Say the word and different characters spring to mind, so distinctive that it’s easy to focus on their personalities and forget the technical aspects—that it was Jim Henson’s blending of marionette and puppet (hence the term “Muppet”) that changed puppetry forever. Using more flexible and lifelike forms that could be better manipulated slightly out-of-frame in TV or movie shots, he and his crew of “Muppeteers” were able to expand the world of narrative and movement beyond the string-bound marionettes and stage-bound puppets.
Henson debuted his creations on the Washington, D.C. kids program “Sam and Friends” from 1955-1961 and they were a part of “Sesame Street” when it debuted in 1969. Just seven years later his characters were so popular that “The Muppet Show” hit prime-time TV and aimed for an adult audience while also entertaining children. That show was comparatively short-lived (it ended in 1981), which made industry experts think the novelty had worn off.
Maybe. But the Muppets found extended life on the big screen, and their journey from hot commodity to minor obscurity was more of a slide than a plummet. Coming at the height of the TV show’s popularity, “The Muppet Movie” pulled in $76.7 million at the box office, while “The Great Muppet Caper”—the first sequel, which played in theaters the show’s final season—earned a disappointing $31.2 million. After “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1981, $26 million) and “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992, $27.3) continued to reflect a box-office malaise, “Muppet Treasure Island” (1996) was a bounce-back success that grossed $34.3 million.
If you go by box office alone, “Muppet Treasure Island” and “The Great Muppet Caper” are the two best sequels. If you go by the Rottentomatoes Tomatometer, they’re the second and third best sequels behind “Manhattan.” Either way, the two films together make for a strong pairing on Blu-ray combo pack.
“Muppet Treasure Island” is the default film that appears when you press “play” on the Blu-ray, probably because it’s the most consistently sharp-looking video presentation. Jim Henson’s son, Brian, directs this in the same crisp style as his father, who died prematurely in 1990. It’s the same fast-moving blend of music, bad vaudeville-style jokes, and general Muppet mayhem that has characterized the show and string of films.
Visually, it’s a marvel, with the combination of people and Muppets almost upstaged by a pirate ship in full sea, announced by Hans Zimmer’s magnificent pre-“Pirates of the Caribbean” score. And when Kermit puts on his pants and jumps on a bed, you’ll be wondering how the Muppeteers pulled it off.
Henson takes a few liberties, as expected, with the Robert Louis Stevenson story, which Disney also adapted into an animated version (“Treasure Planet,” 2002). In the Muppet makeover, young Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop) isn’t living with his mother at the Benbow Inn. He’s an orphan living with pals Gonzo and Rizzo. As in the book, Billy Bones gives him a treasure map before he dies and a visit from the pirate Blind Pew sets the plot in motion. Jim and his friends flee, and they find a dimwitted son of Squire Trelawney (Fozzie Bear) willing to fund their journey to fetch the treasure. So they hire a ship commanded by Capt. Smollett (Kermit the Frog) and his first mate (Sam the Eagle). And as in the book, the ship’s cook (Tim Curry) is not what he seems. Long John Silver is really a pirate who has designs on that treasure himself.
All of the variations seem fun enough with the exception of Miss Piggy as Benjamina Gunn, who in Stevenson’s novel was a marooned misfit gone mad. Here, Piggy’s glam-ma’am persona seems out-of-place—more like a Hollywood version of something Odysseus would have found on an island during his own travels. But Bishop is a likeable Hawkins and Curry plays Silver with enough menace to interest, but not frighten younger viewers.
Then again, there are so many jokes and songs—some nice ones by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil—that it’s hard to take even the villain too seriously.
To access “The Great Muppet Caper” you have to go through a separate menu, and the film is considerably grainier, especially in outdoor scenes or scenes that have large backdrops of negative space. “Caper” is part tribute to old ‘40s Hollywood musicals and part homage to film noir detective movies from that same era, though it’s set during contemporary times.
The only Muppet movie directed by Henson is much more self-referential than “Treasure Island,” with performers frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the audience or talk about the production in a wink-wink aside. In this, another obvious influence is the Hope-Crosby-Lamour “road picture” formula, only here the guys are Fozzie Bear and Kermit the Frog, “identical twins” working for an American newspaper called the Daily Chronicle, who go to London to get an interview with Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg). You see, while every other paper managed to report on the daring broad-daylight theft of her diamond necklace, Fozzie and Kermit decided their own story was more interesting. Now they’re out to make amends, and in true private-eye fashion they end up at a fleabag hotel and what passes for a femme fatale is Miss Piggy, whom Kermit mistakes for Lady Holiday.
Charles Grodin plays the lightweight “heavy” and numerous big-production musical numbers take you back to an era when watching dancers (or swimmers onscreen) in synchronized movement was entertainment enough. As it was with films from the ‘40s, the musical numbers aren’t deftly integrated into the plot. They feel like big Hollywood moments, and fans who like that sort of thing will prefer “Caper” to the more heavily narrative “Treasure Island.” They’re both pretty solid films, though, and to get them on one Blu-ray is both convenient and a bit of an early Christmas present.
“Muppet Treasure Island” and “The Great Muppet Caper” are rated G, with a runtime of 99 and 98 minutes, respectively.
Both films are presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and as I said, “Treasure Island” is superior visually. Neither film has transfer/compression issues (AVC/MPEG-4), but the level of detail and the edge delineation is so much better in “Treasure,” as is the minimal graininess. Though it too was restored and remastered, “Caper” looks a little rough in spots, as if the original elements weren’t in nearly as good of shape. What a difference a decade makes. Heavy grain dominates some sequences, while (fur aside) the edges seem a little fuzzier in spots. Then suddenly everything is clear and clean. But the inconsistencies of visual presentation don’t detract too much from the story.
The featured audio on both is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that IS consistently energy-filled and clear throughout. Especially during musical numbers the surround speakers contribute mightily—though some may wish for a slightly stronger bass presence. Spanish and French audio options are also provided, along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
There isn’t exactly a wealth of bonus features. You can sing along with one song (“Cabin Fever”) on “Treasure Island” and two (“Steppin’ out with a Star” and “Happiness Hotel”) on “Caper,” and at least they picked the best songs for that. But other than a music video (“Let the Good Shine Out”) and an audio commentary for “Treasure Island” by Brian Henson, Gonzo and Rizzo, the only other bonus feature is “The Tale of the Story beyond the Tail,” a retrospective on the challenges of making this seafaring classic. It’s definitely above-average as making-of features go, though the format is familiar.
“Muppet Treasure Island” is a salty costumed adventure and “The Great Muppet Caper” a cheeky homage to ‘40s Hollywood. Packaged together they’re a fun blast from the Muppet past, when manic pacing, corny jokes, and big musical numbers gave the characters life beyond anything the Muppeteers could do.