It’s no
news to the casual Muppet fan that the franchise has been in decline these past
few years. Byzantine deals with House of Mouse and some Germans of shadowed
motivation interfered with the magical formula of Kermit and friends. Jim
Henson’s death, in 1990, didn’t do much to help the troupe along, but under the
auspices of his son, Brian, there were at least two successful features in the
nineties before it all went to pot.

celebrate the 50th anniversary of a comedy act equivalent of a garage band,
Disney has re-released the four crown jewels in the Muppet oeuvre. Disney
always does such a swell job on their cash-in releases; so, do these discs
break the trend?

The Flicks

The Muppet Movie (1979)

STUDIO: Walt Disney Home Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 95 Minutes
Backstage Disney – Profile of Kermit the Frog

An origin
story would have been enough. The Muppets’ take on any genre convention had, at
this point, been a proven factor, thanks to the numerous lampoons on The
Muppet Show
. Rather than sticking with one rich-enough storyline,
though, the writers made The Muppet Movie into a combination
origin story and road trip. The cross-country adventures of a frog, a bear, a
Studebaker, and an ever-enlarging cast of misfits mine the best possibilities
of the road trip narrative, namely the sketch-based comedy with a loose,
defining thread and coherent characterization.

In keeping
with the show, The Muppet Movie also featured a wide range of musical numbers.
Children may actually be turned off by some of the music, because a decent
percentage of them aren’t even humorous. Kermit’s hippie-nouveau "The
Rainbow Connection" kicks off the movie with the idealism of a nascent
performer, which carries the whole flick. Later on, Gonzo sings "I’m Going
To Go Back There Someday," a poignant lyric that might as well be NASA’s
theme song.

You have no idea how much this image terrified me as a child.

irreverent Muppets humor comes out in other songs, like the woman-hating duet
between Rowlf and Kermit, and the singalong craziness of Doctor Teeth and the
Electric Mayhem. The songs don’t do much to drive the story, but add the
overall vaudevillian tone that the Muppets have always aimed for.

The cracks
in the story, widened by age, are those that are based in the assumption that
th audience is well-familiar in The Muppet Show. The entire plot of
the movie is self-referential, and as the original show fades into memory
(despite the recent DVD releases), the anchor point for this movie goes along
with it.

For those
that are familiar with the show, and for those that don’t mind dismissing the
need for continuity, The Muppet Movie is a blast, an
entertaining mix of song, dance, and dialogue with humor for the kids and a
structure for the more analytical among us. The movie’s also notable for the
great control over cameos and bit-parts, none of which — and there are many —
feel like afterthoughts.

8 out of 10

"Nineteen against one, huh? Well, I know only one thing,
and that’s that I never wuz any good at maths."

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

STUDIO: Walt Disney Home Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 98 Minutes
Backstage Disney – Profile of Miss Piggy

Quick on
the heels of the modest success of The Muppet Movie came this tight little
heist flick. Its paper thin plot adds to the Muppets’ thick portfolio of roles
as they slot right into the story conventions of light crime. Kermit, Fozzie,
and Gonzo work for a newspaper and travel to
England to investigate a jewel theft, and
uncovering a plot to steal the largest diamond in the world, the fabulous
Baseball Diamond.

The story
relies less on the whole pantheon of Muppets and more on Kermit, Piggie, Gonzo,
and Fozzie. It’s not a bad turn. The huge ensemble worked well in The
Muppet Movie
, but it didn’t have to work twice. Don’t worry: all the
Muppet favorites are present, from Animal to Sam the Eagle, Crazy Harry to
Zoot, but they take a backseat to the antics of the leads.

"$10 to touch it."

Caper is a prime example of the
deconstruction that happens when the Muppets come around. Not only is their plot
a mad parody of a typical heist flick, but the villains of the piece take their
plot seriously, and it is contrasted beautifully against the barely-controlled
anarchy of Kermit and his cohort. The Muppets dial the concept of crime back to
its root, and end up committing a few of their own in order to foil the
thieves, which turns the whole climax into a strange brew of offensive comedy (as
opposed to defensive comedy) and self-deprecating humor.

Many of
the gags in Caper are familiar Muppet shtick (puns, miscommunications, and
Gonzo), but they do engage in a bit more breaking of the fourth wall and
non-sequiturs than in the previous movie. There are some dud jokes as a result,
since that kind of meta-humor is much more difficult to pull off.

from an increased reliance on human characters (more on that below), Caper
is a worthy follow-up to The Muppet Movie, with all of the
creators’ charm and wit intact.

7.8 out of 10

Just curious: does Aquaman have dry dreams?

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

STUDIO: Walt Disney Home Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 89 Minutes
Backstage Disney – Profile of Gonzo the Great
Feature-length commentary by dir. Brian Henson
Outtake reel

Jim Henson’s death, his son, Brian, took over the reins for the Stuffed Ones.
Only two years after the elder Henson’s body was cold, The Muppet Christmas Carol
hit theaters. It follows a natural progression from its predecessors
(discounting Muppets Take Manhattan) in fitting the Muppets into
increasingly discordant roles. The Muppet Movie had them as
themselves; The Great Muppet Caper had them as themselves playing into a
heist flick; The Muppet Christmas Carol has them as characters in George
Dickens’ modest slice of literature.

problem with the translation from vaudeville act to theater troupe is that
Dickens’ characters are not at all suited to Muppet actors. The screenwriters
did a decent job expanding certain roles and contracting others to make way for
the established Muppet characters (Sam the Eagle as Scrooge’s old headmaster
works particularly well), but not all the translations go so smoothly. You
couldn’t imagine any other Muppet than Kermit as Bob Cratchit, but Cratchit’s
character is not Kermit’s, and so one of the old greats is relegated to the

In Wonderfalls, London, England, young Ebenezer was
about to begin a series of zany, madcap adventures.

Carol also made the mistake of shifting
the focus off the Muppets and onto a human actor. Michael Caine does a great
Scrooge, but it becomes a movie about a human with cameos by Muppets, instead
of a movie about Muppets with cameos by humans. The Scrooge story also doesn’t
stand well on its own, when not being interrupted by Muppet zaniness. The middle
third, particularly, drags too long over Scrooge’s failed love life.

I have to
admit a good deal of respect for the writers in adhering closely to Dickens’
original, including the creepiness and genuine fear of mortality that pervades
the sequences with the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come. The costuming goes a
long way to creating the mood, and the dialogue in this section spins its own
humor from careless to callous in a heartbeat.

The Muppet Christmas
a failure, but it certainly was an experiment. The focus shift from the Muppets
to a human lead tends to lean the whole narrative toward drama, rather than
comedy, which is not the territory that Muppets work best in.

6.5 out of 10

"For God’s sake, don’t eat the salmon mousse."

Muppet Treasure Island (1996)

STUDIO: Walt Disney Home Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 100 Minutes
Backstage Disney – Profile of Fozzie Bear

sorry, Jim Henson, if this makes you spin in your grave but: Muppet
Treasure Island
is the best Muppet feature yet produced. The new
management at Muppet Central learned from their mistakes with Carol
and, though they decided to front a human actor again, Treasure Island places the
comedy much higher in the proverbial mix, and lets the drama comes from
adventure rather than introspection.

A young
actor, Kevin Bishop, plays Jack Hawkins, but unlike Scrooge he never appears
onscreen without being bolstered by at least one Muppet. This prevents the film
from falling into the overreaching melodrama of Carol. It also has the
added bonus of giving a few certain Muppets some much-deserved screentime.

Muppet roster expands quite a bit for this outing, as a whole wealth of new
characters are created so as to swell the ranks of the pirates. Their unsubtle
introduction (by way of roll-call) makes up for being an obvious device of the
writers by sketching a good half-dozen new character memorably.

Dead Tom was so powerful, he intentionally blinded himself to make his fights fair.

Muppets and child actors aside, this movie belongs entirely to Tim Curry, the
best Long John Silver this side of a bar stool. He completely inhabits the
charismatic, deceitful, kind pirate captain, whose love for brotherhood is
always at odds with his greed. He acts perfectly alongside the Muppets,
treating them not as curiosities but as real actors, and the humor is deepened
for it.

Where the
musical numbers in Carol and Caper were hit-or-miss, here they’re
sinking battleships left and right. The lyrics are tight and humorous (with an
impressive vocabulary) and the music shifts wildly from singalong ditties to
plodding dirges. Even the maligned "Cabin Fever" deserves some love
for its choreography and design, even if the music is a bit derivative.

translation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure translates to the Muppets’
version of the screen much better than did Dickens’ fable. The characters are
more sympathetic, and require less exposition, and the action and adventure
elements are better suited to lampooning than tender drama.

My last
bit of praise for
Treasure Island regards the cinematography. John Fenner, who had
worked on Carol and a few other Henson productions, found a number of
sweet spots during this production. The musical number for Miss Piggy’s
introduction, in particular, has a golden grandness that seems much more than
one would expect from a movie staring a bunch of felt. The tropical beaches and
sets are also beautifully photographed, communicating a real heat and energy.

Muppet Treasure
pretty close to a perfect blend of old and new, maintaining the edgy humor of The
Muppet Movie
and tinting it with some of the softer humor of The
Muppet Christmas Carol
. A host of catchy tunes, clever lines, and one
smart comeuppance for the antagonist makes for a hell of a fun film.

8.5 out of 10

Even with the Easy Book, Billy Bones just couldn’t get a handle on basic literacy.

The Look

Each disc
gives you the option of viewing the feature in fullscreen or widescreen format.
The two formats are on separate layers of one side, so you don’t have to go
flipping the disc if you change your mind.

The transfers
of the two older flicks, The Muppet Movie and The
Great Muppet Caper
are a little bland. It’s most noticeable in the
former, during the sequences featuring the wildly decorated Studebaker. It’s
not terrible, but the vibrancy is subdued. A fair amount of film noise has
carried over from the print for those first two movies, as well; dust and
scratches are present, but not all that obtrusive. The later films are richer
in tone, and have cleaner transfers.

7.5 out of 10

The Noise

Each film
has a Dolby digital 5.1 track. A fair number of talented musicians have leant
their talent to the Muppets, including Harry Gregson-Williams, Hans Zimmer,
Miles Goodman, and Joe Raposo. Throughout all four discs, the music is mixed
beautifully, bombastic or subtle as required.

As a
contrast, the dialogue tends to be a bit muddy, throughout. The Muppets thrive
on humorous asides, and occasionally I noticed them being drowned out by
incidental music.

cartoonish effects are out in full force: the sproings, bleeps, and explosions
are clear and deep. Despite being only Dolby, the sound tracks for both of the
later films feel very close to the theatrical tracks in presence and design. I
was far too young to enjoy the original two films in the theater, but for Carol
Treasure Island I can say the comparison between home viewing and
theater is pretty favorable.

The Goodies

worth spit. Each disc has Pepe (a Muppet who does not feature in any of these
flicks) introducing one of the major characters, and providing a joke-riddled
bio sketch. The Muppet Christmas Carol also features a deleted scene, a
short outtakes reel, and a fairly shallow commentary track by Brian Henson. And
that’s it. Thanks, Disney, for all your love and support through these
troubling times. The Muppets aren’t worthy of such lavish treatment.

2 out of 10

The Artwork

daring, here. The original posters and cover art are jettisoned in favor of
dull, posed headshots, communicating nothing of the story that can’t be told
through costuming. The layout makes the films virtually indistinguishable from
the mounds of other Disney DVDs. This exactly what "average" means.

5 out of 10

So here
you get four entertaining flicks given the shaft by the authors of the DVDs.
It’s great to own them all in widescreen, but c’mon… Golden Anniversary, and
all. For my grandparents’ golden anniversary, I made a damn behind-the-scenes
documentary. .

Overall = [(Score for Flick) – 1]