Muppet Treasure Island/The Great Muppet Caper (US - BD)
Gabe hunkers down with a mixed-bag of a Muppet movie double feature...
The Great Muppet Caper
Following the success of The Muppet Movie (1979), Jim Henson and his Muppet cohorts wrapped up the final season of The Muppet Show to focus on more theatrical releases. The second film in the original Muppet semi-trilogy, The Great Muppet Caper (1981), features a stronger, more character-driven story than its predecessor. Also, like most sequels, it had a bigger budget, allowing the production to make a number of technical leaps in Muppetry. The story, written by Tom Patchette, Jay Tarses, Jerry Juhl, and Jack Rose, isn’t a proper sequel to the original film, which was an origin story for the characters and their show. For the follow-up, Henson and his writing staff expanded their meta-textual themes by making The Great Muppet Caper as an unrelated film starring the Muppets as different characters that happen to have the same names. It’s fascinating proof that family audiences aren’t frightened away by complex concepts. The original movie still has an unequaled magical quality and the third film, The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), might have the most mature and challenging screenplay, but there’s still a lot of evidence to back up claims that The Great Muppet Caper was the franchise’s shinning moment. Henson’s direction is more assured, cinematic, and untethered by the limitations of puppetry. The opening sequence and bicycle scene are spectacular pieces of movie magic.
For its Blu-ray debut, The Great Muppet Caper is presented in 1080p, 1.85:1 video. Disney has once again avoided the temptation to erase all of the film grain with DNR. This is immediately clear during the opening credits, which are really, really grainy, especially the optically zoomed shots of Kermit, Fozzie Bear, and Gonzo’s hot air balloon. As the image is normalized, the grain turns much smaller, but never disappears entirely. The grain leads to some discolouration effects, especially during the outdoor shots (yellow drops in blue skies, in particular), where the crew was unable to control the lighting elements. Henson and cinematographer Oswald Morris aim for a naturalistic look, including dullish background colours and dark shadows. This is the perfect palette for the acrylic hues of the Muppets themselves to really pop, showing a vast improvement over DVD versions. Details are occasionally limited by the grain and use of shallower focus, but are, overall, another improvement over SD transfers. There’s some slight bleeding along the edges of the most vivid colours and minor macro-blocking effects when things are at their grainiest.
The original stereo soundtrack was remixed into 5.1 years ago for various DVD releases and this Blu-ray contains an uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio version of that same remix. As per the usual, the inclusion of the original soundtrack would’ve been preferable, but this 5.1 version is understated enough to sound like a typically cleaner version of an older soundtrack. The bulk of the dialogue and effects sit in the center channel, but not at the risk of aural depth during the busier moments (though there are some volume inconsistencies during the outdoor sequences). The original Muppet Movie has the advantage over its progeny with Paul Williams’ and Kenny Ascher’s original songs, but Joe Raposo’s The Great Muppet Caper music is similarly fantastic, especially any number involving The Electric Mayhem. The music is given a tasteful run of the stereo and surround channels and an important LFE bounce. The extras include only ‘Frog-E-Oke’ options for ‘Steppin’ Out with a Star’ and ‘Happiness Hotel.’
Muppet Treasure Island
We move from one of the franchise’s best to what I’d consider the worst of all of the theatrically released Muppet movies. Ideally, Disney would’ve coupled The Great Muppet Caper with The Muppets Take Manhattan for this Blu-ray release. Instead, we get Muppet Treasure Island. There are many fans that consider Muppets From Space (1999) the series’ low point, but I recall that film having its heart in the right place and missing the mark. It was a goofy attempt at modernizing something that is functionally timeless. Muppet Treasure Island isn’t just a weak movie on a conceptual level (why does Disney insist on retelling this one story over and over again?) – it’s crass, and, for long stretches, criminally boring (the only particularly funny running gag is the rats that are treating the voyage like a luxury cruise). Charm is such a vital component to these films that the lack of it tends to override director Brian Henson (son of Jim) and his crew’s technical prowess. Muppet Treasure Island followed The Muppet Christmas Carol (also directed by Brian Henson) in an attempt to restart the franchise after an eight-year gap. I assume that the idea was to continue adapting literary classics starring everyone’s favourite felt puppets. The original three films established the Muppets as oddities in a human world, but Muppet Christmas Carol set a precedent where the sets and settings were more tailor-made for the puppets, instead of the human actors. These two literary adaptations are surely masterpieces of production design, especially Muppet Treasure Island (though Henson tries to sabotage with erroneous Dutch angles), which, unfortunately, just doesn’t have the clever script to back up the handsome visuals. Tim Curry is great, but when has that ever been news?
Being a considerably newer film than The Great Muppet Caper, Muppet Treasure Island looks a bit more consistent and clean. That said, it’s a highly stylized movie, so it’s not free of intended grit and grain. Henson and cinematographer John Fenner shoot the film like any period adventure, including rich red/orange tints, harsh contrast levels, and moody shadows. The lighting is faux-source, recreating the look of a lantern, moon, and sun-lit world. This doesn’t necessarily make for the most dynamic details, but the majority of shots notably clearer than their DVD counterparts (I did noticed some slight compression on the busiest images). The Muppets themselves are, once again, the most vibrant elements and burst out from the more plain backdrops without any bleeding edges. The original 5.1 digital soundtrack is presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio. The centered dialogue track is occasionally inconsistent without becoming problematic, while the stereo and surround channels are devoted mostly to either music or simple seafaring sound effects. The instrumental score is credited to Hans Zimmer, who must’ve been gearing up for The Pirates of the Caribbean, and is wonderfully deep and brassy. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s song and dance music is incredibly forgettable, even intrusive at points, but also gets a warm, multi-channel treatment, especially the jazzy, drum-heavy ‘Cabin Fever.’ Extras include a commentary with Henson, Rizzo, and Gonzo, ‘Cabin Fever’ Frog-E-Oke, The Tale of the Stories Beyond the Tail (21:40, SD), and ‘Let the Good Shine On’ music video.
I know that both The Muppets Take Manhattan and Muppet Christmas Carol have already had Blu-ray releases, but it would’ve made so much more sense to pair Caper & Manhattan, then Christmas & Treasure Island.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 10th December 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Audio Commentary (Muppet Treasure Island only) Frog-E-Oke, The Tail of the Story Behind the Tale, Music Video, DVD Copies
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jim Henson, Brian Henson
Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Kevin Clash, Tim Curry, Charles Grodin, John Cleese, Diana Rigg
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Family and Mystery
Length: 198 minutes
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