Bill Murray's first feature film leading role was Ivan Reitman's 1979 summer camp comedy, Meatballs, the first of a few collaborations that would occur between the actor and director that would go on to be recognized as some of the best comedies of their time (the later entries being Stripes and Ghostbusters for those keeping score.
In the film, shot in Ontario Canada, Murray plays Tripper, the head counselor at the Camp North Star summer camp. With school out and the summer camp season at its start, he and the camp owner, Morty (Harvey Atkin), are in charge of this year's crop of CIT's - counselors in training: Roxanne (Kate Lynch), Crockett (Russ Banham), A.L. (Kristine DeBell), Candace (Sarah Torgov), Spaz (Jack Blum), Fink (Keith Knight), Wendy (Cindy Girling), Hardware (Matt Craven) and Wheels (Todd Hoffman). As the counselors and current crop of kids get settled in for a few weeks of activities and high-jinks, one loner kid named Rudy (Chris Makepeace) feels ostracized when he's made fun of for his poor soccer skills by the other kids. As it turns out, he's never played the game before, and Tripper basically takes him under his wing and starts jogging with him every morning. As the weeks go by and Rudy's confidence starts to build, it comes time for the annual inter-camp Olympiad where the 'regular Joe's' from North Star square off against the rich kids from nearby Camp Mohawk. As everything builds up to the big event, pranks are played, romances are made, and Rudy will turn out to be a much more important member of the camp than anyone ever would have thought.
Meatballs isn't really much more than a series of set pieces all strung together by their shared summer camp location, but it works. Essentially a series of pranks, the story does give us enough bits and pieces of character here and there to ensure that we like who we're supposed to like so that by the time the big race at the end of the movie comes along, we're cheering for the good guys. Apparently it was enough to work, as audiences not only ate the movie right up at the box office but it would go on to inspire a veritable landslide of summer camp films that would start in the late seventies and continue on into the mid eighties, including a few Meatballs sequels, almost all of which were raunchier than this originator ever was.
Murray, fresh off of his stint on Saturday Night Live, is essentially the ringleader in this circus, taking nothing seriously (at least on the outside) and only out to ensure that everyone has a good time. He's got an on again off again thing going on with Roxanne that adds a bit of sweetness to the movie but it's his relationship with meek and mild Rudy that provides the bulk of the marginally more dramatic side of the story. Tripper's got confidence to spare and he knows it, as such he's only too happy to help pass some on to a kid who could use it - but only on his terms. A little bit of 'tough love' goes a long way, and Murray actually proves to be quite likeable in this regard, despite the fact that his character is obviously quite obnoxious and prone to doing things like moving poor Morty (who everyone insists on calling Mickey) into various precarious locations while he sleeps.
Of course, the whole story moves in exactly the directions that you'd expect it to, meaning that the film is pretty much completely devoid of suspense. It does, however, offer some solid laughs thanks mostly in part to Murray's bizarre performance here. Tripper is a self proclaimed party guy and out to have a good time no matter the cost, but he is, most importantly, funny to watch. His pranks are amusing and he does a good job of rallying the troops. The rest of the characters don't fare so well with a few of the C.I.T. characters sort of melding into one. Spaz and Fink are amusing enough in that they're the 'nerd' and token 'fat guy' of the camp, but even they play to clichés here. But the movie is what it is, a product of its era and a nice showcase for what Murray would bring to later roles as he went on to establish himself as one of the funniest men to ever work in Hollywood. This isn't his best film, but it's entertaining enough and he does a fine job carrying it.
Meatballs looks pretty good here in 1080p high definition AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen. There are some shots that look softer than others and mild print damage pops up here and there throughout the movie but overall the picture is strong and stable showing pretty good detail and very nice color reproduction. Texture is strong and the movie's grain doesn't appear to have been tampered with, as there was no obvious noise reduction to complain about. There are no edge enhancement or compression issues either, the transfer is fairly film like. Close up shots fare the best, no surprise there, but even medium and long distance shots look nice as you can spot some of the graffiti carved into the wood inside the cabins and not the textures of the plants and trees in the outdoor scenes. For a movie made in 1979 with a modest budget, Meatballs holds up well in the video department on Blu-ray.
The English language DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo track sounds pretty good, from the opening theme song through to the campfire sing-a-long at the end of the movie. Dialogue is clean, clear and easy to understand and the movie's soundtrack sounds pretty good here. There aren't any obvious issues with hiss or distortion and while range sounds a bit limited and occasionally on the flat side, this feels like a pretty authentic take on how the movie would have originally sounded. It won't blow you away at all but it definitely gets the job done. Optional white subtitles are provided in English, English SDH and Spanish.
The only extra of any substance is a commentary track with director Ivan Reitman and writer/co-producer Daniel Goldberg. It's an amiable track with the two going into a bit of detail about working with Murray at this point in his career, shooting in Canada, what it was like on set during the shoot and more. It's not jam packed full of trivia but it's an enjoyable and occasionally very funny discussion that fans of the film should appreciate. Aside from that, look for a few trailers for unrelated Lionsgate properties, animated menus and scene selection. Unfortunately the 'making of' featurette that was included on the special edition DVD release is not included on this Blu-ray.
Meatballs isn't a perfect film - it's frequently hammy and almost always predictable - but it is a fun one and it served as an important stepping stone in Bill Murray's interesting post SNL career. It holds up well as decent light entertainment and it has a good heart to it. Lionsgate's Blu-ray offers the film up in nice quality, sporting a good transfer and solid audio. If it's light on extras, the commentary is at least one worth listening to and the disc comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.