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Muppet Treasure Island: Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition DVD Review

Muppet Treasure Island movie poster Muppet Treasure Island

Theatrical Release: February 16, 1996 / Running Time: 100 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Brian Henson

Cast: Tim Curry (Long John Silver), Kevin Bishop (Jim Hawkins), Billy Connolly (Billy Bones), Jennifer Saunders (Mrs. Bluveridge), Dave Goelz (The Great Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Waldorf), Steve Whitmire (Kermit the Frog, Rizzo the Rat, Beaker), Jerry Nelson (Statler, Blind Pew, Mad Monty, Butler), Kevin Clash (Bad Polly, Black Dog, Spa'am), Bill Barretta (Clueless Morgan), Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Sam Eagle), Danny Blackner (Short Stack Stevens), Peter Geeves (Black Eyed Pea), Harry Jones (Easy Pete), David Nicholls (Captain Flint), Frederick Warder (Calico Jerry)

Songs: "Shiver My Timbers", "Something Better", "Sailing for Adventure", "Cabin Fever", "Professional Pirate", "Love Led Us Here", "Love Power"

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Three and a half years after teaming up with Walt Disney Pictures to adapt a literary classic in their own unique way, the Muppets were back with the same plan. Following the artistic (if not overwhelmingly commercial) success of The Muppet Christmas Carol, the creative talent behind the Muppets - which again included longtime Muppets writer Jerry Juhl, executive producer/longtime Muppeteer Frank Oz, and son-of-founder/Carol helmer Brian Henson - was even content to return to 19th century British literature for their next big screen project. For this winter 1996 outing Muppet Treasure Island, the inspiration was, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson's swashbuckling adventure novel Treasure Island. Like the Charles Dickens story the Muppets had previously brought to life, Stevenson's tale had a history of sparking cinematic adaptation dating back to the silent era. This was not news to the Disney studio; in 1950, Walt Disney chose this book as the subject of his first entirely live action feature film. To date, Walt's version remains arguably the most well-known straightforward filming of the text.

As was true of Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island would remain quite faithful to its source, insisting against expectations that the free-wheeling comedy the Muppets were famous for could be perfectly married to a classic book and still please Muppet fans and
casual moviegoers alike. What worked extremely well the first time around does not come across as solidly in Treasure Island. The film opens by creating atmosphere, one of the chief successes of Muppet Christmas Carol. In this initial environment, young, effeminate human protagonist Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop) and his two tiny friends (Gonzo and Rizzo, the storytellers of Carol serving a similar role though not with outright narration or camera-talking) wait upon the rowdy, tough-to-decipher local personalities of a tavern owned by the ultra-observant Mrs. Bluveridge (Jennifer Saunders of the BBC's popular comedy series "Absolutely Fabulous"). Among the patrons is Billy Bones (Billy Connolly), who regularly tells those in his midst of great treasure lying undiscovered. The arrival of Blind Pew, with a black dot (that is, a fear-instilling death sentence) for Bones, soon results in his death. But Bones does not die before bestowing young Master Hawkins with the all-important treasure map.

Jim, Gonzo, and Rizzo set out for adventure and a ship. Their journeys quickly lead them to rich half-wit Squire Trelawney (Fozzie Bear) who believes there is a man living in his pointer finger quite worth listening to. As off-kilter as Trelawney may be, he does deliver the Hispaniola, a trustworthy vessel which comes with the respected Captain Smollett (Kermit), the suspicious cook Long John Silver (Tim Curry, in the prime human performance), and a large crew of misfits. Pirates, two-timing, a bundle of songs written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and appearances by just about all of the major Muppets fill the screen for the remaining hour of the film.

Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop) and assorted Muppets stand on the Hispaniola for roll call with Mr. Arrow (Sam the Eagle). Fozzie Bear amusingly plays Squire Trelawney, whose best advice comes from the little man who lives in his finger.

Muppet Treasure Island doesn't rank with the Muppets' finest film work, but that doesn't mean it is not a fun way to spend 100 minutes. Stevenson's sea-set story doesn't have the same timelessness as Dickens' holiday redemption tale, which makes it tougher to stay completely involved in the plot specifics. Compounding this ability to disengage is the fact that the atmosphere the film achieves is never nearly as compelling as that of The Muppet Christmas Carol, "The Muppet Show" theater, or the worlds created for the other original Muppet movies. Whereas the casting of Carol seemed to make utter sense at every appearance, the settings of Island results in forced character cameos and frequent dueling between the widely-adored Muppet personalities and the far less interesting characters they inhabit.

All of these realities leave Treasure Island somewhat lacking as a whole, even though it is comprised predominantly by entertaining episodes. There are memorable songs ("Sailing for Adventure" and the wildly unrestrained "Cabin Fever" stand out, especially) and funny bits (like the Hispaniola crew roll call), but they just cannot fully mesh with a story in which the Muppets seem minimally invested as does the audience accordingly. That said, the real reason that Treasure Island feels like a letdown is because it is the Muppets. By 1996, they had built a 20-year-old record of comedic excellence upon witty wordplay and charismatic characters. What for another cast could have been praised as "good" and "pretty funny" can only be considered not up to the usual standards for the Muppets.

The ways in which the movie succeeds are numerable, and they all primarily stem from the juxtaposition of the Muppets in their period world. When the furry personalities conquer the confines of the adaptation, the affair becomes lighter and certainly more interesting. There are some potent touches of random humor here, from the pirate who quietly resembles Marlon Brando and eventually does an On the Waterfront impression to the touristy group of rats (Rizzo's relatives) who mistake nighttime mutiny for dinner theatre and blissfully sing about margaritas. You could put the Muppets in the most dreary of settings and still come away with a few bright spots; you'd have to look no further than their underwhelming recent hip-hopped version of The Wizard of Oz for proof of that. Treasure Island is far from the gang at its worst, its disappointment comes chiefly from how much less enjoyable it is than the similar-cast-and-crew, similar formula of The Muppet Christmas Carol.

It looks a little dark, yes, but keep in mind that you won't be watching it on a sand-colored HTML page. When their time at sea begins to get to them, the crew sings the no-holds-barred number "Cabin Fever", not to be confused with the flesh-eating Rider Strong film of the same name.

Muppet Treasure Island came to DVD in June of 2002 (it was the subject of UltimateDisney.com's first DVD review, when we were still reduced to the lameness known as Angelfire). Though its format debut came among other live action films from Disney's catalogue that were typically treated to barebones and non-promoted discs, Island somehow enjoyed a DVD filled with some genuinely good bonus features and clever newly-filmed menus, but a pan-and-scan only presentation that seemed to betray the disc's other strong points. Thousands of Muppet fans called and/or e-mailed Disney to complain of the cropped treatment - and you can bet it was Muppet fans, as any other movie of this stature faced with a similar plight would likely have gotten overlooked - including director Brian Henson. But there was no type of Willy Wonka-"chalk one up for the little guy"-"that's the power of petition" announcement spurned from the complaints. Instead, three and a half years passed with the fullscreen-only disc on the market (having been reduced to a bargain bin price).

This fall, with the Muppets' first two big screen outings now a part of the Disney empire (thanks to the Mouse's February 2004 purchase of The Muppets Holding Company), Disney has finally re-released this film and its similarly-cropped counterpart The Muppet Christmas Carol in widescreen, alongside its first offerings for The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper. The Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition DVDs, as these new discs are called, have generally turned out to be less commemorative than you'd expect. But Carol retained most of its well-done previous features, does Treasure Island fare the same?

Buy Muppet Treasure Island: Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen,
1.33:1 Reformatted Fullscreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: November 29, 2005
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

Muppet Treasure Island is presented in a stellar 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, allowing it at last to provide the full width of the film frame. Much of the film is surprisingly dark, and though these portions hold up decently, there's no getting around that visibility and contrast are limited. In its brighter and more colorful moments, the DVD could be a reference point for 9-year-old live action films. Sharpness is good, the element remains mostly spotless, and even if the visuals are not the nicest looking, they are rendered aptly and easy to appreciate in this present form.

Disney has decided to port over just one thing from the previous DVD release of Treasure Island and that is the pan-and-scan transfer. It's a giant waste of disc space. Who in this age of widescreen music videos, commercials, and animated Disney DVDs needs to watch the Muppets blown up and cropped to fill the screen of a soon-to-be-outdated standard television? There is some mildly noticeable artifacting on both versions from having to compress two versions of a 100-minute film onto one single-sided, dual-layered disc (we can't lose the disc art!). Unlike Carol (where the two boasted two quite different appearances), both transfers look about the same here, except one is missing about 30% of the picture. The average bitrate on each version (pan-and-scan - 5.11 Mb/s, widescreen - 4.74 Mb/s) is considerably lower than that of the extras-packed previous pan-and-scan presentation (6.39 Mb/s).

A frame from the fullscreen version on this DVD, where we don't know who these chaps are standing up to and where one of their swords has apparently chopped up Beeker and made Dr. Bunsen Honeydew disappear altogether. Order is restored in this 16x9-enhanced widescreen version, where the full width of the film frame (including Beeker, Honeydew, and what we can now identify as the arm of Long John Silver) can be seen.

In the sound department, Island retains its fine Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation, which makes excellent use of the sound field with its music (both the mostly catchy songs and Hans Zimmer's appropriate score) and action piece sound effects. Dialogue is perfectly crisp and there's more life to this than any of the other Muppet films Disney re-released to DVD this week. (That makes sense, as Island is the youngest.) A French dub in Dolby Digital 5.1 has been added as a second soundtrack only on the Fullscreen version, replacing the previous edition's feature-length audio commentary. Sigh.

You may notice the running time on this review is one minute longer than that of the previous review (if you're that observant). Is there some fine deleted scene that has been added back into the movie? No, actually, it's just a silent seven-second Muppet Studios logo which has been added to the start of the film, pushing the movie as a whole over the 99 minute mark, which means we in the industry can round it up to 100 minutes.

A glimpse of Fozzie and his dummy from the pointless "Pepe Profiles" bonus feature. The canktanerous oldies explain why they really torment Fozzie. The clever animated Main Menu from the old "Muppet Treasure Island" has been retained and sometimes screencaps will even pick up Gonzo.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, and PACKAGING

The first time around, Disney treated Muppet Treasure Island to a nice, solid DVD, especially considering it was part of a quiet New to DVD catalogue wave. Unfortunately, all of the bonus features from the previous release have been lost to make way for a second version of the film and the one lone addition isn't nearly as good or relevant as the excluded content.

First, what isn't included here? Well, there was the funny and insightful making-of featurette "The Tale of the Story Behind the Tale" (21:40) which was hosted by Gonzo and Rizzo. It spoke of the film's evolution, the willing-to-upstage nature of Muppeteers, and a number of other topics with cast and crew interviews mixed with the hosts' witty responses. Gonzo and Rizzo also provided a funny introduction for the two-song Sing-Along (5:27) of "Cabin Fever" and "Sailing for Adventure."
Finally and most voluminously, there was a feature-length-plus Hidden Treasure audio commentary. The audio commentary held director Brian Henson and, to a degree, Dave Goelz (Gonzo) and Steve Whitmire (Rizzo). What distinguished it from other audio commentaries was that eleven times during playback, the commentary would jump to a short, appropriately-timed detour running about a minute or two long. These covered the danger of Muppet holes, filming pirates in a parking lot, Long John Silver's way of speaking, songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Tim Curry interacting with a Muppet version of himself, Curry's singing live on the set (versus the pre-recorded studio stuff), an elephant whose boredom could make great trouble, the joint control of the Swedish Chef by Jim Henson and Frank Oz which inspired a similar tactic for Blind Pew, Miss Piggy's affair with Tim Curry, how an individual scene was achieved, and behind-the-scenes of Kermit's fight sequence. Amounting to well over two hours of supplements, these bonuses clearly provided plenty of value and made for fine accompaniment to the film, even with the squeezed-to-be-fullscreen film clips that showed up in them.

Rather than porting over any of those interesting materials which actually pertain to Muppet Treasure Island, Disney chose to create a new bonus feature for this disc, like they did for all the other Kermit's 50th Anniversary Editions. If you've read our three earlier Muppet reviews, you know the drill by now. "Pepe Profiles Present: Fozzie Bear - A Long Day's Journey Into Night Clubs" (5:24) provides a tongue-in-cheek, silly, and quite forgettable look at the inept comedian of the bunch. With stock photos, a clip or two from Muppet Treasure Island, and comments from his fellow Muppets, the annoying King Prawn explores the mysteries of Fozzie, such as what he did before he caught up with the Muppets and the real reason that Statler and Waldorf engage in their balcony banter with him. Even the Treasure Island Sing-Along, running roughly the same time and offering just colorful lyrics on fullscreen versions of the film, would have probably been a better inclusion than this.

It's quite a real shame that the previous pan and scan edition of the disc betters this Anniversary Edition DVD in the supplements department. Wasting 100 minutes of disc space on cropped video and leaving off more than two hours of solid supplements in favor of a French soundtrack and piece with Pepe (who does not appear in Treasure Island; he made his debut on TV three weeks after the film came to theaters) can't make much sense for fans of the film who want to see it as it was made to be seen and have waited years for a DVD to offer them that.

For this DVD re-release, Disney has recycled the inspired animated menus from their previous Muppet Treasure Island disc. That's A-OK because Gonzo and Rizzo make these among the funniest and most clever DVD menus out there. At the same time, it makes their pained efforts to drag the Bonus Features menu into the foreground as well as their awe-filled looks around the menu's whopping lone selection seem more than a little ridiculous. For these, Disney has employed new EasyFind menu icons and headings. Oddly, with at least some versions of PowerDVD, taking screencaps of Gonzo and Rizzo's initial Main Menu appearance renders Gonzo completely invisible. It's some kind of Marty McFly-type oddity.

The typical Disney sneak peeks, absent from the previous DVD, are joyfully presented here. The batch at the start of the disc advertise Lady and the Tramp, the Disney Channel Movie Surfers' "behind-the-scenes" ads for The Wild and The Shaggy Dog, Season One of "The Muppet Show", and The Muppets' Wizard of Oz. If seven minutes of marketing just isn't enough for you, be sure to check out the second page of the Sneak Peeks menus for additional ads for Kronk's New Groove, the February 2006 wave of Disney Princess DVDs, and "JoJo's Circus" on Playhouse Disney.

Inside the white keepcase, there is a double-sided insert containing scene selections, an overview of all one bonus feature, and, of course, promotion for the other three concurrently-released Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition DVDs. There is also a mini-booklet devoted purely to the Muppets which holds a trio of handy coupons ($5 off "The Muppet Show" Season 1, $3 off any other Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition DVD, and $3 off Muppets' Wizard of Oz) plus promotional information on current Muppets goings-on and information on the United States Postal Service's Mailing the Muppets Keep-in-Touch Kit.

Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate's life for Tim Curry and company. Kermit gets hung upside-down from the edge of a cliff. It'd be cooler without the inevitable Piggy/Kermit upside-down love ballad.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While its design is strikingly similar to The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island finds considerably less success in its literary adaptation than did the gang's previous outing. Island is filled with plenty of entertaining songs and jokes, but it's also got its fair share of slow moments thanks to a story which doesn't completely serve the Muppets' sensibilities. As a whole, Island never quite meshes satisfactorily, nor does it hold up as well as most earlier Muppet films, but it does provide at least one diverting and fun family viewing.

It took three and a half years but Disney finally has released this film to DVD in a fine 16x9-enhanced widescreen transfer. Unfortunately, this Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition also presents the film in pan-and-scan again, which leaves an audio commentary with scattered shorts, a fine making-of featurette, and a fun little sing-along discontinued along with the 2002 DVD release. That makes this disc tougher to recommend with its significant downgrade in the supplements department and increase in list price needing to be factored in with its obviously superior feature presentation.

A diehard fan of the movie might want to hunt down the out-of-print disc (link below) if they don't already have it along with this new edition to make their own two-disc definitive Muppet Treasure Island DVD that this is clearly not. Those who enjoy the film to a lesser degree might be wise to wait a little longer for a price drop; among the other Muppet DVDs Disney has released this week, both The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Christmas Carol offer more enduring and pleasing films, and Carol delivers a far better overall DVD. The completely unacquainted viewer who enjoys the Muppets (and who could not like the Muppets?) may be better served by a Treasure Island rental rather than a blind purchase.

Though this reissue is far from the definitive Muppet Treasure Island DVD, Disney has come through, at the very least, with a fine widescreen transfer which should satisfy fans who completely disregard bonus material.

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The Book: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Related Reviews
Kermit's 50th Anniversary Editions: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) The Muppet Movie (1979) The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
The Muppet Show: Season One (1976-77) The Muppet Show: Season Two (1977-78) The Muppets' Wizard of Oz (2005)
Bear in the Big Blue House: Visiting the Doctor with Bear Early to Bed, Early to Rise Storytelling with Bear Sense-sational!
Disney's Treasure Island Adaptations: Treasure Island (1950) Treasure Planet (2002)
Disney in the Mid-1990s: Jungle 2 Jungle James and the Giant Peach Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book The Parent Trap (1998)

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Reviewed December 1, 2005.



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