Recently, I had the chance to revisit The Muppet Musicians of Bremen – commonly know as the other Muppet fairy tale movie – in honor of its 50th anniversary. Sure, Hey Cinderella and The Frog Prince are much better known, but Bremen is a crucial piece of the trilogy. Not just because it’s an early Jim Henson project (all of which are inherently important), but because this odd little special was part of Jim Henson’s road to The Muppet Movie.
Before we get into all that, let’s talk about The Muppet Musicians of Bremen. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a charming hour-long special about a group of animals in the Louisiana countryside who play instruments and beat up some villainous humanoid farmers and thieves. And… well, that’s about it. It’s not the most complex plot ever.
Truth be told, the special is relatively uneven. The songs are wonderful, and it’s a great example of Jim Henson’s continued attempt at mixing his chaotic Muppets with familiar fairy tales. But there’s a lot of meandering around the plot to fill the running time, and the drab palate and unfamiliar characters (all of whom are deliberately old and run down) don’t exactly lend themselves to much longevity within the Muppet franchise.
But also! It aired in 1972, just seven years before The Muppet Movie, which is arguably the pinnacle of the Muppets’ achievements. Oh how far Jim had come in those seven years! And in rewatching this special, I realized how much these two productions have in common. Enough, I’d argue, that Jim Henson may have lifted elements from Bremen to use in his debut theatrical film.
Dubious? Of course you are. Let me show you some receipts:
The most obvious connection between the two is certainly the “road trip” element. In The Muppet Musicians of Bremen, Leroy the Donkey picks up his new friends one-by-one, adding them to his troupe of traveling artists, caravanning through the American South as an ever-growing commune. Change the donkey, rooster, and cat to a frog, bear, and whatever, and that’s the gist of The Muppet Movie.
The Muppet Movie was a pioneer in marionette work in film, solely for the iconic shot of Kermit the Frog riding a bicycle. Slightly less iconic are the marionettes seen in Bremen, mainly used to show the characters walking without assistance. Despite some shaky legs, it’s a great example of Jim Henson practicing the craft of switching between hand puppets (for close-up shots) and marionettes (for distanced shots) to build realism and continuity. Okay, so the effects in this special don’t look anywhere near as good as Kermit on the Schwinn, but sometimes you need to walk before you can run. Even if the walking looks like trash.
Kermit the Agent
Kermit’s true call to action in The Muppet Movie comes courtesy of Bernie the Agent (played by Dom Deluise), who suggest to him that he take his banjo-picking talents to Hollywood. Kermit flips the script in Bremen, taking the role of Bernie and planting the seed in Leroy’s brain to teach himself the tuba and become a famous tuba-playing donkey. It’s not quite “Standard Rich & Famous Contract” material, but hey, you gotta start somewhere.
Doc Hopper and the Robbers
The Muppet Musicians of Bremen features four human characters, each of whom seem to represent an innate flaw in humanity: Mordecai Sledge’s anger, Farmer Lardpork’s gluttony, Mean Floyd’s superstition, and Caleb Stiles’ greed. Do you know who else shares all these sensibilities? Doc Hopper. We see him go from angry to vengeful. We see his greed control his actions. And we see his comeuppance come from his crippling fear in the climax with Insta-Grow Animal. Truly, the robbers (mixed with a little Colonel Sanders) have inspired the essence of Doc Hopper.
Ever wonder why Kermit and Fozzie don’t just take the interstate highway to Hollywood? Sure, that’d make for a story unlikely to offer encounters with various lady pigs and piano-playing dogs. But also, keeping the Studebaker to the backroads of the American South makes for a much more visually interesting film, and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen did it first, following Leroy’s donkey cart filled with his animal pals and their musical instruments riding down the dirt-covered streets of Louisiana. It makes you wonder if they’re some of the same roads that Fozzie would later drive down (after they were paved with cement, of course).
A Pig That Goes Bananas
The climax of Bremen takes place in a hidden cabin occupied by the four thieves. Our animal heroes bust in and take advantage of the chaos to drive the humans out. Visually, it’s shockingly similar to the scene in The Muppet Movie when Miss Piggy breaks from Mel Brooks’ restraints and beats the tar out of her captors. Even the way the goons dress look similar to those of Sledge, Lardpork, and Floyd. Is it possible that the titular musicians sent the robbers running, and then they found work as hired guns for Doc Hopper?
Making Millions of People Happy
The final similarity between these two productions is at their cores. Why do all of these talking animals want to pursue their careers in the arts so badly? It’s not for money, and it’s not just for survival – it’s to bring joy to those they can reach. For the Bremen gang, they dream of playing their music for a happy nuclear family. For Kermit the Frog and Company, they want to make millions of people happy. The dreams are the same, just in different scales.
So there you have it. Without The Muppet Musicians of Bremen would we have The Muppet Movie?? I mean, probably. But who cares! Look at all those similarities! It’s like getting a secret prequel to our favorite movie without all the unnecessary Easter eggs.
Happy 50th anniversary, Bremen!
Click here to learn to play the tuba on the ToughPigs forum!
by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com