My Dad, the Muppets & Me

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My lifelong love of cinema began with my dad when he took me to see “The Great Muppet Caper” in 1981. I was two years old and already a devoted Muppet fan.

I have wondered whether my memory of this experience is wholly accurate. Can you be a devoted fan of something at two years of age? I recently asked my dad for confirmation. I called him up, catching him before he headed outside to do yard work, and our conversation spanned from comparative meteorology to veterans’ affairs to that time he accidentally swallowed gasoline as a kid. Somewhere along the way, we came to the Muppets.

I asked if it were possible that I could have been two years old when I made him take me to see that movie, wondering if maybe we’d seen a reissue at a later date.

His reply: “Oh, yeah. You loved the Muppets as a little guy. When I’d come home, the first thing you’d do is tell me the Muppets were on. You were so excited you’d run around and around in little circles. That’s why we had to go see that show.” (He said “show” but meant “movie,” one of his adorable colloquialisms.) As to the details of our Muppet caper, he was quite confident.

He must have been excited to take his son to the movies for the first time. He too has been a lifelong movie buff. In the 60’s, he worked as a projectionist in one of the old-time movie palaces. His friends filled the auditorium but paid more attention to their girlfriends than the movies. To them, the theater was an air-conditioned oasis, away from obtrusive parents and the dry heat of California’s Central Valley. But to my dad, it was serious business, and as the hours spent in his projection booth multiplied, he began to develop a sophisticated appreciation of film.

So maybe his love of movies made him jump the gun. My dad seems like a sane person, but only a maniac takes a 2-year-old to a movie theater. Maybe I was very persuasive, or insistent. In any case, off we went to see the new Muppet movie. I imagine my dad buying me popcorn and candy, trying to provide a complete moviegoing experience. I imagine myself wide-eyed, absorbing all the details of the theater, marveling at number of seats and the enormity of the screen. The previews likely included Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound,” and I no doubt made clear my desire to see that movie next.

Finally, the film itself. “The Great Muppet Caper” opens with Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo riding in a hot air balloon as they make knowing comments about the opening credits. (Fozzie: “Nobody reads those names anyway, do they?” Kermit: “Sure. They all have families.”) The magic of this scene is that these three characters are so fully realized in our minds that we don’t think of them as puppets, and therefore we don’t wonder how each of their performers fit into that little basket. Jim Henson and company always slip in these tricks to make you forget that any puppeteers were involved. You simply see the Muppets.

Such tricks work especially well on children. As my dad said, I loved the Muppets so much that I lost all bodily control when their show came on TV. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why they were so special to me, but it had something to do with that magic of their existence. It’s clear that the Muppets are real. They have physical forms of fur and felt and cloth and plastic, and yet, they are unreal and impossible. Children can’t reconcile that contradiction. Their existence is subconsciously attributed to some sort of magic.

But when you kinda believe that the Muppets are real, there is a down side: the scary ones are really scary. Like every once in a while I’d catch a glimpse of Uncle Deadly in the background on The Muppet Show, and a chill would shoot up my spine. Sweetums was my biggest fear though. You know him. He’s the shaggy, 9-foot-tall Muppet with the big nose, the mean-looking eyes, the huge mouth, and the sharp teeth.

This brings us back to the movie. After the credits roll, the hot air balloon lands on a busy street and a raucous musical number ensues, replete with car accidents, explosions, and a horrifying shot of Sweetums running toward the camera, growling and grumbling. Typical Muppet stuff, yes, but it was all too much for me to bear. I was overwhelmed. We had barely reached the five-minute mark and I was screaming and crying. My dad had to carry me out of the theater for the benefit of the other patrons.

I wouldn’t be consoled. Not only had I endured the trauma of a 40-foot-tall Sweetums, I’d also missed my chance to see the Muppet movie. My dad promptly figured out a remedy. He took me to Toys“R”Us and let me pick out anything in the store. I selected a puppet. A cuddly, furry creature of indeterminate species, whom we named Beaver-Bear. I felt better, and I had a new friend.

My dad has always been a tough guy, a muscular, ass-kicking, shit-disturber. He was an ex-army paratrooper. And now he had a new son who was terrorized by a puppet musical. Some dads might have taken this as a cue to sign up their son for the first little league team that would take him. Instead, my dad wrote me a letter. He said he knew I wasn’t going to be a tough guy. He said he knew that I would grow up to be sensitive. He said that was okay. He tucked the letter away in the basement for delivery at a later date.

In the intervening years, the letter was lost. He delivered it verbally though, around the time of my 18th birthday, after I came out of the closet. He said he had always wanted me to be me. It was okay.

*  *  *  *  *

Last week, the Museum of the Moving Image screened “The Great Muppet Caper” for its 35th anniversary. The film has a special place in my heart, so I made the journey up to Long Island City to see it. When I arrived in the auditorium, I sent my dad a photo and a message.

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Thanks, dad, for taking me to the movies. Thanks for carrying me out. Thanks for letting me be me.


Here is the opening musical number from “The Great Muppet Caper.” Viewer discretion is advised.

The AristoCats

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I recently watched Disney’s twentieth animated feature film “The AristoCats” (1970) and, strangely, I had a lot of thoughts and feelings about it. I hadn’t seen it in at least twenty years and a couple things stuck out to me right away: 1) the unpolished, I daresay sloppy, animation style, and 2) the way it wasted all of the dramatic and comedic possibilities of its premise.

For those who aren’t familiar, “The AristoCats” is about an elegant Parisian house cat (Duchess) and her three pampered kittens who get catnapped by an evil butler and deposited in the French countryside where they meet an alley cat (Thomas) who helps them find their way back to Paris. You can imagine the conflict already between a snobbish Duchess and a streetwise Thomas. Unfortunately for the story, Duchess is not a snob. She’s not bothered by meeting an alley cat. She not even really bothered by their predicament. It’s as if the writers were more interested in making Duchess likable, and making the story seem safe and happy, than in creating memorable characters with dramatic conflict.

The story could have played out like “It Happened One Night” with cats. In that movie, the rich, spoiled brat has to make her way to New York City without being caught by the agents of her wealthy father. She lacks all common sense and would either be captured or starved to death if not for the aid of the street-savvy newspaperman, whom she, of course, initially detests. Imagine the relationship between Duchess and Thomas starting out like this:

  • When they meet, Duchess is disgusted by Thomas’s smelly fur and coarse behavior. She insults him and he leaves after getting in a few insults of his own.
  • The kittens get in some kind of danger, Duchess calls for help, and Thomas returns, saving the kittens. Duchess realizes she needs help if they’re going to get home safe.
  • She tries to hire him as a guide, promising him, say, a lifetime supply of milk when they reach their home in Paris. Thomas is re-offended, tells her she could have just asked for help (this is straight out of “It Happened One Night”), but he’s hungry enough to accept the terms.
  • Now you have a slob and a snob, forced by circumstances to be together. This establishes a conflict, a potential for character growth, and is a natural set-up for a comedic love story.
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Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, “It Happened One Night” (1934)

Giving the main characters some personality flaws also makes it easier to laugh at them. In the actual film, Duchess and Thomas are blandly likable and unfunny. If she were a snob, then it would be humorous to see how she would react to, say, falling into a muddy lake, having a flea jump on her, or having to sleep on the ground. And you can imagine a running joke about Thomas’s aroma, and how the kittens, especially the imperious Marie, might react to it. I’m imagining a remake with the youngest kitten, Berlioz, voiced by Anthony Quintal, giving Thomas tips on his appearance. But since the characters are lacking, the humor in the film has to come from other sources, like a dog biting a man on the butt.

The forgettable story and characters could have been mitigated by some beautiful animation that captured the elegance of Paris and the rustic beauty of the countryside. Sadly, the animation in “The AristoCats” is messy. It needs to be put in context though. We have to go back to 1959 when Disney released “Sleeping Beauty.” When you watch “Sleeping Beauty” you notice how crisp and sharp it looks. It resembles contemporary animation much more than the Disney features that followed it in the next two decades. This clean look is achieved by taking the animator’s rough sketches and painstakingly tracing them onto new sheets of paper, minus all of the animator’s stray marks. Those pages were then overlaid with animation cels and another artist would trace the cleaned-up drawings onto the cel using ink.

That attention to detail was tremendously expensive though. In the 1960s and 70s, Disney learned it could save time and money by using some technical trickery (xerography) to transfer the animators’ rough sketches directly onto animation cels. While this innovation saved the Disney animation studio (it likely would have been shut down otherwise), the resulting animation is riddled with stray marks and fuzzy edges. It looks unfinished. And cheap.

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Some say this is intentional, that it reflects the flazéda attitude of the 60s and 70s, as well as the thematic material in Disney’s films of that era. This is not a bad argument. Consider “The Sword in the Stone” (1963). It shares the Medieval setting of “Sleeping Beauty,” but their worlds are seen from starkly different perspectives. “Sleeping Beauty” tells the story of a beautiful princess and a handsome prince whose perfect lives are upheaved by an evil fairy. The crisp and clean look of the film emphasizes the perfection of the characters and their kingdom. “The Sword in the Stone” is about an awkward orphan boy, nicknamed Wart, who thinks his only talent is for screwing things up until he meets a wizard who teaches him to see his own value. Wart’s world isn’t perfect, and neither is he, and the rougher animation style seems to fit his hardscrabble existence.

I’d also agree that the xerographed animation could be appropriate in films like “The Jungle Book” (1967) and “Robin Hood” (1973), which are both essentially about a bunch of hippies who live in the wilderness. A rough and scrappy visual style is appropriate for their stories too.

Now consider “The AristoCats.” Here, the rough, and at times downright sloppy, xerographed animation doesn’t fit so well. The whole point is that these characters are aristocrats who live a perfect, glamorous life. For Pete’s sake, Maurice Chevalier was hauled out of retirement to sing their theme song. Their home in Paris and all the characters there should look every bit as crisp and clean as Sleeping Beauty’s castle, establishing a contrast between the beautiful world they come from and the harsh reality they’re exiled to.

Instead, the unfinished animation, with its errant marks and scribbled lines, makes all the characters look dirty and scruffy. If the film were called “The AlleyCats” and focused on Thomas and his gang, instead of Duchess and her kittens, then the animation style might work. But as it is, it makes you question not only the level of care put into this film, but whether the xerography in past films was truly intentional or just a lazy shortcut.

So, here is a film with a great premise that was never realized to its full potential, dramatically or artistically. Since everything in the world is getting remade and rebooted, I suggest upgrading “The AristoCats” since it’s one that could actually benefit from a retelling.