The Muppet Movie (1979)

Sometimes it just takes kids a while to fall in love with the Muppets. Some adults never quite manage it. Once upon a time, one of my colleagues at the museum where I used to work confessed – and “confessed” is the right word because we’d just lunched with our counterparts at the Center for Puppetry Arts – that she found the Muppets monotonous.

“They’re what?” I said.

“Monotonous,” she said.

“Manna-wha?” I said.

“Monotonous!” she yelled. And of course I sang “Doo doo doo-doo-doo,” and she looked at me utterly baffled before it hit her and she gave me a death glare. I do miss her.

And our son, he didn’t get them either when we first showed him the program around age four. It probably didn’t help that we started with the first season of The Muppet Show, which honestly isn’t really all that good, but he found the normal-sized Muppets creepy and strange and the full-sized monsters horrifying. After a few days, we skipped ahead to season two, which is infinitely better thanks in no small part to the addition of Jerry Juhl as head writer, and because I adore Madeline Kahn, we watched that episode. She did a sketch with one of the big monsters, Doglion, and it scared the absolute life out of him and he’s had no time for the Muppets ever since.

I’d say that maybe he was too young, except my older son was loving the Muppets when he was four. He drew a picture of Elton John surrounded by his adoring food after watching that one in 2001 or so. You can never tell.

So this morning it was time to push the issue and he didn’t sit down to this movie with very much enthusiasm. Making matters worse, there’s a great big ungainly Criterion package of classic Godzilla movies just sitting on the shelf he could be watching (be here next Sunday). So we sat down to watch something he really didn’t want to watch, and apart from giving me a death glare for joining in with Floyd Pepper on some of the verses in “Can You Picture That?” – I do tend to draw those – he had a really good time apart from the slower songs. It could have been worse. I really wanted his mom to sing Janice’s part. Get back to me in about nine years. I bet when our son’s seventeen he would not find our singing along to what may well be the best song released in 1979 in any way funny.

Incidentally, I completely love Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. They’re the best band-within-a-fiction that’s ever been. And while “Can You Picture That?” is the centerpiece of this movie for me, the other six songs are every bit as flawlessly crafted. I’d mentioned Paul Williams’ curious luck when we ran into him in a 1977 episode of The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries; it remains absolutely bizarre to me that the fellow who wrote these great, great songs for the film never had hit singles of his own. Sure, a couple of these aren’t the sort of songs I’d listen to regularly, but it’s a weird, stupid world when “The Rainbow Connection” loses out on an Academy Award to… errr… “It Goes Like It Goes.”

So anyway, the film’s infectious mix of goofball puns, how’d-they-do-that effects, and incredibly lovable characters won our son over and he really did like the movie and laughed a lot. For us grownups, there’s also the astonishing number of cameo appearances by big celebrities, like Kahn again, and Telly Savalas as her tough boyfriend. Only Steve Martin and Mel Brooks try to steal the film from its stars and they’re both hilarious, but I also love James Coburn owning the only bar in the world too tough for James Coburn, and, in perhaps the greatest stupid gag I can think of – because I can’t think of it without smiling – Carol Kane answering “Yeth?” whenever anyone shouts “Myth!” I fed that to Marie last night and she left me hanging. I’m still shaking my head.

And of course even though we try to watch movies without interruption or comment, our son had been chuckling at Animal so much that I couldn’t resist because the puns were so infectious. They got parked in that ghost town and when Floyd says he needs to walk Animal, I asked our son whether he wishes Animal had a bigger part. Was what happens next his favorite part of the movie? Do bears go “Moving right along” in Studebakers?

The Princess Bride (1987)

I’ve told the story of how I avoided this film for almost twenty years before – but by all means, please reread it, you’ll need it for the last paragraph – but briefly, I never heard anything about it that appealed to me, and one day in 2005 somebody forced me to watch it and I spent weeks alternating between watching it again and kicking myself for missing out. Preconceived notions are sometimes terrible, terrible things. Eighteen years I could’ve known this movie was a triumph.

So anyway, I’m assuming that this is one of those movies I don’t need to describe very much to our audience or explain why I chose to show it to our son. It’s because it’s Rob Reiner’s finest moment, and every kid needs to see it! We started out with a little chat about narration. We talked about an unreliable narrator a few weeks ago, and I explained that this story doesn’t have an unreliable narrator, but it does have one who interrupts. Our son sees echoes of William Goldman’s original novel in lots of the modern entertainment that he enjoys, especially Captain Underpants. If you’ve not read the Underpants books, one of his regular devices is employing a “skip” chapter, where rather than explaining a complex part of the adventure, the writer just explains that to cut a long story short, the characters did whatever they were trying to do. The cartoon’s narrator regularly points out things that will be important later on.

And today, audiences take all that for granted. We’ve been primed by everything that’s followed in the wake of that era of postmodern literature (I’m reminded in particular of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, published four years before Bride), but it took another thirteen years before a studio was willing to sink several million dollars into making a movie of this that would be true to William Goldman’s winking-at-the-audience novel. And while the interruptions and commentary are really kept to the frame story of Peter Falk reading the book to his allegedly sick grandson, the movie adds a heck of a lot that the book couldn’t do that toys with audience’s expectations.

For starters, there’s my absolute favorite swordfight between Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin. That could have gone on another hour and I wouldn’t have been bored. There’s the risky humor of turning Miracle Max into a stereotype greedy Jew, which would be pretty cringeworthy today if Billy Crystal wasn’t playing him. There’s the great gag of the fellow who cleans the torture chamber rasping in a hideous gargle that our hero is in the Pit of Despair before clearing his throat and speaking normally, which seems to have come straight from Monty Python. And certainly nobody, anywhere, was expecting Peter Cook to open his mouth and yell “MAWWIAGE,” except for everybody, everywhere, who knew to sit up straight when Peter Cook shows up. So there, movies can give you things that books can’t.

If movie audiences were just about ready in 1987 for the postmodern fairy tale that they might not have been in 1973, it’s expected by pretty much everything in 2020. So our kid knew just what was going on, jumped right in, sympathizing with the grandson that he’s having to suffer through a story with kissy stuff and waiting to get to something exciting. He loved everything about this, from the now-classic lines to the rude insults, and of course the fighting. He had the biggest laugh when Patinkin’s character finally, after two decades, gets to look in the eyes of the man he’s been tracking and give his immortal line at last, only to have the guy immediately turn and flee.

But, if I may be allowed a moment to brag, I think that I got the best laugh of the morning. I can boast that I had him collapsed in laughter and begging for an encore. I told him that story linked to in the first paragraph, about how Wallace Shawn, in a parallel world, might have been given the opportunity to play Mr. Mxyzptlk on Lois & Clark. I built up to it well and reminded him of the wine scene between Shawn and Cary Elwes. In what I might humbly claim to be a passable parody of Vizzini, I bellowed “You fool, Man of Steel! Do you seriously think you could possibly trick me into saying Kltpzyxm?!” I didn’t even get as far as saying that would be inconceivable before the kid was doubled over, roaring, and begging me to do it again. No autographs, please…