A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 527 – Hey Cinderella! and The Frog Prince

Hey Cinderella! and The Frog Prince – August 9th, 2011

Back when we went through our stashed VHS collection, we discovered a few items that were too short to really be seen as movies but they weren’t television series and they were things we really wanted to be able to include. We’ve done one of those pairs already and tonight we thought we’d do this one. Two Muppet specials, from early on in Muppet history, both re-tellings of classic fairy tales. We thought they went together quite nicely even if they weren’t made to be shown together. As with other times we’ve done two-for-one nights, I’m going to start by addressing them separately.

Hey Cinderella!

According to the dates on the Muppet Wiki, the original airing of this actually pre-dates the original airing of Sesame Street. Stop and think about that for a moment and consider what it means for a Muppet special. The ones we see now, and have seen in the past couple of decades, are rife with familiar characters or Muppets dressed in new trappings to be something slightly different. There are in jokes referring to The Muppet Show or to Sesame Street and we’re used to all of that. But this doesn’t have those. In fact, it only has a single familiar face: Kermit. Who, according to the trivia I read, had not been identified as a frog prior to this.

It’s easy to see how Kermit became such a fixture and focal point for the Muppets. As a character he’s got a good sense of dead-pan humor and he’s likable and he’s cute and as a plot tool he narrates and serves as a lynch pin in a few places and he breaks the fourth wall to involve us, the audience, in the story. Here we have Cinderella, a familiar story that doesn’t deviate all that far from its roots. Just enough for a little bit of fun.

Cinderella, as usual, lives with her wicked step-mother and her two step-sisters. The step-sisters are Muppets, but the step-mother is not. There’s a very palpable kids’ theater feel to the step-mother. It’s the sort of acting that I think feels a little more comfortable and at home on a stage than on a screen. But as she was starring with puppets and performing an adapted fairy tale and the Muppets weren’t what they are now in terms of pulling in movie actors for the parts, it does make a lot of sense that the acting would feel that way. Cinderella’s step-mother often utters the titular “Hey Cinderella!” and you can tell it was meant to be a humorous running joke sort of thing, but I’ve got to admit, it’s always felt a little flat to me. Like the intent was to make a play on something and it never quite materialized.

Anyhow, Cinderella’s step-mother gives her all sorts of horrible jobs to do, including ridiculous ones, like scrubbing a spotless floor, which she is first to get dirty to justify the order to scrub it. So out Cinderella goes with her dog to find a muddy garden to tromp around in. Here the story departs a little so we can have Cinderella and Prince Arthur Charming meet in the garden. Arthur tells Cinderella he’s a gardener so she won’t get stuck up because she’s met a prince and they agree to meet at the ball the king is throwing and inviting everyone (but frogs) to. They’ll identify each other by wearing the same flower! How clever! How ingenious! Nothing could go wrong with that plan! So of course it does, and since Cinderella doesn’t know Arthur is the prince, when she ends up dancing with him at the ball they don’t know each other. You have to suspend your disbelief quite a lot here, and just accept that these two are genuinely clueless. And eventually we get the typical glass slipper routine, but on its side just a little since the slipper left behind got smashed and the slipper Cinderella kept got buried by her dog.

It’s a cute little story with just enough twists for fun without taking the fairy tale too far from where it started. Personally, I don’t mind a lot of departure and from what I can tell from work, kids don’t either. Telling Cinderella with dinosaurs or cowboys or through the eyes of her much more sensible sister, Edna (who wears loafers, not glass slippers) can be fun. But that wasn’t the intent here. The intent was to tell the story with a few changes made to make it a Muppet version, like the fairy godmother’s lounge act (and I do have to wonder if Bernadette Peters watched this before doing Into the Woods, because the fair godmother here is eerily Peters-like). Had this been made ten years later, I’m sure it would have been full of weirdness but the giant monster, Splurge, and his obsession with radishes are a hint to where the Muppets are headed.

The Frog Prince

This fairy tale was released after Hey Cinderella! and it’s obviously a little more polished. The puppets are more involved and the whole thing just feels like it was less of a trial run. Obviously, there are changes made to the story, but this time they’re less for humor and more for plot, which I find interesting now that I’m thinking about it. To pad out the original story, which when you consider it really isn’t that complicated, we’re given a villain in the form of the princess’ evil Aunt Taminella.

Now, as should be expected, the princess is played by a human actress, but the vast majority of the rest of the cast are Muppets. There’s Kermit, of course, narrating the story and guiding us along. There’s the king, which is the same puppet used for the king in Hey Cinderella! and which is one I got to see in person at a Jim Henson exhibit last year. And really, there’s something about seeing those puppets in person that makes them all the more impressive. Aunt Taminella is a similar puppet to the king (they’re Rolf/Swedish Chef types in general, though Taminella moves around more) and then there are a bunch of frogs. Obviously, this being a story about a frog. And the frog at the center of it isn’t, as one might think, Kermit. It’s his nephew, Robin. Except here he’s not Kermit’s nephew. He’s a knight named Sir Robin the Brave (which made me think of Monty Python every time he said it) who was cursed by an evil witch. Three guesses as to who that evil witch is.

Taminella’s been up to quite a bit of trouble here, cursing Sir Robin, tricking the king into thinking she’s his long lost sister, cursing the princess to only speak in Spoonerisms and other nonsense, all to gain control of the kingdom. I do love the scene where she convinces the king she’s his sister. This king character is all gruff bluster and is none too bright and regardless of the name change, he’s the same basic character in this as he is in Hey Cinderella and I do enjoy him. So anyhow, it’s up to Sir Robin the Frog to convince the princess to take him in and give him a kiss and break the curse on the princess herself before Taminella becomes queen.

It’s a cute little adaptation of a classic story, much like Hey Cinderella! was. The Muppet characters are all nicely realized and I don’t even mind the songs. The human actors are just fine, especially given that they were playing against frogs and purple witches and the like. Also? This movie has Sweetums! And I do so adore Sweetums. It’s a good show of just how much more polished the Muppets had become in a short span of time.

August 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Hey Cinderella and The Frog Prince

August 9, 2011

Hey Cinderella / The Frog Prince

Tonight represents another of our double headers. We did this for a couple short John Cleese movies a little while ago, and for a couple Muppet Christmas specials last year. With these shorter features in our collection there was a danger of overlooking them, so I’m so delighted that we’ve found a way to fit them into the project.

These two movies fit naturally together. They’re both re-tellings of familiar fairy tales from early in Jim Henson’s career, one from 1969 and one from 1971. Both feature Featherstone and the King and Kermit the Frog. Last summer Amanda and I went out to Lexington, MA to see a traveling exhibit of Jim Henson memorabilia and one of the things I really enjoyed seeing there was the wide collection of sketches by Jim of various Muppets, including the Muppetland King and Featherstone. They’re such a classic Henson pairing. The tall, thin uptight one and the squat playful one.

What impresses me most about these two specials is how quintessentially Muppetty they are. This was years before The Muppet Show, years before Sesame Street. Jim has already established his sense of humor and his shtick for the characters. I’m particularly happy to see the first ever appearance by Sweetums, always one of my favorite full body Muppets in the second feature. And of course it’s great to see Kermit already taking his role as the lone voice of sanity in a world of silliness.

The first feature, Cinderella, is full of corny humor. The twist to this story is that in this version Cinderella and Prince Charming meet before the ball, but Cinderella doesn’t realize that he’s the prince because she meets him in a garden while he’s talking to his friend the frog. The prince is desperate to find a girl who doesn’t know who he is, and in Cinderella he has that girl. She doesn’t recognize him from the money and knows him only as Arthur. So they agree to meet each other at the masque ball the Prince’s father is throwing for his birthday.

It has to be said that the two of them do deserve each other. They’re both affably dim for the most part, though Cinderella seems to be the more intelligent of the two. The prince in particular doesn’t have a single thought in his handsome little head.

I think it’s in the juxtaposition of familiar tropes that this movie gets its charm. There’s the tale of Cinderella attending the ball, but there’s also a sort of corny sit-com feel as well, especially when Cinderella’s fairy god-mother shows up after it has been established that she isn’t a great magician. Indeed she’s been working as a kind of lame lounge act, and has been completely failing to change a pumpkin into a coach. Her ugly step-sisters, in a very Sesame Street scene, decide that the best gift for the king is a pair of old socks (his response? “I already have a pair of old socks!”) Then there’s Splurge, the giant radish-loving purple monster. He’s a friend of Kermit’s and although he’s not a crucial part of the story he provides a lot of great fun.

This first feature is mostly one-liners and silly jokes. Characters break the fourth wall and talk to the camera. Even though it’s set in a magical kingdom there’s a modern day feel to it at times. Well, a late sixties feel at least. By contrast the second one feels more like a musical. It features a number of fun songs and a sort of fantasy adventure feel to it. Of course since it’s The Frog Prince it also involves an awful lot of frogs.

Surprisingly it turns out that Kermit is not the Frog Prince, instead it is Robin, who is actually a knight known as Sir Robin the Brave who has been enscorcelled to be a frog by an evil witch. Meanwhile the lovely young princess Melora has been cursed so that she can only talk in spoonerisms. This is so that her father the king cannot discover what she knows: that his long-lost sister is not in fact his sister at all but is the same evil witch that changed Robin. Her pet is an ogre that lives in the dungeons beneath the castle that she affectionately calls Sweetums.

It’s strange to see Sweetums portrayed as a dim witted bad-guy here. He’s always been a big lumbering hulk, but basically kind-hearted. I suppose he is that here too… he just wants to eat a frog for some reason.

I was somewhat surprised to discover that the catchy songs in this movie were not the work of cool little person and unofficial Muppet Paul WIlliams. They have such a familiar feel to them. Instead it is Joe Raposo who created fun ditties like the lullaby for Sweetums and the fantastic ode to being a frog sung by Kermit and his frog companions.

In spite of the fact that these movies were made way back at the start of the seventies they’ve aged spectacularly well. Muppets are, of course, ageless. That’s part of their appeal. The only slightly dated part is the appearance of the human co-stars and it’s pretty easy to overlook that. I don’t watch these movies for the humans anyhow. I’m in it for the fun, for the felt, for the Muppety joy of it. It’s always a pleasure to throw these in for another viewing.

August 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment