The wonderful-sounding Muppets movie that we never got

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Before we got 2011’s The Muppets, plans were afoot for a brilliant-sounding Muppet adventure, that ultimately never got made – here’s its story.

There aren’t enough Muppet movies. This is the great Muppet paradox, really. Eternal classics like The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol and The Muppets won’t ever wear out, but there’s still a persistent nagging sense that we’ve been badly shorted.

Several Muppet projects have been developed to never go ahead, of course. Recently there was Josh Gad’s nostalgia-powered, 80s-set kidnapping caper television series, Muppets Live Another Day, an apparent victim of corporate job shuffling at Muppets Studio. Had it happened, it would have been a direct sequel to The Muppets Take Manhattan, with original songs by Frozen's Bobby and Kristen Lopez. I’ve read the pilot script and am very sad that we’ll never actually get to see it. It’s funny and Muppet-y and suitably daft and exciting all at once.

Perhaps most disappointing of all Muppet-based non-projects, however, is the continued un-existence of The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made! – not my exclamation point. Despite a treatment that dates back 35 years, and an official announcement in 2009, nothing like this film has ever gone into production.

Writer Jerry Juhl’s original pitch is simple but on point: when a harangued and distracted Kermit is too busy to oversee a new Muppet movie, Gonzo gets the job of directing. Neither artistically or fiscally responsible, Gonzo is predictably able to unravel the whole project into heaps of tangled chaos.

To begin with, Gonzo rewrites the script entirely, writing something he calls Into The Jaws Of The Demons Of Death. So lavish is the opening sequence that Gonzo burns through almost the entire budget before the titles, and the film staggers on, becoming more and more patchy and shortcut ridden as the scenes go by. Eventually the film becomes nothing but a series of storyboards – until Gonzo sells out, bags corporate sponsorship and completes the film in lavish style.

It’s easy to imagine those last scenes would be creaking under the weight of fake product placement, and I suppose a genuine fear might be that, if Disney was to make the film today, the product placement would be all too real.

When the film was announced in 2009, the only details given were the title. It quickly morphed into The Greatest Muppet Movie of All Time!!! – not my exclamation points. This is the film we now know as The Muppets, the superb 2011 Jason Segel and Amy Adams-headlined picture that rather curiously divides Muppet fandom somewhat. This suggests to me that all Disney was announcing in 2009 was a new Muppet movie, not actually a version of Juhl’s original concept. It must have just liked the title.

Frank Oz (Fozzie Bear himself, and the director too of many films including The Muppets Take Manhattan) seems to have been the actual project’s biggest champion throughout the years. At the turn of the millennium, Oz told IGN “I’m excited about a particular idea, and the idea is something that Jim and Jerry Juhl and I thought of 15 years ago.”

Jerry Juhl mentioned the project to Muppet Central not much later, saying “six months ago, Frank had said to me, ‘You know, there’s still something in that movie, it would be a lot of fun to do.’”

In fact, Brian Jay Jones’ peerless and truly essential Jim Henson biography reveals that Juhl’s treatment for the film was originally inspired by a conversation with Oz. Perhaps this explains why Oz felt so close to the project, even unconsciously – its roots were his own psyche.

One of the ironies of The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made! is that it wouldn’t have been cheap at all, with global locations, big special effects – a volcano sequence is often cited as being particularly ambitious. Another irony is that, the more time passes, the more cost-effective some of these scenes would be… and yet, the less likely we are to see the Muppets in something so prone to chaotic aesthetic explosion.

I’m genuinely enjoying the current Disney+ show Muppets Now! – that’s not my exclamation mark either, I swear – but look beyond the Muppetised-backstage shenanigans for a moment to the actual backstage story of how Muppet projects are getting made, who by, and with what goal, and it seems very much like Disney’s Muppet Studios doesn’t have a clear idea what to do. It genuinely seem to be feeling around in the dark, unsure of how to get some bang for very few bucks, not clear on how the Muppets fit into its corporate mission (I feel a bit gross even typing that). That Muppet Studios has tapped Soapbox Films for help could be more luck than judgment, but at least that seems to be working well.

And the Muppets themselves remain utterly delightful. They’re one of the greatest comedy troupes to have ever graced the stage or screen, and certainly some of the most undervalued actors in the biz – when was the last time a Muppet won an Oscar?

One final, melancholic observation. If we were to get a new Muppet movie soon, centring it on Gonzo the Great would be a beautiful idea. Jim Henson and Richard Hunt are no longer with us, Frank Oz is no longer working with Piggy et al, but Dave Goelz remains with Gonzo, and while he is (not that I’m predicting an end to this any time soon! – this calls for an exclamation point of my own), then I recommend giving him as much time in the spotlight as possible.

It seems fitting to end this article with a song…


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