Judge Erich Asperschlager doesn't look like a Presbyterian to me.
Our review of The Muppet Movie, published July 9th, 2001, is also available.
"Life's like a movie, write your own ending."
With the Muppet revival poised to redefine Jim Henson's characters for the current generation, there's no better time to re-release their original big screen adventure. The Muppet Movie: The Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition brings the classic film to Blu-ray, and it's nearly the package fans have been waiting for.
Facts of the Case
The Muppet Movie is the film-within-a-film story of Kermit, a frog with dreams of stardom who leaves the safety of his swamp home and sets out for Hollywood, joined along the way by fuzzy fellow dreamers Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem—and pursued by the devious Doc Hopper, a businessman who'll stop at nothing to make Kermit the spokesman for his chain of Frog Leg restaurants.
Jim Henson's death in 1990 is my first memory of feeling sad about someone I didn't know dying. Although his son, Brian has done an admirable job carrying on the family name, things haven't been the same since Henson's untimely death. That's especially true when it comes to Muppet movies. There are people who swear by Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, but for me the essential films are the first three. I love them all. As a kid, I probably watched The Great Muppet Caper most, but the older I get the more convinced I am that the original is best. The Muppet Movie is more than goofy fun. It proved that a puppet show could break free of cramped TV sets, and be for more than just kids.
The film goes big from the beginning, with a helicopter shot high above the Everglades that moves in through the clouds, trees, and water to a lone frog sitting on a log, playing the banjo. It's a bold shot, even beyond the logistical nightmare of hiding Henson underwater—the first of many bold "how'd they do that?" shots, including Muppets riding bicycles and driving cars. The gusto with which Henson and director Jim Frawley throw themselves into complicated setups is especially impressive considering the effects are all practical. The effort is worth it. Putting the Muppets in our world makes them feel real, with the same fears, struggles, and dreams as their flesh and blood audience.
Most kids' movies are content to entertain with bright colors and quick edits. Characters exist as plot devices and so we know where the fart noises are coming from. It's rare to find real emotional resonance in movies aimed at a younger audience. The Muppet Movie isn't just for kids, but the fact that Henson and crew achieve broad appeal without sacrificing intelligence or depth is remarkable. Plenty of kids' movies pay lip service to the idea of not giving up on your dreams, but almost none of them back up that idea with real danger and heartache. In The Muppet Movie, Kermit and his friends suffer setbacks. They doubt themselves and each other. They face a ruthless villain in the form of Charles Durning's homicidal Doc Hopper. By the time Orson Welles makes his cameo appearance to hand them "the standard Rich & Famous contract" it doesn't matter that the Muppets never actually audition. They've been earning it all movie.
It's hard to talk about what makes The Muppet Movie great without it turning into a laundry list of memorable jokes, music, and famous faces. The amount of onscreen talent assembled for this movie is insane, a happy byproduct of the '70s—the only time in history when then-current performers like Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks, and Elliott Gould could rub shoulders with Golden Age comedians like Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and Edgar Bergen (who passed away during production and to whom the film is dedicated). The new Muppet movies make a big show out of announcing celebrity cameos, but it's all to chase The Muppet Movie's one-of-a-kind variety show.
The guest performers are impressive, but the movie works because of the fuzzy cast. Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, and the rest of the Muppeteers scale up their performances to fit the size and scope of the film, standing toe to fuzzy toe with the film's human actors. The Muppets are asked to run the emotional gamut from silly to serious. Most kids' movies get the first of those right, but miss the boat on the latter. The shifting tones are guided not only by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl's sharp screenplay, but a killer soundtrack composed by Paul Williams and lyricist Kenny Ascher. The music in the film strikes the same kid-adult balance, wrapping catchy tunes around mature ideas in songs like "Rainbow Connection"—every bit as good, in my opinion, as cinema's other big rainbow song—upbeat numbers "Movin' Right Along" and "Can You Picture That?," the surprisingly adult-themed "I Hope That Somethin' Better Comes Along," and the achingly beautiful "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday"—a ballad that's somehow more effective coming out of a blue weirdo's beak.
The Muppet Movie is an unassailable masterpiece—a movie that transcends demographics and hits the funny bone as hard as it tugs at the heart. It deserves better than the shoddy home video treatment it's gotten in the past. This Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition isn't the definitive hi-def release it could be, but it's definitely a step up. The 1.85:1 1080p transfer is filmic to a fault—with a grain structure that sometimes threatens to overtake the image. The first shot for instance, outside the Worldwide Studio lot, is a blocky mess. Get past some of the rough shots (which likely have more to do with source material limitations than a shoddy transfer) and you'll find scenes with sharp textured detail and rich color. If inconsistent visual quality is the tradeoff for little to no digital tinkering, then bring on the grain. I don't know if this is the best The Muppet Movie will ever look, but it's good enough for now. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is schizophrenic, too, muddy in spots and generally quieter during dialogue than musical numbers. It's a solid enough mix, worth it for the added oomph given to the Williams-Ascher tunes.
Audio-visual hiccups aside, the thing that holds the Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition back from true Muppet glory are the middling bonus features. There's more here than the 2001 flipper DVD, but not nearly enough to close the home video book on The Muppet Movie:
• "Frog-e-Oke Singalong" (8:39): "Rainbow Connection," "Moving Right Along," "Can You Picture That?"
• Intermission: If you pause the movie, you have five seconds before this intermission, which is identical to the singalong above, except you can't fast-forward or skip around.
• "Jim Frawley's Extended Camera Test" (17:53): The longest and most interesting bonus feature is this nearly 20-minute collection of test footage, shot by the director in England with Kermit, Fozzie, Sweetums, and Miss Piggy ad-libbing outdoors, in trees, and in cars.
• "Doc Hopper's Commercial" (1:03): The full ad without cutaways to Kermit and Fozzie's reactions.
• Original Trailers (5:46): The shorter "Teaser Trailer" and the much longer "Original Theatrical Trailer," which spoils almost everything in the film and includes the line "[Kermit] never parted with his dream, or his friends, or his legs."
• "Pepe Profiles Kermit: A Frog's Life" (6:34): In this modern promo, the spicy shrimp celebrates the Muppet leader. Includes talking head segments with Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, and more.
• Digital Copy
The Muppet Movie: The Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition might not be a huge step up from previous DVDs but it's a fine hi-def release for a catalog title, if not for one of the all-time best family movies. Buy this to hook your kids while we wait for the inevitable Criterion 4K restoration. Hey, a Muppet fan can dream.
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