Puppets go on a road trip and sing songs. This first feature-length vehicle for Jim Henson's beloved foam-filled creatures, The Muppet Movie opted to break out of the restrictive setting of the stage of The Muppet Show and let Kermit and the gang travel across the U.S. en route to Hollywood. The result was a typically funny, sweet and sometimes silly origin story in which we're shown how Kermit supposedly went from the swamp to stardom, picking up various other Muppets along the way. While the film doesn't quite utilize the often wacky, nonsensical kind of humor that the television show frequently did, there is a framing device replete with those humor in chaos trademarks where the Muppets attend a private preview screening of the very film we're also watching. This opening allows otherwise absent characters like Statler and Waldorf, Lew Zealand and the Swedish Chef to be shoehorned into the picture. When we return later on in the film to the screening it feels more like a dose of Muppet-branded anarchy rather than any sort of interruption.
Add celebrity cameos to the list of Muppet signatures present here also. That was one of the things the recent James Bobin-directed The Muppets did well in replicating. Here we start with Dom DeLuise paddling through the swamp for some reason and "discovering" Kermit. He encourages the frog to go west and make a career of making others happy. The philosophical ideas swarming around the Muppets tend to be so innocuously simple and kind as to seem rooted in a commune. But that's surely part of the appeal. The harmless notion of bringing laughter and entertainment to the lives of others deserves no defense. It is and should be without controversy. In The Muppet Movie, however, Kermit's path to fame and fortune is disrupted by Doc Hopper, a Col. Sanders-like figure behind a chain of fast food joints specializing in frog legs. He's played by Charles Durning and the actor literally seems to be having a barrel of fun in this ridiculously villainous role. When Hopper sees Kermit his eyes nearly pop out of his head Tex Avery style. He's the perfect mascot for his restaurants and Doc Hopper will stop at nothing to get him.
After leaving the swamp Kermit meets and joins up with several of his soon-to-be Muppet buddies. There's Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Camilla, Miss Piggy and even Rowlf the Dog. Their encounters, from Milton Berle as a used car salesman to Steve Martin as a very unskilled waiter, are matched only by their misadventures in trying to avoid Hopper. They find Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in a church. Bunsen and Beeker are seemingly the only occupants of a western ghost town which also lets Kermit briefly parody High Noon. One montage eventually leads to another montage and we get nifty songs like "Movin' Right Along" and the Oscar-nominated "Rainbow Connection" in the process. Some of the tunes are maybe a little less timeless than others but that's hardly uncommon for a musical, which The Muppet Movie surely is. It features a barreling plot, loose but kept on track, that finds pauses for a timely song here and there. Music and songs are such an integral part of the Muppet universe that it would have been odd had this first film not made ample use of them.
With each Muppet's finely-hewn idiosyncrasies established quite well at this point, it's interesting to note how skilled Henson, writers Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns, and director James Frawley are at not overdoing the expected behaviors of the characters here. There's a bit of Fozzie bombing with his comedy, Animal being crazy, Piggy being overbearing, etc., but none of this ever becomes grating because it's done with relative restraint. The less creatively successful Muppet films and specials seem to have simply attached the signatures to the characters to an aggressive degree and without much else. This is a hallmark problem with sequels but it's one that can be avoided when there's actually a semblance of a plot to keep things moving at a steady pace. The delightful thing about The Muppet Movie is that it has a built-in starting point and ending point. The hijinks, even from the threatening Doc Hopper, are able to be mapped as conflicts and distractions without hindering the overall flow of the narrative.
The Muppet Movie, thus, actually manages to feel a little low-key and consequently pleasant in its measured ambition. On the whole, it's not necessarily in line with the manic humor displayed at times on The Muppet Show or even the dedicated poise found in The Muppet Christmas Carol or the soaring ambition of The Muppets. For the most part that's perfectly fine. The Muppet Movie surely has its fans and it's a more than pleasant diversion. It carries with it a winking innocence that plays well with audiences of all ages. The sweetness in the Muppets never bows to saccharine levels. It feels almost impossible to actively dislike the Muppets. They are universal and, so far, never lacking in relevance. The appealing elements are all present in The Muppet Movie, some more in abundance than others, and it's a film that still holds up well enough nearly 35 years after its debut.
Disney, current controller of the Muppets' empire, seems to have gotten a little impatient by releasing the "Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition" of The Muppet Movie. No worries, as whatever excuse it takes to get this out on Blu-ray seems acceptable. The disc is region-free and also contains a Digital Copy code in the package.†Upon inserting it you get a choice of four different languages - English, French, Spanish and German.
Grain is very prevalent in the image here. The 1.85:1 transfer looks very thick in grain, sometimes to less than eye-pleasing results. Once you get past that aspect there's not much in the way of hesitation. Damage is minimal. Colors such as the Muppets' felt-y fur sort of pop to unexpected levels. Maybe the darker areas lose some detail but it's generally quite sharp and tight. I don't know just how good this film could look in high definition but I can't feel disappointed with this result.
Audio gets a boost to English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and it lets the songs and dialogue breathe nicely across the channels. The inclusion of an original audio track would have been ideal but this ends up as a fine enough mix. Subtitles are optional and white in color. They are available in English, English for the hearing impaired, French, Spanish and German. If you access Set-Up from the top menu and then select Languages, there's also a "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" option that allows for a German Dolby Digital 1.0 dub. It's actually kind of fun to hear how the Muppets sound.
Disney has done a good job of balancing the bonus material with a different things that can be appreciated by different audiences. The younger contingent might be more the target for the Frog-E-Oke Sing-Along that plays when the film is paused as an Intermission or can be accessed from the menu. Three songs - "Rainbow Connection" (3:13), "Movin' Right Along" (2:55), and "Can You Picture That" (2:30) - are available to play as the lyrics dash across the screen.
The real treasure we have here is Jim Frawley's Extended Camera Test (17:53), in which the director goes along with Jim Henson and Frank Oz to what appears to be rural England for some camera tests. The 4:3 color footage was previously available on the Sony-released DVD edition of The Muppet Movie but has been extended and perhaps restored a bit for this release. The banter between Henson's Kermit and Oz, first doing Fozzie then Miss Piggy, makes this like Muppet improvisational theatre in the wild. They also have Sweetums as an occasional foil. It's often very funny, particularly for how off-the-cuff it seems.
Shorter goodies like Doc Hopper's Commercial (1:03) that's also seen in the film and both teaser (1:25) and original theatrical (4:21) trailers help to fill out the disc. A carryover bonus, "Pepe Profiles Present Kermit - A Frog's Life" (6:34), is from the green one's 50th anniversary celebration but is still worth a watch (or even a re-watch).
The package has a code for a Digital Copy inside the case.