The Muppet Movie (1979) is one strange animal (and, for that matter, has one strange Animal). Indirectly spun-off from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show (1976-81) had been a comedy-variety series no American television network would touch, but when producer Lew Grade offered Muppets creator Jim Henson the chance to produce the series for his ATV franchise in Britain, Henson leapt at the opportunity and the show became a worldwide hit in syndication.
The TV show was unusual, populated by Muppets with each episode structured like an old-time Vaudeville performance. It eventually attracted some of the biggest (human) guest stars in show business, and appealed to adults as much, if not more so, than children. The Muppet Movie was a hugely budgeted ($28 million, nearly three times the cost of Star Wars) expansion, and while on a technical level extremely ambitious, it also safely hedged its bets with a safe "origin" story about how the Muppet characters first met, cramming it with brief, mostly throwaway guest star cameos rivaling in number earlier road shows like Around the World in 80 Days and How the West Was Won.
I saw it twice when it was new, and theater audiences generally warmly embraced it, while gasping at some of its perfectly executed innovations, most famously the how'd-they-do-that? sight of Kermit the Frog riding a bicycle, a bit of trickery topped in the 1981 sequel, The Great Muppet Caper.
The movie is an odd viewing experience. It's sentimental and often extremely if consciously very corny, with deliberately old-fashioned verbal humor, inside jokes, and obvious sight gags. Many of these, notably a running gag revolving around the punch line, "Have you tried Hare Krishna?" went way, WAY over the heads of children in the audience, who also wouldn't have had the slightest idea who guest stars like James Coburn or Madeline Kahn were. The movie set a precedent that has been part of every Muppet movie since, a kind of existential self-analysis (usually by Kermit) and a pervasive wistful longing for success and acceptance far beyond the understanding of small children. Where Disney generally made movies for children that adults, taping into their own childhood memories and emotions, could also tap into, Henson's Muppet movies always play like films made for adults that children could also happen to enjoy, if not always understand.
Disney now owns the franchise and, frankly, they seem utterly clueless about this. The overly-precious subtitle for this Blu-ray, "The Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition," beyond being nearly a full year premature, includes extra features mainly designed for little kids, not adults who genuinely want to learn more about the making of this unique, movie franchise-setting achievement. But the transfer is good, a big improvement even over the original theatrical release, which generally had notably ugly 35mm prints.
The film-within-the-film opens at a Hollywood studio where the Muppets have gathered in a chaotic screening room for the first showing of The Muppet Movie. The show gets underway, beginning with Kermit the Frog (Henson) singing "The Rainbow Connection" alone in a vast Florida swamp. Bernie (Dom DeLuise), a lost talent agent in a rowboat, spots Kermit and encourages him to audition at a Hollywood casting call for "frogs interested in becoming rich and famous." Neither of those things interest him, but the idea of "making millions of people happy" does, and soon Kermit is on his way.
The Colonel Harlan Sanders-like Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), owner of a vast chain of French-fried frog legs restaurants, also spots the talented frog, offering him a $500/year contract as the company's pitchman, but the disgusted Kermit refuses.
The plot soon resembles The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy-like Kermit on the Route 66-like Yellow Brick Road, making friends along the way who likewise are eager to try their luck in Hollywood (Emerald City) with studio executive Lew Lord, an amusing reference to Lew Grade (later a titled Lord himself), played by Orson Welles (the Wizard). They include Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz), an unfunny stand-up comedian; vain, conceited, and melodramatic prima donna Miss Piggy (also Oz); the eccentric whatsit Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and his chicken bride, Camilla (Jerry Nelson); philosophical piano man Rowlf the Dog (Henson); and Woodstock era castoffs Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem: Dr. Teeth (Henson), Sgt. Floyd Pepper (Nelson), Janis (Richard Hunt), Zoot (Goelz), Animal (Oz), and their road manager, Scooter (Hunt). Like the Wicked Witch though much less terrifying, Doc Hopper remains hot on their trail, determined to kidnap or kill the stubborn frog.
The long cross-country journey allows for the 20 or so star cameos. Most have less than a dozen words of dialogue, often supplying the punch line for a gag (Telly Savalas, Carol Kane) or in small parts that help move the story forward (Richard Pryor, Elliott Gould). Then as now the only cameo that's actually legitimately funny is a short scene featuring Steve Martin as an insolent waiter, whose exaggerated expressions of contempt and intolerance while Kermit and Miss Piggy enjoy a romantic dinner are pretty hilarious.
Back in 1979, audiences were genuinely touched by the too-brief cameos of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Bergen's iconic ventriloquist's dummy. Bergen, at 75, had decided to retire and soon after filming The Muppet Movie began a two-week farewell engagement in Las Vegas, but died suddenly after just three days of performances. The movie opened eight months after his death and it's dedicated in his memory.
The inconsistent tone hurts the film slightly, but so much of it is charming or funny that, for the most part, it's a great success. There were accounts of terrifically heated in-fighting between Henson and director James Frawley. Frawley, a mostly television director (whose credits include The Big Bus and numerous Columbos), was an outsider and apparently not a good personality match for Henson, creative consultant Oz, and their team. None of this acrimony is onscreen, thankfully. Better, Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher were ideally suited to write the film's musical score, with "Rainbow Connection" being especially memorable. (The superb documentary Paul Williams Still Alive touchingly references this song several times.)
Video & Audio
In 1979 movie theaters, The Muppet Movie, much of it deliberately filmed in soft-focus, was generally a grainy, smeary mess. Disney's new 1.85:1 transfer cleans all this up but not at the expense of the original cinematographer's intentions. Rather, it's like an ideal presentation of the material as filmed. An early Dolby Stereo release, the new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is just okay, though the dialogue still sounds a bit shrill while some of the music, channeled to the surround speakers, tends to be a bit overwhelming. Overall though, it's a solid presentation. English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are included. The region-free disc includes a showy "intermission" feature. When one hits the pause button a bouncing-ball-type sing-along presentation ensues, drawing from the original soundtrack, with limited Muppet appearances onscreen as well.
For adults, the supplements are meager and disappointing. They include 18-minutes' worth of amusing camera tests (in HD) featuring the Muppets, but the rest of the material seems designed mainly for kids: a "Frog-E-Oke Sing-Along" featuring the songs "Rainbow Connection," "Movin' Right Along," and "Can You Picture That?"; "Pepe Profiles Present Kermit: A Frog's Life," a faux Biography-type segment; "Doc Hopper's Commercial," presented as originally filmed (in the movie it's seen only on TV monitors); and, in HD, the original teaser and full trailer.
At times a bit awkward but for the most part a terrific feature debut for Jim Henson's Muppets, The Muppet Movie is loads of fun and the good video transfer here makes this Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.