The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996) are the second and fifth Muppet movies, spanning two eras in the company's history. Disney's 1080p high-def transfers look and sound reasonably well, though the extra features are, as usual for Disney's Muppet releases, real hit-and-miss, with the Blu-ray's producers targeting a general family audience and not Muppet fans wanting to learn more about how the films were made.
The only Muppet movie directed by Muppet creator Jim Henson (who also makes a rare, onscreen cameo in the film), The Great Muppet Caper debuted shortly after the extraordinarily successful syndicated The Muppet Show had ended its run, and Muppetmania was on the wane.
The movie casts Kemit the Frog (Henson), Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz), and Gonzo the Great (Dave Goelz) as reporters for the Daily Chronicle. In a marvelous opening musical number, the trio is oblivious to the crime and other mayhem happening all around them (on an extravagant black lot street actually build in London), with Gonzo preferring to focus on the less than sensational activities of a wandering chicken.
They travel, via a passenger jet's cargo hold, to London, hoping to interview fashion designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg, her character seemingly patterned after Kay Thompson's in Funny Face, 1957), about the robbery of her famous jewels. In fact, the gems were pinched by her lazy, nefarious brother Nicky (incongruously American-accented Charles Grodin) and his three beautiful female accomplices, Carla (Kate Howard), Marla (Erica Creer), and Darla (Della Finch).*
The trio decamps at the dilapidated, rat-infested Happiness Hotel, where most of the rest of the Muppet characters also happen to be staying.
Meanwhile, Miss Piggy (also Oz), dreaming of fame as one of Lady Holiday's fashion models, accepts a job as her receptionist. In a meet-cute scene, Kermit mistakes Miss Piggy for Lady Holiday and she, instantly falling in love with the short, green, and handsome amphibian, masquerades as the star designer.
By all accounts, The Muppet Movie (1979) had been a problem-plagued production, with Henson particularly unhappy with that film's director, which is probably why he assumed the helm himself for this outing. There's a wee bit less magic and freshness in The Great Muppet Caper, but as a movie it's better overall. The first film, with its "origin" story of how the Muppets first met and came together, is no longer present to burden the film, nor is it inundated with movie star cameos to the degree of the first picture (with five cameos instead of fifteen), appearances which ran the gamut from funny and/or touching to story-stopping and unnecessary.
The approach is otherwise similar, with a mixture of in-jokes harking back to the Road movies of Hope and Crosby (gags about the main titles and plot exposition, etc.), musical numbers, and Hollywood genre spoofing. Much of the film gently pokes fun at English stereotypes (one guest star's entire career was built around playing one such type) and American's (via the Muppets themselves) cluelessness about British culture and history. Both The Muppet Show and the first two movies were made in England under Lord Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment banner. Undoubtedly the environment of Americans and Brits working together was a great source for material.
The musical numbers by Joe Raposo, best known for his many iconic songs for Sesame Street, are wonderful, though after that sensational opening number, nothing that follows can quite top it. There are numerous references to classical Hollywood films: Kermit briefly dances with a hat rack like Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951), and later his dancing with Miss Piggy recalls Astaire's earlier RKO films with Ginger Rogers. One long sequence virtually replicates shot-for-shot Busby Berkeley's choreography for Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), though it's funny enough just to see Miss Piggy swimming underwater, aping (swining?) Esther Williams.
Though hard-to-cast Charles Grodin is pretty much a bust as the show's villain (why not a James Fox-type in that role? Grodin was hardly a box-office draw even then), with the film losing steam whenever the focus is on him, the Muppets continue as before to charm as well as dazzle with their creators' technical virtuosity. Myriad times scenes are staged in such a way as to defy the viewer to guess how such scenes were accomplished (a gaggle of Muppets all riding bicycles, for instance), to the point where one easily accepts them as living creatures. (**** out of *****)
Muppet Treasure Island (1996), the fifth Muppet movie after The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), is passable entertainment, though disappointing. The Muppet Christmas Carol, adapting Charles Dickens's classic story, was and remains the best Muppet movie as a movie (as opposed to a Muppet movie, if you catch my drift), so on the heels of its success it only seemed natural to tackle another literary classic, in this case Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 novel. This version casts Tim Curry as Long John Silver, filling the shoe previously worn by Wallace Berry in MGM's 1934 film, and by Robert Newton, the most famous film performance of that role, in Disney's 1950 live-action version. Curry would seem an inspired casting choice, but he's almost startlingly ineffectual for reasons described below.
The Muppet film is less faithful to Stevenson than it was to Dickens. Here, teenaged orphan Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop) lives at the Admiral Benbow Inn with his friends Gonzo the Great (Dave Goelz) and Rizzo the Rat (Steve Whitmire). Billy Bones (Billy Connolly) regales them with tales of pirates and buried treasure, but Blind Pew (in Muppet form) suddenly appears giving Billy Bones a piece of paper with a black spot on it, a symbol of impending death. And indeed he dies soon after of a heart attack, but not before passing along to Jim his hidden treasure map, just as Blind Pew returns with an army of cutthroat pirates.
Armed with the old map, Jim convinces half-wit Squire Trelawney (Fozzie Bear, voiced by Frank Oz but performed by Kevin Clash) to fund an ocean voyage to the Caribbean aboard the Hispaniola, captained by Abraham Smollett (Kermit the Frog, also Whitmire). Jim befriends the ship's one-legged cook, Long John Silver (Curry) who, taking advantage of Trelawney's dim-wittedness, hires an unsavory pirate crew who plan to mutiny when the ship again approaches land.
I had seen Curry on the London stage in 1982 playing the Pirate King in a marvelous production of The Pirates of Penzance, and expected his Long John Silver to be similarly lusty and larger-than-life. But, strangely, Curry is almost subdued as the wily pirate, perhaps wanting to distinguish this performance from that one, as well as distance himself from Robert Newton's eye-rolling, head-cocking, broad but unforgettable Long John Silver in Disney's film. Coupled with this is that Curry's Silver is simply too well groomed, with neatly trimmed beard and comparatively clean wardrobe. The years of nefarious hard living don't show at all, and the complex relationship between Jim and Silver never blossoms.
Another problem is the film's basic approach, in which everything is shot on heavily stylized soundstage sets. Even the Admiral Benbow Inn is stylized nearly to the point of German Expressionism, and the fabled island is by design thoroughly unreal, like an amusement part ride. It might have been better to offset the unreality of the Muppets against more period authenticity and real (and more realistic) exteriors for the cast to inhabit. As it is, I found it almost impossible to suspend disbelief and, combined with Curry's performance, this Treasure Island never becomes the rousing adventure story it ought to be. Though early scenes are unexpectedly violent (and really too intense for small children) it plays more like a protracted sketch on The Muppet Show rather than the entirely valid film adaptation of classic literature the way The Muppet Christmas Carol had been.
And where Christmas Carol revolves entirely around Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine), Muppet Treasure Island can't seem to decide whose story this is: Jim's or Gonzo & Rizzo's. It's certainly not Kermit, who's relegated to a supporting part introduced 27 minutes in, nor Miss Piggy, who doesn't appear until the 66-minute mark. Likewise, Fozzie Bear is mostly on the sidelines, yet the film still seems cramped and overstuffed with too many human and Muppet characters in minor roles. Even the musical numbers, with songs this time by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, are pretty forgettable. (** 1/2)
Video & Audio
This region-free double-bill, presented on a single Blu-ray disc, looks reasonably good, especially when one bears in mind that The Great Muppet Caper, like The Muppet Movie before it, looked miserably grainy during its original 35mm theatrical run. Both movies here are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, approximating their original 1.85:1 theatrical versions. Muppet Treasure Island looks a bit sharper and more naturally like film, but was shot with an emphasis on browns and amber and lacks the primary sunniness of Muppet Caper's richer color scheme. The DTS-HD Master Audio mixes (5.1 on Muppet Caper, 5.0 on Treasure Island) are both pleasing to the ears, supported by audio options in French and Spanish, and subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and German, with menu screens in French and Spanish as well.
New supplements are of little interest. They include what are billed as "Frog-e-oke Sing-a-Longs," one song for Treasure Island and two for Muppet Caper. Older features consist of an audio commentary track on Treasure Island albeit hosted by Gonzo and Rizzo (who also host an okay "making-of" featurette), with director Brian Henson, plus there's a music video.
One very good film and one flawed but not bad one, this combo of The Great Muppet Caper and Muppet Treasure Island is Recommended, especially for parents with age-appropriate children.
* Creer so resembles actress Tina Louise that for most of the film I thought it was Louise, and wondered why she'd accept such a small role. I'll bet a lot of her fans make the same mistake.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.