Three years after Jim Henson’s Muppets debuted on American television, the Muppet gang made the leap to the big screen with this 1979 “origin” story of how the ragtag group got together and made it to Hollywood.
Directed by James Frawley—who had a little experience delivering light-but-slightly-manic entertainment with the old “Monkees” TV series—it features all the original puppeteers and voices: Jim Henson (as Kermit, Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, Waldorf, Swedish Chef), Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam the Eagle), Jerry Nelson (Floyd Pepper, Robin the Frog, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew), Richard Hunt (Scooter, Statler, Beaker), and Dave Goelz (The Great Gonzo and other minor characters).
But just as the TV show derived its energy from the interaction between these funky furballs and humans, “The Muppet Movie” gets a boost from a busload of big-name guest stars:
Dom DeLuise plays a directionally challenged agent who discovers Kermit in the swamp and plants the idea of going to Hollywood to try out for an “open audition for frogs.”
Charles Durning plays Doc Hopper, the movie’s villain intent on killing Kermit unless he agrees to be the national pitch man for his fast-food fried frog legs chain.
Mel Brooks plays a German-Jewish “doctor” that Doc Hopper called in to torture Kermit.
James Coburn turns up as the owner of the El Sleezo Cafe, where Fozzie Bear has been bombing in front of the toughest crowds imaginable.
Elliott Gould appears at a beauty contest won by Miss Piggy and judged by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy.
Bob Hope and Milton Berle have cameos as an ice cream vendor and Mad Man Mooney, respectively.
Madeline Kahn is a sleezy El Sleezo patron who wants Kermit to buy her a drink in a segment that also features Telly Savalas as a tough guy.
Steve Martin is a sarcastic waiter, while Richard Pryor sells balloons.
Even Orson Welles makes an appearance as a Hollywood big shot whose secretary, Cloris Leachman, finds herself severely allergic to the Muppet gang.
Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher teamed up to produce a string of songs that are so good that they help drive the film as much as the puns, the sight gags, and the cute Muppet antics. Everyone’s heard of “Rainbow Connection,” an Oscar-nominated tune that lost to a song from “Norma Rae” that everyone’s since forgotten. But other songs are almost as catchy, from the “Movin’ Right Along” road-trip theme to the broken-hearted upbeat ballad “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along.” In fact, only one of the eight songs seems just a little generic. The rest stand out as much as a frog and pig holding hands.
Muppet humor is vaudeville, stand-up humor, and when the jokes are working the TV shows worked. The script comes from Jack Burns (“The Muppet Show,” “Hee Haw”) and Jerry Juhl, a “Sesame Street” veteran who wrote the teleplay for “Tales from Muppetland: The Muppet Musicians of Bremen.” There’s no second-act sag here, and the jokes are close enough so that if one misfires another is there to spark the comedy.
“The Muppet Movie” has a runtime of 95 minutes and is rated G.
Previous DVDs of “The Muppet Movie” have looked awfully rough, with undersaturated colors and so much grain you wondered whether the digital version was much of an upgrade over VHS tape (remember those?). There’s no indication as to how much Disney tinkered with restoration or clean-up, but I can say that the colors are definitely brighter and richer-looking, black levels appear stronger, and apart from a really rough-looking scene during which Miss Piggy sings “Never Before, Never Again,” there’s far less grain. The source materials for that song and several other second-act scenes must have been really rough, though, because in those there’s considerably more grain and noise as well.
“The Muppet Movie” is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
I wouldn’t call the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 a dynamic audio, because it just doesn’t have a lot of weight behind it or doesn’t seem to drive the sound far from the speakers . . . except for the explosions. Ambient sounds are distributed nicely across the effects speakers, and when the music kicks in (or those explosions) you can feel the surround.
This Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition includes a Digital Copy of the film—not a DVD, so if you have old DVD players in spare TVs or car players, you’ll still need to hang onto your old one.
Apart from an all-new “Frog-E-Oke” sing-along, older features are included here: “Jim Frawley’s Extended Camera Test” with never-before-seen footage added to the DVD bonus feature; “Original Trailers”; an in-character “Doc Hopper’s Commercial”; a “Classic Bonus: Pepe [the Prawn] Profiles Present Kermit – A Frog’s Life”; and a Disney Intermission that plays when you pause the film and randomized “surprises” pop up.
“The Muppet Movie” is one big road trip, and like “The Blues Brothers” there’s a payoff not just at the end, but around nearly every corner. Music only sweetens the deal.