Henson’s felt creations. It’s as funny as anything the characters did back on TV in the 1970s, and is boosted by an incredibly lively performance from Tim Curry. If you haven’t seen it, you ought to.

1. The Muppet Movie (1979)

Hey, A Movie!: Overview

There’s an incredible balance that the men and women behind the Muppets are able to strike in their first feature, the 1979 film The Muppet Movie. Like the variety show that inspired the film, and led to it becoming one of the year’s most successful films at the box office, The Muppet Movie has to be wild, chaotic and anarchic. But Jim Henson and his team of Muppeteers also wanted to be earnest in their depiction of how Kermit the Frog met Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and the Great Gonzo, and eventually became rich and famous.

The result is one of the most charming and hilarious family films ever made, and the kind of movie that’s impossible for the people who made it to ever top. You can find anarchy and whimsy in other Muppet movies, but never to this degree, and never with this level of humor or the incredible music from Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. You know “Rainbow Connection”, but it’s not just that wistful ballad that’s toe-tapping or tuneful. “Movin’ Right Along”, “Can You Picture That?”, and “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” are all excellent pieces of music, giving the vast ensemble of Muppets a chance to shine.

And to be clear: this movie is extremely funny, whether or not the references all land in 2019 the way they might have in 1979. (When I watched this as a kid on VHS, I laughed my head off at every Hare Krishna reference despite not knowing what that even was.) The Muppets themselves have plenty of good gags, as do many of the celebrity cameo performers. The blend of hilarity and sincerity is the Muppets at their finest.

Someday, We’ll Find It: Signature Moment

A movie with the Muppets wouldn’t be a movie without breaking the fourth wall, and doing it with gusto. The framing device of The Muppet Movie is that it’s being premiered in a studio screening room for the Muppets themselves. And, at a key dramatic moment, the film…burns up. Instead of ruining the tension, this big laugh is a great way to deflate any seriousness, as we watch the hapless Swedish Chef try to figure out how to fix the literal film strip so the show can go on.

The Standard Rich and Famous Contract: Best Quote

“Don’t you want to smell the bottle cap?” Yes, the Muppets are hilarious. But maybe the single funniest scene in the film is all thanks to one of its cameo stars, Steve Martin. As an annoyed waiter helping Kermit and Miss Piggy on their romantic date, he all but steals the show. This question, as he offers the two lovers a bottle of “sparkling Muscatel, the finest wine in Idaho”, is so huffily posed that it’s impossible to not laugh.

Have You Tried Hare Krishna?: Best Running Gag

Perhaps the most inexplicable and brief running gag here features the wonderfully funny Carol Kane saying “Yes?” with a lisp. In an early scene at a sleazy bar, Kermit runs afoul of a nasty sailor (Telly Savalas) and his date (Madeline Kahn); when the sailor says frogs have warts, Kermit says that’s a myth. To which Kane pops out of nowhere and says, “Yeth?” The gag repeats later on, making it both baffling and hilarious.

There’s An Informed Opinion: Conclusion

There is no better Muppet movie than The Muppet Movie. It features the original cast of Muppeteers, it’s not too sentimental, it’s exceptionally funny, and its songs are unbeatable. Accept no substitutes.

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