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Kermit the Frog stars in his own movie prequel

Sunday, August 18, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Muppet movies haven't been the same since the death of Muppet creator Jim Henson, but "Kermit's Swamp Years" points the franchise in the right direction.

TV Review
"Kermit's Swamp Years"
When: 6:30 tonight on Starz!
Starring: Steve Whitmire as Kermit the Frog.

A prequel to "The Muppet Movie," this new 80-minute film premiering today on Starz! - out on home video Sept. 3 for $19.95 VHS; $27.96 DVD - features a young Kermit (performed by Steve Whitmire) embarking on his first adventure outside his native swamp.

It begins with present-day Kermit riding a motorized scooter along a dirt road (an homage to Kermit setting out from the swamp on a bicycle in "The Muppet Movie"), which sets the right visual tone.

Part of the joy of watching the Muppets is seeing them in natural settings. Too often the recent films have been filmed on soundstages, making the Muppets look like ordinary puppets. Sending them out into the real world adds to their charm and believability.

Kermit and his friends - Croaker (Bill Barretta) and the timid toad Goggles (Joseph Mazzarino) - consider venturing out of the swamp, but Goggles is reluctant.

"Adventures make me gassy," he complains.

Instead, they go bobbing for stink bugs, dine on centipede and barley soup, and evade capture by an over-the-top-evil human doctor (John Hostetter).

Ultimately, Kermit and Croaker are forced to leave the swamp to rescue Goggles and bullying bullfrog Blotch (John Kennedy), who are captured by a well-meaning pet shop owner. Kermit gets help from Pilgrim (Cree Summer), an excitable dog, who shepherds the swamp creatures into civilization.

"Swamp Years" begins slowly, but once Kermit hits the road, the pace picks up. Directed by David Gumpel and written by Mazzarino and Jim Lewis, "Swamp Years" has the standard Muppet humor, giving recognizable human traits to its animal puppet characters.

"You have the strength of 10 bullfrogs and I have the strength of a small paramecium," Goggles complains at one point.

What's nicest about "Swamp Years" is that it includes echoes from Muppet lore. Arnie the alligator was in "The Muppet Movie," there's a reference to Henson himself, a punk-pop version of "The Rainbow Connection" (by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes) plays on the soundtrack and grumpy old men Statler (voice of Dave Golez) and Waldorf (Jerry Nelson) have a cameo. With these small but welcome touches, "Swamp Years" has a classic Muppet feel.

The film also adds to Kermit's background as we see him enthralled by his first trip to a movie theater. It sets the stage for a cinematic moment in the film's climax and sets up Kermit's motivation in "The Muppet Movie." It may sound goofy to discuss character motivation and puppets, but that's what sets the Muppets apart. They're fully realized characters, more so than the humans who often surround them in their films.

The film includes music by Joe Carroll and Peter Thom, but there's not enough of it to be memorable. And there's only one big musical number, a hallmark of Henson's work.

"Kermit's Swamp Years" isn't better than any of the Muppet movies made before Henson's death, but it signals hope for a brighter future for the funny, furry franchise.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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