Disney Blu-ray Roundup: ‘The Muppet Movie’

muppet movie blu rayAnd there was much rejoicing. Though the overall package could be improved, it’s hard to deny the joy of watching The Muppet Movie on Blu-ray for the first time. You may be, like yours truly, a Netflix subscriber who’s watched this 1979 family classic on the Watch Instantly service over the last few months, hoping that the so-called SuperHD upgrade would be enough of an upgrade compared to DVD. It turns out that Disney had a trick or two up its sleeve with regards to this film’s high-definition transfer, though. (Or, possibly, the Netflix SuperHD moniker isn’t 100% accurate, but with a name like “SuperHD,” how could it be lying?) And like most Disney catalog Blu-rays, The Muppet Movie is criminally light on special features, but the few that are present are quite something.

Logic, being fair, hasn’t entered in much to the timing of this Blu-ray release, dubbed the “Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition” due to the film’s actual anniversary coming up next year. If I was being charitable, I could acknowledge that, hey, the Muppets are best-known (and especially were typified as such back in the 1970s) for being playfully anarchic. A normal anniversary edition would go against that principle, yes? And sure, that’s true. However. One could argue that Disney, to play up the synergistic connection as much as possible, might wait to release The Muppet Movie to coincide with the release of Muppets Most Wanted, the upcoming 2014 sequel to The Muppets. (Muppet Treasure Island and The Great Muppet Caper will be coming onto Blu-ray in a two-pack this December, which is, at least, closer to the Muppets Most Wanted release date.)

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But anyway, why complain too much, right? (Don’t get me started now on the silliness about Mary Poppins coming out in December on Blu-ray for its supposed 50th anniversary. I’ll hold off on that rant for now.) No matter what, The Muppet Movie is now on Blu-ray, and it is spectacular. The movie, at least. For the uninitiated or forgetful, The Muppet Movie tells the story of how Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, the Great Gonzo, and all of the rest of the lovable Muppets came to be big stars, on a road-trip adventure that starts in the Everglades and culminates in a swanky Hollywood office manned by a certain pioneering actor/director. If you haven’t seen The Muppet Movie yet, the surprises therein should be left unspoiled, although I have to wonder if the celebrity cameos have any level of impact to a person who’s never heard of Dom DeLuise or James Coburn or Carol Kane. (But the idea that people haven’t heard of these folks is just a myth, right? A myth! Myth!)

What makes The Muppet Movie so magical nearly 35 years after its release is its pure, utter timelessness. Whatever magical formula Jim Henson, director James Frawley, and writers Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns came up with, it should be bottled. Especially since this movie is packed with actors whose heydays are mostly behind them (Steve Martin is the most notable exception, and comes close to stealing the entire movie from his felt co-stars in a mere handful of minutes), it would be logical for the film to be dated. Not so. The humor is witty and sharp, yet never overly cynical or pop-culture-heavy as most modern family comedies. The Muppet Movie is pun-heavy, sure—Kermit breathes a sigh of relief when a steamroller only takes out his bike, saying that he was nearly “gone with the Schwinn”—but something about the gee-whiz, happy-go-lucky attitude never once causes those puns to be lean too heavy on the side of making one groan with recognition.

As a Blu-ray, The Muppet Movie is slightly more impressive than the recent Disney catalog releases of The Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, and Oliver & Company. Granted, it’s not bursting with special features—would it kill Disney to cobble together a commentary, even if it’s hosted by someone like Jason Segel or Nicholas Stoller, who could talk about how this film inspired their 2011 Muppet movie?—but those that are present  are little gems, hints of a deeper treasure trove Disney may be withholding from us. The centerpiece is an extended camera test courtesy of Frawley, who filmed Henson and Frank Oz as Kermit and Fozzie, respectively, going around the countryside and interacting with each other and the world around them. Not only does this 17-minute supplement allow us to get just a little bit more of the byplay between the original Kermit and Fozzie, but it offers up a singular moment, one that I can’t remember seeing or hearing in any other Muppet movies: Henson and Oz (or, if you like, Kermit and Fozzie) cracking each other up. It’s not so much that Henson and Oz are hilariously riffing as much as they’re surprising each other with the various verbal avenues down which they meander. Hearing these two laugh at each other is humanizing, above all else.

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The other special features are fairly meager and minor, though only one has been ported over from the DVD: a six-minute “profile” of Kermit from Pepe Prawn that’s formless and mostly forgettable. (Also, unless my ears deceived me, Oz isn’t part of this profile, even though he’s still alive, kicking, and working. It’s understandable that Steve Whitmire would be performing as Kermit, but hearing another voice as Fozzie and Miss Piggy is a bit distracting, because the rest of this Blu-ray is firmly rooted in the 1970s.) The word that best describes this feature, whether it’s relegated to a DVD or present on the Blu-ray, is “filler.” If Disney needed some room to fill, there are better features than this one. Another slight, but far more enjoyable, piece on the disc is a sing-along feature highlighting just three of the iconic songs in this film. (Come on, Disney, where’s “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along”?) The basic concept hasn’t changed, but the design of each sing-along chapter is striking and somewhat cool; there’s more to this than just the songs in question being shown on screen with their respective lyrics. These three songs are also the entirety of the Disney Intermission feature; pause the movie at any point, and they’ll kick in, without the ability to skip from one song to the other. Finally, there are a couple of trailers for the film, along with the full Doc Hopper commercial that’s shown in part early on to Kermit’s horror. Not much, as per usual for Disney Blu-rays, but it’ll have to do.

Frankly, at least for this one movie, it’s OK. (Yes, I am being hypocritical, but I love The Muppet Movie. You might love Robin Hood as much as I love this film, so for you, one new special feature was probably OK.) The Muppet Movie is one of the best family films of all time, an endlessly enjoyable and inventive comedy that never gets preachy even if its message could easily teeter into sappy sweetness. Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and company always knew exactly how much sincerity they could get away with without choking audiences to death on the saccharine. The key to The Muppet Movie’s greatness is that it doesn’t open immediately with Kermit plucking the banjo and singing “The Rainbow Connection.” We start with a funny, meta framing device that wryly balances the sweet with the sharp. The Blu-ray itself has a similarly sharp transfer; even if the supplements don’t measure up, this one’s worth it just for the 95 minutes of pure joy at its center.



By Josh Spiegel

Josh Spiegel contributes to Sound on Sight as a podcaster, its chief film critic, and editor of the Film section. (And that's just in his free time.) He started up the all-encompassing Disney film podcast Mousterpiece Cinema in June of 2011, and joined Sound on Sight officially in January of 2012. He joined the ranks of the Sound on Sight flagship podcast in early 2013. He's also a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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