Here at Tough Pigs, we’ve covered nearly every Christmas special Jim Henson and/or the Muppets ever made. But most of the non-holiday-related specials have been neglected until now. Each week, I’m joined by another Tough Pigs writer to watch a classic Muppet special that has nothing to do with Christmas.
Anthony Strand: This week, we’re watching 1971’s The Frog Prince, the third and final entry in a loose trilogy of fairy-tale themed specials (after Tales of the Tinkerdee and Hey Cinderella). Joining me to talk about it is Roz Strand, a person who has the same last name as me because we’re married. Thanks for watching The Frog Prince with me, Roz!
Roz Strand: You’re welcome, sweetie! This really is one of my favorite older Muppet specials, and I do love fairy tales.
Anthony: And this one sticks a lot closer to the traditional story than Hey Cinderella did. That one had some subversive twists, but here – Robin has been turned into a frog, and he wants to meet a princess to kiss him and turn him back. That’s pretty much what happens.
Roz: There’s so much more! There’s a witch who seems to be overrunning the kingdom, not only turning princes into frog, but also enchanting poor young princesses with language impairments. Plus duping well-meaning kings!
Roz: You just love her, even though she’s ugly as sin.
Anthony: But beautiful’s out, ugly’s in! Anyway, Taminella is great. She’s not quite as anarchic here as she was in the earlier special, but she’s still a lot of fun.
Roz: It seems like she transitions during this show though. In a flashback, she just runs wildly into the king and makes up a plan on the fly to take over the kingdom. It’s almost as if she forgets about Robin. She enchanted him, and then “Oh hey, I forgot. I’m going to do this other thing.” Until, all of a sudden, “Look, there’s a frog with the princess I enchanted. He looks familiar.” Must have been one of those two worlds combining moments for her.
Anthony: That’s true, she is still engaging in all manner of crazy schemes, but she’s much closer to a typical fairy tale witch in this one. That has a lot to do with the tone of this special – if she suddenly dressed up as Santa Claus here, it would feel out of place. The whole production is much more grounded, so she adapts along with it. She’s not in an extended Sam & Friends sketch anymore.
That said, her enchantment of Melora is the biggest change from the classic fairy tale. As far as I know, “the princess switches her words around” is a new part of the story.
Roz: That’s true, but there are a lot of changes. The princess in the original Grimm’s version was actually the evil character in the story. While the frog does retrieve her golden ball as she asked him to (which also happens here), she runs off before becoming his friend. It’s the king that makes the princess befriend the frog and even eat at her table (which also happens in this movie) and sleep in her bed –
Anthony: Which does *not*.
Roz: In fact, she gets so mad at the frog that she hurls him against a wall, and that’s when he turns into a prince. This special follows the classic – if you’ll let me use this phrase – Disneyfied version in which she kisses him to turn him into a prince. But you can’t begrudge Jim Henson for that. Most Grimm’s fairy tales are changed from their violent origins to something sweeter.
But the Muppets manage to get violence back into it through the character of Sweetums.
Anthony: Sweetums, who makes his first appearance here as Taminella’s right-hand man. They have a relationship that’s reminiscent of Charlie the ogre in Tinkerdee – the biggest difference, of course, is that Charlie was just bare legs and/or arm, while Sweetums is an enormous full-body puppet.
Roz: Since this is Sweetums’ first appearance, I guess this is where he got his name. It never made sense to me until I realized that that’s probably just one of Taminella’s pet names for him, but it’s the one that stuck. He could just as easily be called Bunnykins or Cuddlekins.
Anthony: Cuddlekins not name. Cuddlekins job. Also, he’s explicitly said to be an ogre here, unlike the more general monster he would be later.
Roz: I think the difference between an ogre and a monster is that an ogre has glowing eyes.
Anthony: And apparently an ogre is a lot meaner. He’s an actual villain here, who tries his hardest to capture and eat Robin.
Roz: And Kermit! He actually carries out some pretty heavy destruction for a low-budget Muppet special. You can tell that Jim Henson and his company had made a little bit more money since Hey Cinderella, because they spend it on things they can smash – the dungeon is a pretty large set. Had they used a set that large before?
Anthony: Hmm. Maybe Cosmo Scam’s lair in the Great Santa Claus Switch, which was made right before this.
Roz: Maybe, but Sweetums is running around at full height! It gives the impression that he’s actually in a large castle and, again, breaking everything.
Anthony: Yeah, it looks great. That’s an exciting sequence, for sure. Another really impressive bit of staging occurs when all of the frogs attack Taminella at the end.
Roz: I love that bit. The frogs are so colorful, it’s fun to check out which one is hopping on which part of Taminella, and they even give a shoutout to the original story, because she hurls a frog against a wall. The blue one.
Anthony: And speaking of frogs, we haven’t really talked much about our hero, Sir Robin the Brave. This is, of course, Kermit’s future nephew in his debut performance. Here, they aren’t related at all. Kermit’s an actual frog who takes the transformed prince under his flipper and teaches him how to be a frog. But Robin is basically the same character we’d know later – it’s Jerry Nelson using the same voice and the same demeanor.
Roz: Absolutely. He could be singing “Sir Robin the Brave” or “Halfway Down the Stairs,” but he’s 100% Robin already.
Anthony: And since we’re used to him being a little kid, it’s kind of odd to see him as a romantic lead here. But Jerry Nelson’s amazing singing voice really helps. My favorite song in this special is the duet version of “Ni’m Ineteen” by Robin and Princess Melora. That song does an amazing job of selling the growing bond between the two characters.
Roz: There’s just something unbelievable about falling in love with Robin, but when they hold each other’s hands and sway slowly, with Robin in a little basket, it seems almost possible. But that’s just because of the song, which is as much fun to try to sing as it is to listen to.
Roz: Do we own that?
Anthony: We don’t.
Roz: That’s a shame.
Anthony: Maybe someday! Anyway, the songs have music by Joe Raposo and lyrics by Jerry Juhl. Other than “Ni’m Ineteen,” do you have any favorites?
Roz: I guess my favorite is Robin’s lullaby to Sweetums.
Anthony: To me, that songs feels a lot like something Gobo could sing to a Gorg.
Roz: That’s true! Though Sweetums is a little dumber than Junior.
Anthony: You think?
Roz: Yes! Junior can put together a full, complete sentence! Anyway, I love corny jokes, and that song is a hilarious one about how he can sweetly sing this big hulking brute to bedtime just like I sing our daughter to sleep.
Anthony: But with a lot more insults incorporated into the lyrics.
Roz: Yes, I tend not to insult Iris as she goes to bed. Or ever.
Anthony: That’s accurate!
Another favorite song of mine is “Frogs,” which is the one that goes “It’s ever so jolly just being a frog.” It has basically the same message as “Under the Sea” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid – being human is boring and terrible, so you should stay in the water and have fun.
Roz: This is kind of a big deal for Kermit. In Hey Cinderella, there are a ton of jokes at his expense about being a frog. But here, he has a whole song defending how great it is to be a frog. It’s one of those moments where you can see people falling in love with frogs because of Kermit.
Anthony: Also it has all those great marionette effects with the frogs hopping around.
Roz: And the transitions from the marionettes to the hand puppets, which look almost seamless.
One thing on the soundtrack that blew me away after watching it a few times – During the scene at the dinner table, the background music is actually “Bein’ Green.” It’s played by just a string quartet, so it’s so soft but it really fits the meaning of the whole scene.
Anthony: And the meaning of that scene is mostly “Have a popover, froggy!” Which, if you and I were to make a Strand household list of the top ten Muppet moments, that would be on it for sure. We say that to each other more often than readers might think possible.
Roz: It also helps that we are obsessed with making popovers. We can’t watch this movie without making popovers.
But also, the dinner sequence is key to the story because it’s where all of the characters really intermingle and we see all of their different relationships at once – Melora’s growing bond with Robin, their plan to expose Taminella, King Rupert’s blind faith in Taminella, and his ignorance of Melora’s pleas for help. In between the jokes, there’s a whole lot of deft character work going on here.
Roz: Taminella’s barely hanging on by a thread, but she’s still cracking jokes. Rupert is more confused than ever, and Melora and Robin are so persistent, and so brave, and so fruitless in their efforts. And Kermit’s in the corner getting drunk.
Anthony: Melora and Robin finally succeed just before the coronation (and Featherstone calls for an anthem of joy from the peasants). Melora’s curse is lifted, which brings me to another thing I wanted to talk about – our two main human actors. I really like Trudy Young’s performance as Melora, but she seems oddly stiff at the end once she isn’t cursed with backwards speech.
Roz: I didn’t think of it like that, but it’s true. She’s much more natural when she can’t speak English.
Anthony: I actually have a theory about that. At the end, it kind of seems like she’s over-enunciating all of her lines. She kind of does that the whole time, but it makes a lot more sense when she’s trying to get her knuckleheaded dad to understand her. After all, it shouldn’t be that hard for him to decipher “She’s sot your nister!”
Besides that last scene, though, she’s one of these great humans who knows how to work with Muppets. She looks them in the eye, she shows real anger towards Taminella. She actually acts instead of depending on the Muppets to carry the scene.
Prince Robin, though, is nothing to write home about.
Anthony: Yeah, Gordon Thomson only has a few scenes as the human Robin, but in them he’s a bland pile of nothing. Jerry Nelson is so loveable –
Roz: And a much better singer.
Anthony: – that it almost seems like a shame that he has to turn back into a human. And as for the singing, it’s so different that it makes him seem like a completely different. I wonder if they considered having Jerry Nelson dub the voice. It might have seemed ridiculous, which I guess is why they didn’t, but it really would have helped make me care about Prince Robin.
Heck, I wish they’d just cast Jerry Nelson as the prince, beard and all.
Anthony: . . . That’s an excellent point. Anyway, Jerry Nelson is great and this Gordon guy is boring. Hey, Gordon – what if Roscoe Orman played Prince Robin? That would also have been better!
Roz: I think we’re getting off track here, love.
Anthony: Then let’s move on to our final thoughts. Anything else you want to say about the Frog Prince?
Roz: Yes. Heather Henson as baby Prince Kermit is adorable.
Anthony: She really is!
Roz: Also, I love that you can see the Muppeteers pushing the limits here. Things are bigger, there’s more music, same amount of jokes, but they’re diversifying their performances.
Anthony: Yeah, this feels like an important step towards the Muppet movies. It’s still hilarious, but the story has actual weight to it. It isn’t as zany as the first two specials, but it doesn’t need to be. It spends its time making us care about the characters and impressing us with big songs and set pieces.
Roz: The climax isn’t just another joke, it’s a conclusion to the story. And even though it’s an old story, the Muppets told it well.
Anthony: Enthusiastic cheer!
Next: Matt Wilkie joins me for a trip to a very different swamp in The Muppet Musicians of Bremen.
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by Anthony Strand and Roz Strand