The dazzling ingenuity behind a simple bicycle ride in The Muppet Movie
In Objet d'Art, we take a look at the use of inanimate objects in film and music and their changing meanings, aesthetics and emotional purpose in different contexts.
Jim Henson’s Muppets have always conjured entertainment through imagination, ever since they began on television in 1976. Few sights demand the suspension of disbelief like a bright green felt frog stage-managing puppets in a variety show, but once you get over the hurdle of believing that such an absurd situation is plausible in the first place no amount of impossibility can break you out of it. With masterful puppetry and characterisation bringing these creatures to life so believably, technicalities like visible rods and the fact that Muppets are always shot from the waist up easily sink behind the fog of imagination, as does the ever-present inkling that just out of frame stands a human puppeteer.
In fact, for the Muppets, the direct connection between puppet and puppeteer is not only not concealed, it is celebrated. From the earliest days of the Muppets Jim Henson let his audience peek behind the curtain and see that puppetry is a craft, not magic. It is rare in other kid-friendly entertainment media, such as animation, to break the fourth wall as casually and unashamedly as the Muppets did (with a few exceptions), but a felt puppet would never really feel entirely congruous interacting with humans on a live-action stage anyway. The heavy lifting of constructing a believable world is left entirely to the audience’s imagination — Kermit is a well-rounded personality, but it still requires some willful ignorance to buy that he, a small frog who speaks English and is a surprisingly competent television host, exists in the real world and interacts with real people.
So when a simple bicycle ride occurs ten minutes into The Muppet Movie, Jim Henson’s first feature-length film, it comes as a genuine shock. Here is Kermit — a character we pretend is real but know deep down is controlled by Henson, constrained as all muppets are — flawlessly interacting with an object so much a part of the real world, without any of the usual cheats and tricks employed to hide the human element. No waist-up shots here (and no crude chroma key like a later scene). You see Kermit’s full body, you see his feet turning the pedals, and you see nothing else. It’s hard now to convey just how innovative this sequence was, but the opening line of Roger Ebert’s review for The Chicago Sun-Times gives you an idea:
“Jolson sang, Barrymore spoke, Garbo laughed, and now Kermit the Frog rides a bicycle.”
But besides its technical brilliance, what’s really remarkable about Kermit’s ride is just how unremarkable the scene is when viewed in the context of the film. It calls almost no attention to its own most complex visual effect. Kermit needs to travel from his swamp home to Hollywood, so he hops on his bicycle and begins riding, as any regular character in a live-action film might do. As Scott Jordan Harris put it in Rosebud Sleds and Horses’ Heads: 50 of Film’s Most Evocative Objects: “The bicycle is not in itself extraordinary and that is the point of it: it is a bicycle you or I might ride that, through the magic of the movies, is being ridden by a Muppet. Like all the most impressive magic tricks, this illusion occurs in plain sight.”
The Muppets would take the bicycle riding technique even further — to astronomical complexity — in The Great Muppet Caper, but Kermit’s short cruise at the beginning of The Muppet Movie speaks purely to Jim Henson’s attitude towards imagination and believability. Who else would design such an unjustifiably complicated stunt to sell the illusion that a frog might ride a bicycle?