As we all know, there’s nothing quite like when an old favorite makes its way to DVD, so that we may enjoy it in all of its digital splendor. However, the recent release of "The Muppet Movie" has left me feeling a bit saddened. When I first saw the film 22-years ago, I found it to be delightful and hilarious. But, will today’s young audience, who are accustomed to computer animation and cutting-edge special effects appreciate a bunch of wise-cracking puppets? Let’s take a look at the DVD to see if the old magic is still there and to see if a new generation can come to love "The Muppets".
"The Muppet Movie" offers the plot device of having a movie-within-a-movie, and opens with Kermit the Frog and the rest of The Muppets sitting down to watch the premiere of "The Muppet Movie", which will tell the story of how The Muppets first came together. The scene then switches to a helicopter shot of the Florida Everglades, which then transitions into a long tracking shot closing in on Kermit the Frog. (As The Muppets were best known for their television show, director James Frawley immediately lets the audience know that "The Muppet Movie" is going to take advantage of its "film" status). We see Kermit sitting on a log, playing his banjo, and singing "The Rainbow Connection." Kermit then meets a vacationing Hollywood agent (Dom Deluise), who informs Kermit that World Wide Studios is holding auditions for frogs. Kermit decides to leave the swamp and follow his show-business dream.
Once in the local town, Kermit meets Fozzie Bear, and the two set off cross-country in Fozzie’s Studebaker. They are soon joined by The Great Gonzo, and Kermit’s love-interest, Miss Piggy. At the same time, Kermit is being pursued by Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who wants to use Kermit as the mascot for his chain of french-fried frog legs restaurants. So, as Kermit and company make new friends on their way to Los Angeles, Kermit make avoid the clutches of a power-hungry madman. It will take teamwork on behalf of The Muppets to help make their dreams come true, and to save Kermit!
"The Muppet Movie" works today for the same reason that it was successful when it first premiered. For one thing, the film is genuinely funny. Sure, most of the jokes by writers Jack Burns (George Carlin’s former partner) and Jerry Juhl (who’s worked on nearly every Muppet project), are corny, and smack of Vaudeville, but you can’t help but laugh at them. The great thing about the humor is that it ignores the fact that animal puppets are delivering the lines, and plays as if everyday humans were giving the performances. Some of my all-time favorite movie lines come from "The Muppet Movie" and I still find myself quoting it today. Another great aspect of "The Muppet Movie" are the songs. While Paul Williams has long-since been the butt of many jokes, his music, along with lyricist Kenny Ascher, is upbeat and catchy, and most importantly, still sounds very fresh today. Mixing contemporary numbers with more traditional tunes, the songs in "The Muppet Movie" only add to the fun of the film. (I had the soundtrack on vinyl and I wore it out!)
The aspect that really makes "The Muppet Movie" click is the amount of heart in the film. Despite the fact that we are watching pieces of felt move around and talk, the film is full of genuine emotion, most of which will be missed by a younger audience. While Kermit’s search for stardom is a hackneyed plot device, the audience truly wants to see this frog triumph. Yet, this pales in comparison to the raw emotion displayed in Gonzo’s song "I’m Going Back There Someday." This strange Muppet has tasted the sensation of flying and wants to do it again. While this concept will be alien to most of us, the yearning that is put forth in the song will ring true with anyone who has ever pursued a dream. Also, as Kermit and his friends meet more and more Muppets on their way to Hollywood, we get caught up in their comraderie. Here, we have a classic tale of misfits who finally find their place in the world. Some may feel that I’ve taken "The Muppet Movie" too seriously, but the film is a true classic, and I feel that it can still be enjoyed by audiences of all ages.
"The Muppet Movie" DVD from Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment presents quite a mixed-bag in terms of quality. The film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, and has been letterboxed at 1.85:1. As this is a Columbia family title, a full-screen version of the film is also included on the flip side of the disc. This transfer fluctuates quite heavily in quality, and if I didn’t know better, I would think that it was culled together from two different source prints. At times, the image is sharp and crystal clear, showing no grain or distortion. But, at other times, the image is highly degraded. Take a look at Chapter 24 (specifically, the 1:22:14 mark) and see that the grain is so heavy that it looks as if a swarm of gnats has invaded the set. The majority of the film wavers between these two extremes, showing some grain, but ultimately being watchable. On the positive side, throughout the film, the colors remain rich and true, showing the very colorful Muppets in all of their glory. The widescreen framing appears to be accurate, and there are no overt problems resulting from compression.
The audio track on this DVD shows the same dichotomous nature as the video transfer. "The Muppet Movie" DVD features a newly mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. This track consistently offers clear dialogue and no distortion or hiss. But, it offers very inconsistent surround sound. During the musical numbers, the music swells from the rear speakers, and at times, it is too loud to be considered simply accompaniment. At other times, the rear speakers are completely silent, offering no music or ambient sound effects at all. The best sound reproduction seemed to come during Chapter 5, where we have well-balanced music and some sound effects coming from the rear speakers. While the volume is consistently well-balanced, this is a very hit-or-miss soundtrack.
"The Muppet Movie" DVD is certainly a disappointment in the bonus features department. We start off with "Muppetisms", which are three 30-second commercials featuring Muppet characters extolling the virtues of their catch-phrase, or "Muppetism". These short pieces feature Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Rizzo & Pepe (Okay...). While slightly amusing, these shorts are odd and I’d like to know where they originally ran. The only other true extra are director’s Jim Frawley’s Camera Tests (presumably to see how The Muppets would look on film). This 13-and-a-half minute feature does offer some good material, especially when Kermit and Fozzie are talking to a herd of cows, but it’s odd that it’s not accompanied by a commentary or at least an introductory paragraph to let us know when, where (it looks like the English countryside), and why this footage was shot. The DVD also contains bonus trailers for "Muppets From Space", "The Muppets Take Manhattan", and other Columbia family-fare.
The good news is that two decades later, "The Muppet Movie" is still a charming and funny film. Kermit and the gang haven’t lost any of the zeal, which made them stars in the first place. The bad news is that the DVD leaves much to be desired. The audio and video transfers are inconsistent and lack that quality that DVD fans have become accustomed to. And, one would think that a much-loved film such as "The Muppet Movie" would’ve gotten better treatment in the extra features department. Still, this is a must-have for fans of the film, and hopefully, that new generation that I mentioned before will embrace The Muppets. As Kermit would say, "Life’s like a movie/ Write your own ending."