Last week, I took my children and nieces to see The Muppets, a movie based on cultural icons that stopped seeming relevant to young audiences approximately 15 years before my mini movie party was born. I was a little worried. Would felt and foam hold the same allure for kids raised on computer generated images as it had me when I was young and puppet impressionable?
Happily, the answer was yes. The kids were entranced by the characters. And while some of the references, clearly written with nostalgic parents in mind, went over their young heads, they left the theater devoted Muppet fans.
While the Muppets themselves, coupled with truly terrific writing and an honest love for the property, made this film an artistic and commercial success, I believe there’s a secret formula at work that’s always appealing.
Audiences love seeing imagined characters performing with actors in the real (in the Hollywood sense of the word) world. Be it Jason fighting with an army of animated skeletons or Don Knotts feeling fishy in The Incredible Mr. Limpet, film fans love to see motion picture possibilities stretched to their technical limits.
Here are a few of my favorite examples.
KING KONG (1933): As primitive as this mega-monster classic seems today, it was a revolution when released almost 80 years ago. And while it may not be as sophisticated as the computer-hewn entertainments of today, it’s clearly handmade effects work and the surprisingly affecting love shared by the stunning Fay Wray and her simian puppet suitor still hold sway.
WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988): A movie based on the premise that the pen-and-ink world of cartoons in fact exists in tandem with our own, Roger Rabbit combines elements of film noir and classic cartoon comedy that is not only appealing, but also manages to establish one of the great buddy film pairings. Here’s hoping the oft-discussed sequel will eventually come to fruition and allow fans to see how the relationship between Eddie Valiant and Roger Rabbit developed.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002): While the character of Gollum isn’t strictly a constructed character – character actor Andy Serkis deserves considerable credit for breathing life into the tragic antagonist – he is unlike anything else seen in cinema. It’s easy to forget he doesn’t actually exist, and that’s the sign of a truly effective cinematic device. Two Towers is my favorite of the Rings films and, not coincidently, has some of the most interesting Gollum scenes.
ANCHORS AWEIGH (1945): Although only a single segment in a much longer, and less ambitious, musical, the song-and-dance shared by Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse remains an animated (sort of) marvel. Dancing with the famously athletic Kelly was difficult for human dancers. Imagine how difficult it must have been for an animator to keep up.
THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979): No list inspired by the Muppets would be complete without a mention of the iconic characters’ first – and finest – film. A musical road trip featuring a slew of celebrity cameos, it has lost little of its luster. Sure, the Bob Hope cameo is never going to make sense to any pre-teen ever again, but the heart of this film remains intact and timeless.