In celebration of the release of Muppets Haunted Mansion on Disney+, we’ve ranked all eight Muppet feature films from worst to best for your puppet-loving pleasure.
We all know them. We all know how much they love starting the music, lighting the lights, etc. The enduring legacy of the Muppets is a quizzical phenomenon, in that their keepers have changed hands many times over the years, resulting in what are, effectively, Three Muppet Epochs since they were chaotically unleashed onto our television screens in 1976. Since then, there have been eight (Eight! Ah ah ah…) feature films featuring the equally lovable and head-scratching Muppet cast of characters. This October saw the release of the Disney+ special Muppets Haunted Mansion and, to honor the greatest cinematic/television must-have-been-made-in-a-lab-it’s-so-weird universe of all time, we’ve ranked these eight Muppet movies from worst to best.
8. MUPPETS MOST WANTED
Director: James Bobin
Writers: James Bobin & Nicholas Stoller
2011’s The Muppets was always going to be a tough act to follow, and this one wasn’t quite up to the task— but it’s not without its moments. Jason Segel’s absence on the writing team and performing front is felt (no pun intended) here, but his 6’4” hole is filled by a trio of great humans-in-a-Muppet-movie-actors in the form of Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and Ty Burrell.
The key to humans acting in a Muppet movie is that you have to play it straight; you can’t act like you’re performing opposite a bunch of puppets, in the manner that’s often the easiest way to pander or impart thematic material to children on something like Sesame Street.
So the next best thing to actors playing it straight are actors who are so over the top it doesn’t matter which way is up. Ty Burrell’s literal mustache twirling guy is fun (though, originally, Christoph Waltz was cast in the role, and I’ll riot till I can’t feel my face until I’m given a Christoph Waltz Muppet movie…), Tina Fey does that accent and some other wacky Tina Fey stuff which is effectively par for the Tina Fey course, and Ricky Gervais perfectly skirts the line between playing it straight and over the top because, well, that’s sort of his thing, isn’t it?
This one isn’t my favorite by any stretch, but what we did get out of this installment was one of the best meme templates of all time (pictured, you know the one.)
7. THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL
Director: Brian Henson
Writer: Jerry Juhl
Full Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Review: A Festive Delight
Look. I know I’m going to take some heat for ranking this so low on the list, but at least hear me out before you go grabbing your torches and pitchforks. Muppet Christmas Carol is a solid Christmas Carol adaptation. It’s got all the artistic and visual trimmings of a proper Christmas Carol send-up, including the great Michael Caine doing his best to wrap his head around acting opposite a bunch of puppets. It absolutely stands to operate as a great Christmas Carol adaptation— it’s just that it isn’t a great Muppet movie.
One of the things that makes Muppet movies great is the element of no-holds-barred self-referentiality. Muppet Christmas Carol doesn’t not do that, but the frame story of A Christmas Carol sort of inhibits its ability to step outside the realm of that source material it’s drawing from and disallows the Muppets from being, well, the Muppets. That sad little Muppet bunny shivering and wrapped in newspaper is miserably adorable, and it’s fun to see the Muppets decked out in those Dickensian get-ups, but, ultimately, this entry takes itself a bit too seriously for my taste.
All that said… Statler and Waldorf as Jacob and Robert Marley are a real treat.
6. MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND
Directors: Brian Henson & David Lane
Writer: Jerry Juhl & Kirk R. Thatcher
Here’s another low ranking I know someone will give me the business over. Muppet Treasure Island is a lot of fun because of Tim Curry and what they’re up to with the adaptation of the source material, and not necessarily for the Muppets themselves. It’s not an easy task, figuring out (in a Muppet adaptation of a book/etc.) which characters should be played by real humans and which should be played by Muppets. I think— I think— that Kermit should have been Jim, but that’s also a note coming from the guy who is seriously considering putting pen to paper on a Muppet adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, so take that as you will.
Overall, Muppet Treasure Island is a fun adventure but, like its feature-length predecessor Muppet Christmas Carol, the hijinks and utter chaos that defined the Muppets in their First Epoch (more on the Muppet Epochs later), gets lost in the post-Jim Henson “where do we go from here” of it all. What this (and Christmas Carol) both offer very little of are the celebrity cameos/featured roles outside of mostly the big name draw— Tim Curry here, Michael Caine there— a key ingredient that made the First Muppet Epoch as big of a rollicking success as it was. But, look, at the end of the day, we still get Muppets dressed as pirates, and that counts for a ton.
Oh, and you know what else counts for a ton? Giving my man Sam Eagle such a good role.
5. MUPPETS FROM SPACE
Director: Tim Hill
Writer: Jerry Juhl, Joey Mazzarino & Ken Kaufman
The premise of Muppets from Space is what edges this out over the likes of Treasure Island and Christmas Carol. The short version is Gonzo has some existential crises about his origins and, one day, some aliens try to send him a message through his cereal, leading him to believe that he isn’t the only of his kind after all. And that’s just how the story STARTS. What happens along the way are sight to behold after sight to behold. Joshua Jackson and Katie Holmes play their characters from Dawson’s Creek, for crying out loud. Muppet Christmas Carol could NEVER.
From its truly bonkers premise to its couple of incredible late-90s-niche cameos, Muppets from Space seemed like it was pumping new blood back into the Muppet Cinematic Universe (#myMCU), but that this was the last feature film to involve Frank Oz is what brings the Muppet’s Second Epoch to a grinding halt, not to be reignited (in so many ways) for twelve years, at the start of the Muppet’s Third Epoch when we get…
4. THE MUPPETS
Director: James Bobin
Writers: Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller
Am I a man? Or am I a Muppet? It was the question on everyone’s (read: my) mind after the surprise success of The Muppets in 2011, and we mostly have Jason Segel to thank. The star of such underrated mid-to-late-2000s gems as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man fulfilled his lifelong passion to not only star in his very own Muppet movie, but to reinvigorate the series as a whole.
It brought the Muppets to a brand new generation of audiences and, in a way, picked up where Muppets from Space left off in its attempt to harken back to the glory days of chaos in the Muppets’ First Epoch: meta to the max, self-referentiality front and center, great music (for my money, this installment features the best music overall), and a fun host of human players. Name a better duo than Chris Cooper and Uncle Deadly. I’ll wait.
3. THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN
Writer & director: Frank Oz
You can’t not rank a Muppet movie that features an Elliott Gould cameo in the top five, know what I mean? For what it’s worth (and it may be worth very little), I think Elliott should have appeared in every Muppet movie up until this point. My take on Muppets Take Manhattan is less about the movie itself and mostly about Elliott Gould. But I guess that’s not what we’re here to do.
Look, Muppets Take Manhattan is the final film of the Muppets’ First Epoch— in other words, this was the last Muppet feature film to be made and released before Jim Henson’s untimely passing in 1990. For anyone interested in a perspective from Henson’s frequent collaborator Frank Oz, Oz stated in a Guardian article this past summer how the “Disney deal is probably what killed Jim. It made him sick.”
The article also features Oz remarking on his involvement, or lack thereof, with the Muppets at present: “I’d love to do the Muppets again but Disney doesn’t want me.” Oz’s astute insight into corporate America’s flagrant disregard and utter inability to understand the essence of what makes a property like the Muppets great was challenged by Jason Segel’s (and co-writer Nicholas Stoller’s) passion for the re-ignition of the golden age of Muppetdom. Sadly, it didn’t last long, and it soon fell prey to the clutches of the Disney Machine.
This has, admittedly, been less about The Muppets Take Manhattan than I intended, and will save my thoughts and diatribes about the jumping-the-shark-ness nature of the Muppets’ handover to Disney for another essay. Muppets Take Manhattan is very good. It gives you— though not the best version of it— all the things you want out of a true Muppet movie, and features, ostensibly, the last glimmers of what made the Muppets great from the very beginning, from The Muppet Show on television, to the eternally beloved…
2. THE MUPPET MOVIE
Director: James Frawley
Writers: Jerry Juhl & Jack Burns
This is the road movie. This is The Muppet Movie. The first feature length installment of the Muppets posits nothing other than: what if chaos, but puppets, and also everyone cries. The anarchy of the early Muppets is what made them great and made us fall in love with them.
The music is there (I defy you to listen to “Rainbow Connection” and not shed a tear). The gags are there and laid the groundwork for years to come (“I like the movie fine so far. // It hasn’t started yet. // That’s what I like about it.” —Statler & Waldorf <3). The cameos are there (Steve Martin is an all-timer who is topped only, in my book, by Peter Falk— more on that in a moment). And it is, inarguably, one of those movies that you can drop in at any time and, not only enjoy, but watch till the very end. Every, every time.
A generation of kids born in the late eighties to early nineties were brought up by things like Treasure Island and Christmas Carol and, to this day, those same kids-now-grown-ups will die on the hill of those entries being the seminal Muppet masterpieces. It’s not that they’re bad— at the end of the day, any movie with a Muppet is still a win— but Treasure Island and Christmas Carol were these remarkably palatable iterations of the felty anarchists that had been reigning with hellfire over the previous two decades, and my best guess is that parents dug the simplicity and staying-in-their-lane-ness of Treasure and Christmas over the pure anarchy of something like…
1. THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER
Director: Jim Henson
Writers: Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses & Jerry Juhl
This is it. This is the best one. This is the greatest show. The thing about Great Muppet Caper— and this is purely speculation— is that at no point in the writer’s room could anyone have uttered the phrase, or even cared to consider that, “Oh, yeah, this is a kid’s movie,” because it’s not. It’s just not. Sure, it’s appropriate for children, but being appropriate for children and being a kid’s movie are vastly different things. Great Muppet Caper is not the latter.
I mean, where do we start? The bits about Fozzie and Kermit being twins? Peter Falk’s yet-to-be-topped cameo, where he set the bar for “acting straight” opposite a puppet? Or do we talk about Charles Grodin’s mesmerizing performance— another that set a precedent that, perhaps, Tim Curry got close to in Treasure Island; the precedent in question being a human being acting like a Muppet.
Grodin operates with the raw animal anarchy of the best of the Muppets, but he has to do it in a flesh suit. There’s no regard for the fabric of human reality in which his character exists. To Grodin, there’s no difference between a Muppet and a human. Whether that makes Grodin himself a Muppet or a human remains to be seen (and, once again, begs the question: am I a man, or am I a Muppet?). Not only did he turn in that all-star performance, but his involvement spurned one of the greatest on screen and off will-they-won’t-they’s of all time with his co-star, Miss Piggy.
Yes, if there’s one man that ever stood a chance at taking Miss Piggy from Kermit, it was Charles Grodin. Miss Piggy even tweeted in the wake of Grodin’s passing earlier this year, recognizing the enormity of his talent and the gifts he gave us as an actor and lifelong friend to the Muppets.
This entry is the embodiment and representation of peak Muppets First Epoch, which began with The Muppet Movie, featured Great Muppet Caper, and came to a close shortly after Muppets Take Manhattan. This era ended with the passing of Henson, and the torch was passed into the Second Epoch, the post-Henson era, the “what do we do now?” of it all, which features the safe choices like Treasure Island and Christmas Carol, and threw back to a little bit of zany Muppet play with Muppets from Space.
But the gap between that entry and 2011’s was the transition from Second to Third, with the Second coming to a definitive end with Frank Oz’s final involvement in 2007. As mentioned before, we have Jason Segel to thank for even the existence of a Third Muppet Epoch but, as it stands, that initial entry represents the highest note in an otherwise downward slide since then. I guess it’s up to me and all the Muppet Shakespeare adaptations I’ve been sitting on all this time…
Highs or lows, utter mayhem or close-to-the-vest, the Muppets age like Sparkling Muscatel (one of the finest wines of Idaho), and The Great Muppet Caper, the highest of the highs, is one that demands to be revisited as an adult. I was able to catch it in theaters this summer for it’s 40th anniversary and, let me tell you, the older I get, the more and more I appreciate this. In fact, having just watched Peter Falk’s Mikey and Nicky for the very first time, I’m probably due to revisit Caper again for yet another re-appreciation of Falk’s incredible and utterly mystifying cameo.
Look, who am I to judge the Muppets or their movies? We should be so lucky that we get any Muppet movies at all. Muppets Haunted Mansion, the newest entry in the Muppet Cinematic Universe, that was recently released on Disney+, wasn’t exactly my bag. We can chat after class about my exact qualms but, at the end of the day, did it have Muppets in it? Yes. Do I love the Muppets? Yes. Do I think Kermit is a socialist out to brainwash children against capitalism? Dear god, I hope so.