[23 December 2013]
It’s hard to overstate the cultural impact of the Muppets. Ever since the ‘50s, Jim Henson’s loveable creations, named as an amalgamation between “puppet” and “marionette”, have been singing, tap-dancing, and joking their way across all aspects of the pop culture. Their integration on Sesame Street helped revolutionize educational programming, and The Muppet Show raised the bar on family entertainment by appealing to both children and adults alike.
What’s so amazing about the Muppets is how fully they inhabit the “real world”. The entire engine of the The Muppet Show, the variety-style series that catapulted the Muppets into stardom, was a celebrity guest appearing alongside the Muppets in various comedy sketches. Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the crew interact so convincingly with their human counterparts that it’s often hard to remember that they’re just puppets. After awhile, practically every shot of an actual live person from the waist up seems normal.
That’s a testament to the Muppet performers, of course, but also to how completely Kermit and Co. have saturated the pop culture landscape and become genuinely “real” in our eyes. (I remember visiting the Smithsonian once and seeing one of the original Kermit puppets in a glass case, and realizing how “unnatural” it felt for him to be so still). Even in this tech-dominated age, when everything is computer animated and video game characters are becoming increasingly better at portraying actual human emotion, the fixed eyes and features of the Muppets remain just as expressive as anything else.
Although the Muppets have appeared in everything from television specials to music albums to books, it’s the feature films that have really allowed them to show off. To date, there have been no less than seven movies featuring the Muppets, with the eighth (Muppets Most Wanted) slated for release in March of 2014. Since the Walt Disney Corporation bought the property in 2004, they have slowly been re-releasing the Muppet films on Blu-Ray and DVD.
The latest to get the high-definition treatment is a double feature set that pairs The Great Muppet Caper (1981) with Muppet Treasure Island (1994), from two different “eras” of the Muppet franchise. The Great Muppet Caper is from the “Henson era,” when Jim Henson himself was still performing Kermit, and is in fact the only Muppet film he directed. Muppet Treasure Island was made four years after Henson’s death and directed by his son Brian. These two films are a curious pairing, but they are both testaments to how welcome a change of pace can be.
The Great Muppet Caper has always been one of my personal favorites, and although slower than I remember, it holds up spectacularly well in High-Definition. A clever parody of heist films and musicals popular in the golden age of cinema, it’s worth the price alone simply for the musical number with an underwater synchronized swimming sequence involving Miss Piggy. The jokes are sharp, and there’s a great meta-awareness that runs throughout the picture, with the Muppets and actors often breaking the fourth wall to refer to comment on the issues they’re having with the movie they’re making. Like all Muppet movies during the Henson era, Caper revolves around the Muppets as main characters while containing some excellent tongue-in-cheek cameos by Diana Rigg, Peter Ustinov, and John Cleese.
Muppet Treasure Island is an adaptation of the nineteenth century Robert Louis Stevenson novel about pirates, admittedly an odd choice for a Muppet movie. Like the post-Henson Muppet films, Island brings human characters to the forefront much more, relegating the Muppets to supporting roles (Miss Piggy’s appearance doesn’t come until nearly the middle of the film). Thankfully, the main human performer here is Tim Curry as pirate Long John Silver, and his presence adds some much-needed vitality to the story.
The new two-disc pack has a few special features, most of which were copied over from the DVD releases of the films. The special feature that I was most excited about – audio commentary on Treasure Island with director Brian Henson, the Great Gonzo, and Rizzo the Rat – was simply the director’s commentary interspersed with a few jokes by Gonzo and Rizzo, clearly added in later since they don’t interact with Henson at all. It’s all very distracting, especially because Gonzo and Rizzo’s audio track was recorded for a DVD “Hidden Treasure” feature that’s not available on the Blu-Ray version. Other special features, three sing-along videos dubbed “Frog-E-Oke” and a music video are fun, but nothing substantial.
While it’s unfortunate that Disney chose not to add any new features (or update the current ones) for this set, it’s good to see that the Muppets are being released in High-Definition for new generations to enjoy. These two films might not be the greatest masterpieces in the Muppet canon (that’s depending on who you ask, of course, but the clear answer is The Muppet Movie), but they’re still great fun for the whole family, and especially for Muppet newcomers. It’s difficult to maintain the original sensibilities of a creative property after the original creator is gone, and often you wind up wishing the franchise would end as well. But while this box set is a testament to how much the Muppets have changed over the years, they continue to live on, and in this case, I’m inclined to think that’s more of a good thing than a bad.