Muppets, The (US - BD)
Gabe loves this 2nd most sensational, celebrational, muppetational movie...
Brothers Walter (Peter Linz) and Gary (Jason Segel) grow up watching and loving The Muppets TV show. Being a Muppet himself (for no explained reason), Walter especially connects with his fellow felt-based puppets, and dreams of joining the troop. The years pass, and Walter is invited to join Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on a trip to LA, where they plan on visiting the Muppet Studio. While there, Walter sneaks into Kermit the Frog’s old office and overhears a discussion between evil oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) and his evil underlings, where he learns Richman is about to purchase the studio in order to drill for the oil reserves beneath it. However, if the Muppets are able to quickly raise $10 million they can repurchase the theater and save it from Richman’s drills. Walter, Gary, and Mary find Kermit, now living a solitary life, and convince him to get the old gang back together, including Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Rowlf the Dog, Scooter, every member of The Electric Mayhem, and Miss Piggy, who he hasn’t spoken to in years. Meanwhile, Gary and Mary begin to drift apart.
I don’t actually agree with the general consensus that the Muppets were in desperate need of reinvention, or that they’d lost quite the dramatic amount of pop-culture clout some fans seemed to think. If anything, the lack of theatrical Muppet movies allowed them to slip into a more modern side of pop culture popularity in the form of viral videos and commercials. In the twelve years between 1999’s Muppets from Space (which was a monetary loss) Kermit and his friends steadily gained momentum, enough that I’d argue their popularity was almost as high around the release of The Muppets as it was around the release of The Muppet Movie back in 1979. I’m also of the mind that the Muppets didn’t go out on a total stinker like other popular properties in desperate need of theatrical reinvention. Muppets from Space wasn’t nearly as good as the original film, or the first two sequels, but it was also a step up from Muppet Treasure Island, and wasn’t nearly the pile of property poison that Batman and Robin and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were. The Muppet’s success at the box office was never a sure thing, but fans were a bit too anxious about the future of their favourite felt creatures around the release of the film, as if it was some kind of make it or break it moment.
Doomed property or not, meta-commentary is a substantial and valuable part of the latest Muppet film, appropriately titled The Muppets. Screenwriters Jason Segel (who also stars) and Nicholas Stoller (Segel’s director on Forgetting Sarah Marshall) build their script almost entirely on references to the original Muppets TV series, movies, and references to the characters’ lost place in modern pop culture. Everyone the Muppets approach for their fundraiser claim they’re irrelevant, and mortal enemy Tex Richman threatens to replace them with The Moopets, ‘a hard cynical act for a hard cynical age’. In effect, the journey taken in the movie mirrors the journey taken by an audience watching the movie and falling in love with their favourite characters all over again. I’m usually skeptical about any art or entertainment dependent almost exclusively on nostalgia because it’s cheap and suppressive, but I am powerless in the face of The Muppets’ overpowering sentimentality. I haven’t enjoyed such an audience uniting theatrical experience since Return of the King, and haven’t been as emotionally overwhelmed by a film (in theaters) since I openly wept during the climax of Children of Men. It’s difficult to convey exactly what pushed me into that place where I was willing to shed tears of joy for a bunch of puppets and their slap-happy jokes, and I’m left admitting it might be my loving memories of the original series and movies that left me glowing and floating out of the theater. Contrary to fan fears of Disney ‘Disneying up’ the property to appeal to wee ones, I’m actually surprised any viewers that didn’t grow up with our specific brand of Muppets got much out of the experience outside of bad puns and bright colours. There isn’t anything unique about this story, or even the way this story is being told, but that’s kind of the point. Segel and Stoller are working around popular tropes and clichés and purposefully recalling other material for the sake of satire. This is why the Fox New controversy surrounding the film is so ridiculous – Tex Richman isn’t a stand-in villain for the 99%, he’s a satire of an ancient character archetype that goes back to pre-Biblical storytelling.
Director James Bobin, who cut his teeth on Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Conchords before creating his first feature film, adds a flash of visual flair and dynamic movement to the production, making for a definitively modern looking Muppet film, but he avoids too much digital trickery, making for a definitively authentic Muppet film. The artistry of puppetry is difficult to put to screen, because the magic of special effects leaves us all assuming we’re seeing a trick, not an actor emoting through a hunk of fabric with googly eyes. Bobin successfully depicts a world where Muppets and humans believably co-exist, and still breaks the fourth wall without drawing us out of this place. The tone of a Muppet film is a difficult formula to correctly concoct, and it would’ve been easy for Segal, Stoller, and Bobin to have gone to mawkish, childish, or even darker places that aren’t in keeping with the tradition. Some jokes fall flat, and the middle section sags a bit, but the bulk vaudevillian absurdity is charming at worst, stomach achingly hilarious at best. Bret McKenzie’s music is another indelible element that could’ve gone sour with too much modernization, but the songwriter largely sustains his patented, Flight of the Conchords style while remaining true to the traditional Muppet tones. This new music never feels out of place with the last act reprise of the Paul Williams’ original ‘Rainbow Connection’.
The Muppets was shot on Red HD digital cameras, and outside some digitally created, faux-8mm scratches, this 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer looks a shade short of perfect. Details are generally incredibly sharp, so sharp you’ll want to pick the knits out of Animal’s hair and comb the minor inconsistencies in Kermit’s felt. Seriously, I never noticed how fuzzy the non-hairy Muppets are, and there’s a snazzy highlight flash on select bits of fuzz. There aren’t a lot of deep set background details throughout, as Bobin and cinematographer Don Burgess chose to maintain a relatively consistent foreground sharpness, and separate their frame into a sort of three tier focus pattern. There are exceptions throughout, like cob-web incrusted shots of the Muppet stage before it’s cleaned, and even when de-focused the decorative patterns of costumes are still plenty complex, featuring quite a bit of information without any noticeable compression artifacts. In fact, noise levels are practically non-existent throughout, as are edge haloes. The colour scheme is incredibly vivid, and the hues themselves are perfectly consistent throughout the film, with just a hint of warm, gold tint. The Red system’s penchant for smooth, warm colour blends is running on all cylinders here too, and the subtle gradations settle nicely with the candied colours. Bobin and Burgess also use a surprising amount of dark black shadows. Contrast levels are even handed, but the overall degree of blackness per frame is similar to a gritty horror film, set apart only by the kaleidoscopic colours and sharp backlight highlights.
This beautiful looking HD transfer is supported with a big, warm DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. Dialogue is sharp, natural, and well centered, greatly assisting the illusion of words physically coming out of the mouths of puppets. The stereo and surround channels are consistently aflutter with ambience, and plenty of directional movement, usually in the name of a gag (example: Ms. Piggy runs screaming ‘Kermie, Kermie, Kermie’ from screen right, tackles Kermit in the center channel, and the two land violently in the left channel). The scene where Fozzie and Kermit talk in Fozzie’s ‘dressing room’ is a good example of the mix stepping smoothly out of subtle ambience into full-on directional focal points for a joke (gunshots, sirens, rain). The sound design also features some aural montage that represents memories of the old show (these usually move throughout the rear channels like a dream), giant scale crowd noise, and even a couple of big, bassy explosions. The music is all quite rich, from Christophe Beck’s traditional score, to Bret McKenzie’s musical numbers, and the 5.1 remixed pop music. The fidelity of the instrumentations is incredibly natural, creating a gorgeous and engulfing musical experience. The surround and stereo effects on ‘Rainbow Connection’ will send shivers down your spine.
Extras begin with a commentary track featuring director James Bobin and co-writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller. As a fan of the Muppets from Space commentary, which featured the director with in-character Muppets, I’m a little bit disappointed that this track allows the audience behind the curtain, and verifies that the Muppets aren’t real people. But I suppose I slightly prefer genuine information about the production of a film to gag-tracks, so this will have to do. This is a very fun and full track, featuring an even blend of jokes and behind the scenes factoids, and nary a stitch of blank space. I learned about the technical trails of shooting around Muppets, the ins and outs of Muppet psychology, location histories (there was a multiple murder in the house that doubled as Kermit’s home), some of the darker jokes that were cut in favour of tone, and that the alphabet song ends ‘y and zed’ in New Zealand (weird). My only complaint is that the volume levels on the film are a bit too high, and the dialogue of the commentary is a bit garbled in the noise.
Scratching the Surface: A Hasty Examination of the Making of the Muppets (16:60, HD) is a mock-making-of EPK featuring interviews with most of the A-Muppet players (including Rizzo, who has no lines in the film), a new Muppet named J.D. that walks us through production, Kathy Griffin, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones, John Krasinski, Sterling Knight, Ken Jeong, Neil Patrick Harris, Selena Gomez, Rob Corddry, Wanda Sykes, director James Bobin (and his Muppet counterpart), producer Martin G. Baker, Amy Adams, and Emily Blunt. It’s wrapped around Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy inspired graphics, features delightfully terrible puns, and doesn’t dare acknowledge that the Muppets aren’t living creatures. A Little Screen Test on the Way to the Read-Through (3:20, HD) continues the faux-behind the scenes stuff with the Muppets prepping for the cat read-through as they’re filmed for the screen tests in different locations.
The disc also features Explaining Evil, the full version of Tex Richman’s song (2:40, HD), eight deleted/extended scenes, including Rob Corddry, Wanda Sykes, Sarah Hyland, Danny Trejo, Ricky Gervais, Kathy Griffin and Billy Crystal (10:00, HD), The Longest Blooper Reel Ever Made (In Muppets History) (8:30, HD), seven spoof trailer (9:00, HD), and trailers for other Disney releases. The box contains the Blu-ray, a DVD copy, a digital copy, and a code to redeem for the original motion picture soundtrack.
The Muppets never really left, but it’s still good to have them ‘back’ and at the top of their game thanks to a fresh creative team and this heartfelt love letter to the original series and movies. The Muppets is the group’s best film since the original, and a happy miracle of meta-commentary and satire, without any of the cynical edge some of us feared they’d be given. This Blu-ray set features a stunning HD transfer, a potent 7.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and handful of enjoyable extras, including a load of celebrity cameo-filled deleted scenes, and a fun and informative commentary track.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 20th March 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English and French, DVS 2.0 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director and Writer Commentary, Scratching the Surface: A Hasty Examination of the Making of the Muppets, Expanding Evil, A Little Screen Test on the Way to the Read-Through, The Longest Blooper Reel Ever Made (In Muppets History), Deleted Scenes, Spoof Trailers, Trailers, DVD Copy, Digital Copy, Digital Soundtrack
Easter Egg: No
Director: James Bobin
Cast: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, The Muppets
Length: 103 minutes