Blu-Ray Review: The Muppet Movie: The Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition
The Muppet Movie is basically the origin story of The Muppets, after they had already been a successful TV variety show. Because they’re The Muppets, their origin story is irreverent and meta, and because it was 1979, origin stories weren’t totally played out yet. The movie opens with the Muppets already gathered in a screening room to watch The Muppet Movie so that’s how meta it is. Later in the movie they break out the screenplay to the movie itself.
The movie proper begins with Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) living in the swamp when a Hollywood agent (Dom DeLuise) tells him he can be famous in Hollywood. So Kermit hits the road and along the way meets every Muppet who would become part of their troupe. The road trip is full of misadventure and celebrity cameos, the main threat being Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), a frog leg restaurateur who wants Kermit’s legs.
This became the template for all subsequent Muppet movies. Whether a canon story about the group of performers known as The Muppets (Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppets reboot) or a story with the Muppets as the characters (Great Muppet Caper to some extent, Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island), the movies would own the formula of finding a role for each Muppet, and populating the story with live-action celebrities.
This film is actually strongest when it’s just Kermit and Fozzie (Frank Oz). They banter like Vaudeville performers setting up each other’s punchlines. It’s really classical comedy, and full of literal puns like an actual fork in the road. They keep it up when Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Miss Piggy (Oz) enter the picture, but eventually it becomes a little unwieldy. It can be smart to pair Muppets off into more effective combinations. The Muppet Movie drags a little in the middle, particularly in an extended Mel Brooks cameo that is not as funny as it thinks it is. It picks up again when it hits on the emotional core with Kermit questioning his duty to The Muppets around a desert campfire.
There is some awesome cinematography in this movie. When Kermit is singing in the swamp, they crane down to show his reflection in the water, and it’s as clear and vivid as the image it’s reflecting. Shots of the Studebaker on the road have nothing to do with puppets, but they’re gorgeous shots of the American landscape. Let’s also not take it for granted that we’re watching Muppets drive a car. However they hid the stunt drivers, they made it look seamless like Fozzie is behind the wheel. Historically speaking, this was Jim Henson pushing the boundaries of puppeteering, and it is a technical marvel, utilizing old school tricks like forced perspective and I don’t know how they made Kermit ride a bicycle.
The Blu-ray is top notch, although it is 35mm film so there are occasional scenes where the grain becomes visible, particularly in Miss Piggy’s dream sequence. However, it will then cut to a shot that’s so clear it looks like Muppets are just living in the real world. That’s 90% of the transfer, with only a few artifacts of film residue. In close-ups you can see all the felt on the Muppets, or perhaps styrofoam on Gonzo’s nose. You can also make out all the dirt on the windshields of the various cars the Muppets drive. It’s a colorful movie too, from Electric Mayhem’s paint job to the closing number. All the colorful elements pop, but the road movie aspect grounds it in reality.
Among the new bonus features on the blu-ray, director Jim Frawley’s extended camera test is a fabulous historical discovery. This must have been the first time they took the Muppets out of the studio to see how they’d read on film. You essentially get classic improv from the Muppet performers filling the screen time with dialogue. You may also notice the actor inside the Sweetums costume get really tired from running with that bulky contraption on. Fozzie is uncharacteristically dark and pessimistic, and they totally break character talking about being puppets. The Muppets never acknowledge publicly that they are puppets. Fun stuff.
Frog-E-Oke gives you lyrics to sing along with three of the key songs, “Rainbow Connection,” “Moving Right Along” and “Can You Picture That.” They’ve also presented the Doc Hopper’s commercial in full detail, as it only appears on a blurry TV screen in the movie. They’ve also included the pre-existing bonus feature, “Pepe Profiles Present Kermit – A Frog’s Life,” a funny spoof of behind the scenes documentaries where Pepe the King Prawn interviews the Muppets to put together a generic package on Kermit.
I’m a little surprised they didn’t use this Blu-ray release to promote the upcoming Muppets Most Wanted. I’d be fine with seeing some early scenes or extended trailers, but as a proper special edition of the original Muppet Movie, it’s a solid package. The Blu-ray looks great so it would be worth it as a movie-only upgrade, but that camera test is priceless too.