The lovers, the dreamers, and me.
The afternoon I started watching The Muppet Movie for this review, I popped in the disc and plopped on the couch. As the movie started, tears began to roll down my cheeks. Now, The Muppet Movie is hardly what you’d call an emotional film; these were tears of a different kind: nostalgia. These were the same tears that flecked my cheeks on January 31, 1997 as I saw seeing the opening crawl of Star Wars on the big screen for the first time (unless you count when my parents say they took me to the theater during its original run, though I was only two at the time). When I was about ten years old, the Lane County Bookmobile would visit my neighborhood every two weeks. It was free, which was very important to my cash-strapped family. They also rented videotapes out for two-week stretches. Every so often, my sister and I would pick a movie to take home. One of them was The Muppet Movie, which we watched once a day for two weeks, much to our enjoyment and our mother’s consternation. After that kind of steady indoctrination, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that I still remember the movie quite well, and quite fondly. Hence the nostalgic tears.
The Muppet Movie is an origin picture, of sorts. It shows how Kermit the Frog was discovered in a bayou by a Hollywood agent, how Kermit set out for Hollywood, and how he met his Muppet friends along the way. Every piece of fiction needs its antagonist, and this movie provides it in the form of Doc Hopper, played with southern fried relish by Charles Durning. Doc Hopper runs a chain of restaurants specializing in French fried frog legs (never mind that French frying refers to a cooking technique, rather than any form of French cuisine), and he wants — nay, demands — that Kermit act as his spokesperson. (Say, why is it that advertisers insist on using animals as the mascots for their product? Do they think that people are too dumb to notice that Charlie Tuna is asking us to eat his brethren?)
Nostalgia is funny. I remembered The Muppet Movie being much funnier than it is. I recalled the songs being a little fresher. I used to be mesmerized by the puppetry and how astonishing it seemed that a frog could ride a bike or a bear could drive a car. Now…I maybe chuckled once or twice. I fast-forwarded past one or two musical numbers. The digital transfer is sharp enough to catch the rods and wires going to the puppets. The magic is gone…almost. The key to enjoying The Muppet Movie is how close you can come to your inner child. If you can find it within you to give in to the film, suspend your disbelief, and practice judicious use of the fast-forward button during a few of the musical numbers (particularly the one that shows the love-at-first-sight between Kermit and Miss Piggy), you’ll find it a fun ride.
The Muppet Movie is told in flashback, as if it were a movie within a movie. That gives an excuse to show all the Muppets gathered in a theater to watch the film. Also, like Blazing Saddles and other self-aware films, it gives a nod and wink to the audience. Particularly amusing is the scene where Kermit and Fozzie the Bear hand a copy of the screenplay to a group of Muppet hippie musicians. It fills them in on what has happened to that point. Later, when Kermit and company are stranded along the side of the road in the desert, the musicians show up because, according to the script, they’d need help at that point. Classic.
Humor also springs from the numerous celebrity cameos that spring up in the most unlikely places. My favorite, now and when I was a lad, is Steve Martin, who plays a snarky waiter. Others include Milton Berle, Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, the inimitable Orson Welles, and many others. Muppet fans will also enjoy Muppet cameos by Waldorf and Statler, the crusty old guys who find fault with everything.
The film itself may not be as revered as the Muppet characters themselves or the “Muppet Show” television series, but it’s surprising that Columbia didn’t go to more work or care to release The Muppet Movie on DVD. The movie itself is presented in both 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and pan & scan full frame, on opposite sides of the disc. The picture is very soft, to the point you think something might be wrong with your display device. There isn’t much noise or dust specks, but film grain is noticeable and colors are muted. Ick. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround. Double ick. The Dolby Digital track for all purposes is mono. The thin dialogue, and indeed nearly all the sound effects, emanates from the center channel. The front speakers get into the game occasionally, but I noticed little or no use of the rear channels.
Extras are pathetic. Most interesting is the camera test by director Jim Frawley, which tests the concept that the Muppet puppets could be filmed realistically in open environments. The “Muppetisms” advertised on the box are annoying 30-second snippets that I can’t even see a kid finding entertaining. The trailers are for other Columbia family friendly titles. Yawn.
The Muppet Movie is amusing in that I-can’t-help-but-smile-at-that sort of way. Young kids will likely find it more amusing than their parents, but adults may want to pursue it is for the nostalgia that comes with viewing things that brought you happiness as a kid. Columbia probably gave the video the best transfer possible, but the result is far from satisfying, the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is laughable, and the extras aren’t very special. Give it a rental and go from there.
I’m a little surprised that Disney didn’t release The Muppet Movie on DVD. The Mouse House assimilated Jim Henson Productions shortly after Jim Henson’s passing, but perhaps the ancillary rights to the films were owned by other parties.
The Internet Movie Database refers to this cut scene: “In the original theatrical version of the film, when he meets Kermit the first time, Rowlf the dog asks Kermit if he wants a drink, to which Kermit says, “I’ll have a grasshopper.” This small scene has been deleted from all subsequent versions. (Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t want a children’s movie to advocate an alcoholic beverage?)” Strange, because shortly prior to where that scene would have been, there’s a great gag about wine from Idaho (I appreciate nearly any joke that pokes fun at Idaho), and shortly afterward Rowlf says he goes home every night and drinks a couple beers. Studios can be so touchy. We can be grateful; if Disney had released it, all references to alcohol probably would have been scratched.