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|Kevin Krock, editor|
I’m sure most, if not all, of you are familiar with the Muppets in one way or another. They have been a staple of family entertainment for decades, and during the late 1970s to mid 1980s, their popularity was probably at its zenith. During that period, the incredible creative talent of Jim Henson combined with his superb team of puppeteers were a multimedia force that not only grabbed the attention of celebrities from television, film, theater, comedy and music but also enthralled audiences from young to old.
Unfortunately, since the death of Jim Henson a number of years ago, the spotlight on the Muppets has dimmed a bit, and they do not command the same level of attention as they once did. Even under the watchful eye of Jim’s son Brian, most of the recent Muppet film projects, such as Muppets from Space, have only received a lukewarm public response. Fortunately for us, though, Jim Henson’s magic touched a wide range of memorable television shows, musical recordings, and films that will hopefully be available to families for many years to come.
Of all of the Muppet films over the years, the first two, The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper, probably best embody the unique style and humor that made the Muppets the stars they are. Both films are filled with a balance of humor that works well on both adult and child levels, and they each host a bevy of celebrities in cameo appearances.
Those cameos actually are probably one of the funniest parts of these films for the adults, since they are the only ones that will likely recognize actors like Bob Hope, Peter Ustinov, Edgar Bergen, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, and so forth. It is a great little gag that really adds to the family- wide enjoyment of these movies. Additionally, music plays a key role in both films, and songs such as, "The Rainbow Connection," "Movin’ Right Along," "Happiness Hotel," and "The First Time It Happens," blend well with the flow of the movie and help make the movies a bit more memorable.
The Muppet Movie is the story of how Kermit the Frog and his friends became movie stars. The story starts in Kermit’s swamp and follows him on his quest to reach Hollywood to audition for an acting part. On the way, he meets a bunch of friends that all buy into his dream of stardom and help him on his way, including Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and Gonzo.
The only thing standing between Kermit and Hollywood is Doc Hopper, a fast-food restaurateur specializing in frog legs and looking for a new "spokes-frog." Doc Hopper does not take "no" for an answer, and it takes all of the Muppet’s efforts to get Kermit to Hollywood.
The Great Muppet Caper takes the whole Muppet gang to England to solve the mystery of fashion designer Lady Holiday’s stolen jewels. Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo play American journalists in search of a story, and when they hear of the stolen diamond necklace, they head for London to investigate. Upon arriving, the three meet up with the rest of the Muppets at the wonderfully weird Happiness Hotel and enlist their help in unraveling the case.
Along the way, our favorite but somewhat inept reporters meet fashion model Miss Piggy and her employer Lady Holiday, but things start to get sticky when Lady Holiday’s missing jewels get planted and discovered in a piece of Piggy’s clothing. It is then up to Kermit and the rest of the Muppets to track down the real thieves and catch them before they pull off a bigger heist and Miss Piggy ends up in jail.
One of the primary disappointments about both of these discs is the lack of bonus material. Granted, they are not special editions and my expectations were adjusted accordingly, but it would have been nice to have a couple of archive interviews with Jim Henson or something to help provide a bit more historical context for each of the movies.
The discs do contain a series of "Muppetisms," which are 30 second to one minute ad spots featuring various characters including Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Animal. They are kind of cute once, but they do not really add much value as bonus material. The two discs also share a variety of movie trailers for other Henson and Columbia-Tristar films, but as with many other DVDs, trailers tend to have limited appeal.
The only significant bonus feature appears only on the Muppet Movie disc, and it is a thirteen and a half- minute camera test made by director James Frawly. The low quality film and audio shows Kermit, Fozzie, Sweetums, and Miss Piggy in various improvised scenes around a countryside and inside of a car. It appears that the purpose was for the director to get an idea of what could be done with the Muppets in an environment outside of their usual television studios. The ad-libbed scenes range from mundane to pretty funny, and it offers a neat glimpse into the tight knit interactions between Jim Henson and his fellow puppeteers.
The Video, Audio and Interface
The video on both of these discs is pretty good, and with both anamorphic widescreen and pan- and- scan versions available on each disc, there is something for everyone and you can decide which version you watch. The only fault with the video that instantly caught my eye was the very visible film graininess of the transfer on both movies. The problem is less significant on the widescreen versions, but it still becomes a bit distracting at times, such as bright scenes like the opening of The Muppet Movie. Other than that, the rest of the transfer looks pretty good with vibrant colors and detailed images. Film scratches or dust are minimal, and both movies are generally a treat to watch.
The remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks on both films are a pleasure to listen to. The dialog is clear, focused and well balanced, and the numerous musical scenes simply fill the room. Compared to my old, worn VHS copy, the improvement in the audio tracks are quite noticeable, even on my basic Dolby Pro Logic stereo system.
Unfortunately, the user interfaces (shown at the beginning of this review) on both discs are as plain as they come. The menus are simply static screens with no audio accompaniment. They are quite usable by everyone in the family, but they lack the fun and creative touch that I expected from a Muppet production.
The Final Evaluation
Both of these movies are perfectly suited for the whole family, and they are just as much fun now as they were 20 years ago. The humor, music and memorable characters all add up to a couple of classic enjoyable family films that can be watched over and over. As for the DVDs, the relatively clean video transfers and remastered audio soundtracks help make these discs good candidates for replacing your old VHS copies. The Frawly test film on The Muppet Movie is interesting, but just be aware that these DVDs are really meant and priced ($15 – $20) as movie-only discs.
If you are looking to simply upgrade your VHS collection and you are a big fan, these titles are definitely worth considering. On the other hand, if your DVD collecting habits tend to focus on special editions, you may want to hold off on these and just rent them when you get in a Muppet mood.
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