|Director: James Frawley
|Screenplay: Jack Burns & Jerry Juhl
|Stars: Jim Henson (Kermit the Frog / Rowlf / Dr. Teeth / Waldorf / Doc Hopper's Men / Link Hogthrob / Swedish Chef), Frank Oz (Miss Piggy / Fozzie Bear / Animal / Sam the Eagle / Doc Hopper's Men / Marvin Suggs / Swedish Chef / Motorcycle Guy), Jerry Nelson (Floyd Pepper / Robin the Frog / Crazy Harry / Lew Zealand / Camilla / Dr. Bunsen Honeydew), Richard Hunt (Scooter / Statler / Janice / Sweetums / Beaker / Fozzie Bear), Dave Goelz (The Great Gonzo / Dr. Bunsen Honeydew / Zoot / Doglion / Iraqian in El Sleezo Cafe / Pig), Charles Durning (Doc Hopper), Austin Pendleton (Max), Edgar Bergen (Himself / Charlie McCarthy), Milton Berle (Mad Man Mooney),Mel Brooks (Professor Max Krassman), James Coburn (El Sleezo Cafe Owner), Dom DeLuise (Bernie the Agent), Elliott Gould (Beauty Contest Compere), Bob Hope (Ice Cream Vendor), Madeline Kahn (El Sleezo Patron), Carol Kane (Myth), Cloris Leachman (Lord’s Secretary), Steve Martin (Insolent Waiter), Richard Pryor (Balloon Vendor), Telly Savalas (El Sleezo Tough), Orson Welles (Lew Lord), Paul Williams (El Sleezo Pianist)
|MPAA Rating: G
|Year of Release: 1979
| The 1970s was a kind of golden era of television comedy, as it gave us the revolutionary reinvention of the sitcom via The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family and its spin-offs, and M*A*S*H; the perennial late night antics of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show; and the politically daring and often wonderfully tasteless satire of Saturday Night Live. And, as monumental as all those shows are, truth be told, I would put Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show up against any one of them.
A throwback vaudeville-style sketch show starring a motley crew of felt puppets, the first of which Henson created in the mid-1950s, The Muppet Show debuted in 1976 and lasted five seasons. It was unlike anything else on television, yet everything about it—from the backstage antics, to the recurring sketches and musical numbers, to the use of guest stars—was drawn from familiar forms of stage and screen comedy. The show’s wide range of humor was as varied as the Muppets themselves, moving freely from outright slapstick, to clever wordplay and bad puns, to political satire, to postmodern self-awareness, and its genius lay in how it could tickle the funny bone of both children and adults, often in the same way, but just as often on completely different levels.
Given the show’s success, it was only a matter of time before the Muppets made the leap to the big screen, which they did to mixed results in 1979 in The Muppet Movie. Written by Muppet Show regulars Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl and directed by television veteran James Frawley (who had helmed episodes of The Monkees and That Girl), The Muppet Movie is an audacious and adventurous, but not always successful, experiment in melding the pleasures of the half-hour TV show to a feature-length format. Burns and Juhl take a kind of prequel approach to the material, pretending that The Muppet Show doesn’t exist and using the film as an explanation for how such disparate characters as harried leader Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson), bad pun maestro Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz), and solipsistic Miss Piggy (Frank Oz, again) came together. Their idea is that Kermit is a contented swamp dweller who is lured to the bright lights of Hollywood and picks up his ramshackle gang of Muppet friends along the way, all of which is, of course, framed with a postmodern, self-knowing narrative device in which the Muppets gather to watch their own movie.
Compared to the TV show from which it emanated, The Muppet Movie is somewhat lacking, although never short of entertaining. The familiarity of the characters breeds an inherent sense of anticipation, as one wonders when his or her favorite Muppet will finally be introduced (my lack of enthusiasm for the film may derive to some extent from the fact that my favorite Muppet, the incomparable Swedish Chef, is entirely absent from the film except for a brief appearance in the projection booth during the framing story). Kermit first picks up Fozzie Bear, who is honing his awful comedy act at the appropriately named El Sleezo nightclub. They then stumble across Dr. Teeth (Jim Henson) and the other members of the Electric Mayhem Band (including that shaggy, irrepressible id, Animal), as well as the would-be starlet Miss Piggy, who takes an immediate shine to Kermit, thus initiating the most absurd, yet entirely plausible interspecies romance in the history of modern entertainment.
Moreso than the show, The Muppet Movie relies heavily on its human guest stars, and the wide range of celebrities who consented to put their reputations on the line with a bunch of felt puppets is testament to the cultural power the Muppets wielded at the end of the Carter years. The movie boasts cameos by classic stars such as ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his most famous creation Charlie McCarthy, Milton Berle playing a sleazy used car salesman, and, in the film’s biggest coup, none other than Orson Welles as a cigar-chomping Hollywood executive (surely the greatest feat of ironic casting in film history). The movie also boasts the appearance of then-current faces such as Dom DeLuise as the agent who puts the Hollywood bug in Kermit’s ear, Steve Martin as a put-upon waiter, Cloris Leachman as a pratfall secretary, Mel Brooks as a crazed German scientist, and Richard Pryor as a balloon salesman. Everyone is game for a good time, especially Charles Durning as a crackpot restraunteur who is determined to force Kermit to shill for his chain of frog leg eateries, and Austin Pendleton as his somewhat unsure assistant.
However, while The Muppet Movie is certainly entertaining, the shift to a coherent, linear, feature-length narrative deprives the film of the show’s greatest pleasure, which is the borderline surreal shifts in tone deriving from the variety-style format and movement from audience to behind-the-stage. In short, the film is missing the show’s brilliantly structured inanity. The filmmakers attempt to replicate this by using the road movie format, which allows them to constantly change locations and introduce new characters, and also by making the film a musical (all the songs, including the now classics “Rainbow Connection” and “Movin’ Right Along,” were penned by Paul Williams, who appears in a cameo as the piano player at the El Sleezo club). The approach is successful enough, but it still pales in comparison to the greatest moments of genius the Muppets achieved each week on the small screen.
|The Muppet Movie “Nearly 35th Anniversary” Blu-Ray + Digital Copy
|English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround
|English, French, Spanish
|Disney IntermissionFrog-E-Oke Sing-AlongJim Frawley’s Extended Camera TestDoc Hopper’s CommercialOriginal trailersPepe Profiles Presents Kermit—A Frog’s Life
|Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
|August 13, 2013
|VIDEO & AUDIO
|The Muppet Movie is presented in a new high-definition transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it looks very much like a movie made in the late 1970s. The image is very nicely rendered, and I appreciate the fact that they didn’t try to sharpen it up and remove all the film grain to make it look like something newer and brighter. Instead, the transfer maintains much of the film’s inherent grain structure, which is fairly noticeable, while minimizing signs of age and wear. The colors look good, although just a tad muted in keeping with the look of film in the late ’70s (unlike some people, I am glad they didn’t try to artificially boost the colors). Detail is excellent, to the point that you can detect the different textures on the various Muppets. The original monaural soundtrack has been given the full six-channel remix and is presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround. The soundtrack gives a nice sense of space and depth to the musical sequences, but unfortunately the volume levels are extremely varied to the point that you have to turn it way up to hear the dialogue properly, but then turn it way down when the musical sequences start.
|Perhaps because it is only the “Nearly 35th” Anniversary Blu-ray, the supplements on The Muppet Movie are pretty sparse. All we get is “Jim Frawley’s Extended Camera Test,” which is 18 minutes of archival test footage the film’s director shot to experiment with the Muppets outside a studio; the one-minute entirety of the Doc Hopper’s Frog Legs commercial used in the film (strangely reformatted to 1.78:1); the original teaser and theatrical trailers; and Pepe Profiles Presents Kermit—A Frog’s Life, a six-minute profile of Kermit by Pepe, the Cajun shrimp. The disc also lists as bonuses “Disney Intermission,” in which the disc continues to play additional material when you pause the movie, and “Frog-E-Oke Sing-Along,” which allows you to do karaoke with “Rainbow Connection” “Movin’ Right Along,” and “Can You Picture That.”
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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