It's been tough, watching the Muppets lately.

Don't get me wrong. I always love seeing them, even if they're shilling Pizza Hut or lamely schticking it up with Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. When they do a movie, I' m there. I saw "Muppets From Space" at the theater in its initial release, something I'm sure only die-hard Muppet fans can honestly claim. Heck, I even did the same for "Elmo in Grouchland." (I hoped it'd exhibit the same sense of pure Muppet style that its predecessor, "Follow that Bird," had in spades. It didn't. Damn Elmo. Damn him to hell!)

It's just that, since the death of Jim Henson, Muppet projects have been spotty at best. Sure, you can still rely on the Muppets for bizarre gags and belly laughs. Anyone who's seen "Muppet Treasure Island" won't soon forget the classic "Cabin Fever" musical sequence, in which joke after joke piles on top of each other in a quintessential outpouring of Muppet zaniness. "I've got it toooooo!

But the heart of the characters, that essential emotional component that always made them more than just a comedy act, has been misplaced. It hasn't helped that in the years since we lost Henson, other leading lights in the Muppet pantheon have moved on. Frank Oz has been occasionally involved, but he's busy with a flourishing career as a film director. Muppeteer Eric Jacobson has inherited Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy for the forseeable future. Jerry Juhl, one of the great Muppet writers, hasn 't been involved in their last two projects, their Christmas film of 2002 and the upcoming Wizard of Oz adaptation for ABC.

I still love the Muppets and I hold out hope for their future with Disney. I hope they're not reduced to doing wacky parodies; I hope they can regain their status as the preeminent felt performers of all time. Until then, I'll still check out everything they do , and I'll watch my DVD of "The Muppet Movie" on a regular basis. For in that film , which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, the Muppets realized their full potential. "The Muppet Movie" allowed Jim Henson's unique, unforgettable blend of emotional punch, endearing characters, and hilarious jokes to find its greatest expression.

"The Muppet Movie" acts as an origin story for the Muppets we've come to know and love through their weekly antics on "The Muppet Show." It's a film-within-a-film, as we open with the Muppets watching the Muppet film they've made about themselves. Right off the bat, we know we're not dealing with your typical kids movie; in fact, it 's a metacommentary on its own characters.

Kermit T. Frog is a simple amphibian in a quiet swamp with a single dream: To make it as an entertainer. He decides to embark on the adventure of a lifetime to pursue his dream, and heads off to Hollywood. Along the way, he meets all of the classic characters that will become Muppet legends: Fozzie Bear, the frustrated comedian whose loyalty to Kermit and their dream is unstoppable; Gonzo the Great, a crazy daredevil always searching for his next thrill; and of course Miss Piggy, an irrepressible diva with an unrequited love for Kermit.

As they make their way to California, the group is menaced by Doc Hopper, the crazy owner of a restaurant chain specializing in frog's legs. He wants Kermit for obvious reasons . As you might expect, Kermit and the gang defeat Doc Hopper, they make it to Hollywood , and Orson Welles (as Lew Lord, a powerful studio exec) orders his secretary to "draw up the standard rich and famous contract for Kermit and his friends." Then we get a great musical finale in which we watch the Muppets starting to film a film about their lives, in a film about their lives that's presented as a film they filmed about their lives. Yep, that's right. They're filming a film within a film within a film. Good grief, a running gag.

Before "The Muppet Movie," we knew the Muppets were funny, and we knew they had a heart. This film gave the Muppets a soul. It's there in the opening moments, that unforgettable long pan downward from the clouds to Kermit on a log, plucking out the opening notes to "Rainbow Connection" on his banjo. Who can see that and not immediately identify with Kermit, yearning to make something out of his life, holding a seemingly impossible dream close to his little froggie heart?

In that moment , we know we're dealing with something special. We'll get the Muppet zaniness we 've come to expect, but we'll get a lot more as well. We'll see all the bits we know from "The Muppet Show" fleshed out into full-blown characterizations. Knowing how desperately Fozzie wanted to be funny made it harder to laugh at him as he failed...until we realized he was capable of laughing at himself. Gonzo's wild behavior was explained by his outsider status, which made him yearn to know where he came from. All of the core Muppets stopped being just wacky characters who made us laugh ; they even stopped being puppets of felt and foam. They somehow became REAL.

That reality allows "The Muppet Movie" to get away with a lot of daring storytelling feats. Kermit can talk straight to the camera and deliver deadpan jokes. Stars we know and love can waltz onto the screen in hilarious cameos where their true identities are barely veiled by their characters. And the proceedings can be slowed to a magical stillness by a musical sequence in the desert, in which Gonzo explains, "I'm going to go back there someday."

That's probably my favorite moment in the movie, although "Rainbow Connection" is also pretty awesome . I like the Gonzo sequence better because it's such a perfect moment of revealing character, and it's such a bold, brilliant move to take us inside the head and heart of such a weird creature. It's my favorite testament to the storytelling genius of Jim Henson and his Muppet crew at the peak of their powers. Gonzo the Great could have spent the entire run of the Muppets being a one-joke castoff, the puppet equivalent of Kramer from "Seinfeld." Instead, we actually learn what this strange being is about. We get to know him, and we start to truly care about him.

It's safe to say that every Gonzo gag and plotline from that moment onward was influenced by that special song. It's even daring as a sheer movie moment; everything stops in the movie so Gonzo can tell us all where he's coming from. Find me any movie , animated or children's or otherwise, that values its characters so much that it will halt everything just to let you get to know one of them better. And it's not even the main character, just one of the supporting players. It's that boldness of vision that makes "The Muppet Movie" stand tall as one of the all-time greats .

"The Muppet Movie" is currently available on a decent single-disc DVD that features only one notable extra, some camera tests done to find out if a film depicting the Muppets in the "real world" was a viable effort. It's fun to watch Jim Henson and Frank Oz goofing around with the Muppets in a casual setting. Other than that, the disc is bare, and I pray to the DVD gods that we will see a full-blown special edition for this and all the Muppet movies sometime soon. Disney has missed the 25th anniversary of the flick, but maybe for the 30th in 2009? Or before then, just because?

"The Muppet Movie" will always hold a special place in my heart. I'm a dreamer, with seemingly impossible goals in the entertainment industry, so I always choke up and get a warm fuzzy when Kermit sings about how becoming an entertainer is something that he's supposed to be. I've had that feeling; I'm betting we all have at some moment , whether it comes when you find what you're meant to spend your life doing, or when you meet the person you're meant to spend your life with. It's a certainty of purpose, an absolute belief in the power of dreams to make us all better people ...or frogs, or pigs, or whatever Gonzo is. It's a special feeling, and it's special that "The Muppet Movie" can help us feel it

 

Matt Springer has been writing professionally about genre entertainment for the past five years and has worked full-time for such publications as the Official Buffy the Vampire Slayer Magazine, Cinescape, and Total Movie. He co-edits the genre criticism website Entertainment Geekly (http://www.entertainment-geekly.com). His first novel, Unconventional, is the tale of three geeks who spend a life-altering weekend at a convention; buy it online at South Side Press (http://www.southsidepress.net). He's currently working to become a sitcom writer.