“Meatballs” (1979) occupies a special place in the comedy genre for a couple of reason. First and foremost, the film launched the big-screen careers of director Ivan Reitman (“Stripes” and “Ghostbusters”) and actor Bill Murray. Produced on a small budget, “Meatballs” over the years has developed into a cult hit, mainly through word of mouth. Another cult hit, “Animal House” (1978), preceded “Meatballs,” and it helped the later film to cement its position in the genre, as both films deal with the themes of partying using different age groups. Sure enough, just like “Animal House,” “Meatballs” is pure Americana, representing the America’s younger generation at the time.
“Meatballs” will always be remembered for Bill Murray’s debut performance. Before this film, Murray’s status as a comedian gained prominence in 1976 in the second season of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Murray’s success in the show landed him his first acting gig and started his long film career. In “Meatballs,” he plays the character of a smooth-talking, straight-faced, wisecracking head counselor, Tripper Harrison, in a summer camp called Camp North Star. Indeed, Tripper is convincing with his straight-faced look, even making a journalist believe that the kids are going to see Yasser Arafat during their stay in the camp.
The film follows Tripper’s and his co-counselors’ antics as we are introduced to several kids at the camp. At the start of the film, we meet a young boy, Rudy (Chris Makepeace), who is sent by his father to the camp. Rudy feels disconnected in the group, and Tripper, after noticing this, decides to intermingle with Rudy by going out for occasional runs. The interaction with Tripper helps Rudy gain confidence. In the meantime, Tripper starts liking the female head counselor, Roxanne (Kate Lynch), and Rudy encourages Tripper to seek her out. The second part of the story deals with the rival camp, Mohawk, setting the stage for the yearly Olympiad in which Mohawk holds the upper hand based on their past performance. Finally, the championship comes down to a running event, and Tripper pushes Rudy to take this final challenge of the summer.
“Meatballs” is a lot of fun, even when some gags fall flat. Murray’s character is the centerpiece, as everything revolves around him. His comic timing never feels forced, and his witty remarks are inserted as a result of certain helpless situations and to highlight reactions from the supporting characters. When Murray’s character is not on-screen, the film manages to keep the rhythm going by providing necessary light moments. Although the film’s main theme deals with partying and having fun, it has a relevant message tacked under the sporting event. The message is about believing in one’s capabilities as shown by Rudy’s character. In addition, the student-mentor relationship between Rudy and Tripper is tender and showcases the importance of friendships in life.
In spite of a few positives that are evident, it is easy to miss out on the message and other significant details on the characters because there is too much focus on summer fun. As such, there is no concrete plot and occasionally there are a few filler moments. Since the supporting cast was fairly unknown at the time, the script relies heavily on Murray’s character, and weighing on the film’s tone, this aspect turns out rather well. Despite a few minor qualms, I think “Meatball” is a fun, lighthearted movie that still works, mainly due to Murray’s performance.
Lionsgate presents “Meatballs” in 1080p in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and encoded using an AVC codec. Considering the film is almost thirty-three years old, the transfer is above average, if one has low expectations. The opening shots exhibit grain, but it clears up in later scenes. The print is mostly devoid of any damage, but white specs do appear occasionally, although they not distracting. The detail is generally good, and sharpness is consistent, although in the dark scenes, sharpness fluctuates. The close-ups reveal realistic skin tones.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack nicely presents the film’s loud as well as quiet moments. The conversations are mainly driven by the front channels, and the dialogue remains steadily audible. During soft moments, the track realistically captures the soundscape of the nearby animal life and breezes around the lake. In the playful moments, the track utilizes the rear channels. The sound doesn’t feel flat, and there are no distracting popping noises in the track.
For the Blu-ray release, Lionsgate omits the “making-of” featurette found in the earlier DVD release by Sony. We still get an audio commentary track with director Ivan Reitman in which he discusses the script, locations, and characters in the movie. He also provides insight on his favorite moments in the film.
“Meatballs” is one of the better comedies from the 70s. The film is funny, packed with some great one-liners that are noticeable from the start when Tripper explains why this summer camp cost $1,000 a week. Tripper justifies the cost, but Tripper’s justification is a metaphor about having fun and forming friendly bonds. The film’s success ensured that director Ivan Reitman and Bill Murray would team up again in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters”—the later becoming one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time. The Blu-ray edition of “Meatballs” features a good transfer and an acceptable audio track.