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View From The Couch



KERMIT'S 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITIONS (1979-1996). To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kermit the Frog's first television appearance back in 1955, Disney has seen fit to re-release four of the six Muppet movies on DVD -- why 1984's The Muppets Take Manhattan and 1999's Muppets From Space weren't invited to the party is anybody's guess. While the movies never quite captured the anarchic spirit of the beloved TV series, this cinematic franchise did get off to an enjoyable start until it was eventually run into the ground.

The first flick, 1979's The Muppet Movie, remains the best, opening with Kermit singing the lovely, Oscar-nominated "The Rainbow Connection" before leaving his home in the swamps for a Hollywood career. Along the way, he teams up with Fozzie Bear, steers clear of the owner (Charles Durning) of a frog-leg restaurant chain, and finds romance with Miss Piggy. Numerous stars contribute brief appearances -- some funny (Steve Martin, Mel Brooks), some wasted (Richard Pryor, James Coburn) -- but it's our puppet friends who carry the show, backed by a witty screenplay and an assortment of likable tunes by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher (earning two Oscar nods for Best Original Song and Best Song Score).

Any worries of a sophomore curse are immediately dispelled by the clever and charming opening of 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, in which newspaper reporters Kermit and Fozzie and photographer Gonzo find themselves on the trail of a jewel thief (Charles Grodin) in London. There are too many Miss Piggy musical numbers for my taste, but the sequence with John Cleese is priceless.

Only a Scrooge could hate the Muppets, which is the point of 1992's The Muppet Christmas Carol. In this adaptation of Charles Dickens' Yuletide classic, Michael Caine stars as the renowned skinflint, put through the usual paces by Kermit (as Bob Cratchit) and the rest of the gang. There's too much story and not enough of the Muppets, yet the film features a startling production design, and Caine delivers a memorable performance. Paul Williams, who contributed the peppy songs for The Muppet Movie, this time serves up some dreary tunes that slow down the pace.

The fifth entry in the big-screen series, 1996's Muppet Treasure Island is the weakest of the bunch: In adapting Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of pirates and buried treasure, the filmmakers are too busy working through the mechanics of the plot to allow the Muppet personalities to shine through. As a result, Kermit (who doesn't appear until 30 minutes into the movie), Miss Piggy (popping up after a full hour) and Fozzie (appearing sporadically) take a back seat to the bland Kevin Bishop, who's hopeless as young Jim Hawkins.

Extra features are rather anemic: The Muppet Christmas Carol includes audio commentary by director Brian Henson, a gag reel and a deleted scene, but the other three titles only offer brief character profiles.

The Muppet Movie: Rating: ***

The Great Muppet Caper: Rating: ***

The Muppet Christmas Carol: Rating: ** 1/2

Muppet Treasure Island: Rating: **

Muppet Christmas Carol Extras: Rating: **

All Other Extras: Rating: * 1/2

RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN ANNIVERSARY EDITIONS (1945-1965). Kermit's not the only one celebrating a birthday, as Fox has reissued three popular Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals all enjoying anniversaries: State Fair (60th), Oklahoma! (50th) and The Sound of Music (40th). Each title is presented in a two-disc edition filled with extras.

While Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote most of their landmark musicals for the stage, State Fair (1945) was created specifically for the screen. Based on a novel by Philip Stong (and previously filmed in 1933 as a non-musical starring Will Rogers), it adds some lesser known R&H tunes to the framework of an Iowa family finding love and success at the title event. The ballad "It Might As Well Be Spring" earned the Best Original Song Oscar, but the buoyant songs are more memorable, and an appealing cast and some homespun humor (love that mincemeat contest!) make it worthwhile. State Fair hit the screen again as a musical in 1962 (this version's also included), but this lackluster rendition suffers from an influx of negligible new tunes and shrug-inducing turns by Pat Boone, Bobby Darin and Pamela Tiffin; only Ann-Margret provides any spark.

Oklahoma! (1955) was based on the stage show that revolutionized the American musical, so it's no surprise that the film version was treated like a major event. The movie was shot both in CinemaScope and Todd-AO (one of the set's extra features explains the difference), and the two versions are included here -- compare them and you'll notice different shots, different camera angles and even different extras. As for the production, it remains one of the best adaptations of a stage musical, with Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones singing (gorgeously, I might add) such gems as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "The Surrey With the Fringe On Top," Gloria Grahame (excellent as always) providing comic relief as Ado Annie, and Rod Steiger injecting menace as surly ranch hand Jud.

Finally, is there an easier cinematic target for ridicule than The Sound of Music (1965), which has been endlessly mocked over the decades for its unblinking wholesomeness? Maybe not, but this audience favorite, the biggest box office hit since Gone With the Wind 26 years earlier, immediately drew so many ardent fans and repeat customers that they continue to make the Lord of the Rings groupies look like casual filmgoers by comparison. Certainly, the film is squeaky clean, but so what? Its earnestness is never in question, it wears its three-hour length well, and its song score contains more instantly recognizable tunes (at least to anyone over the age of 35) than practically any other movie in history. Julie Andrews deserved the Best Actress Oscar for her turn as the perpetually cheery Maria, but, alas, she had just won the previous year for her inferior, one-note turn in Mary Poppins, so the award went elsewhere; however, the film did snag five other Oscars, including Best Picture.

DVD features on the various sets include audio commentaries, featurettes and still galleries; the Sound of Music extras take the cake, as they include the screen test of Mia Farrow (who had auditioned for the role of Liesl), a recent group interview with the actors who played the Von Trapp children four decades ago, and a Biography episode on the real Von Trapp family.

State Fair (1945): Rating: ***

State Fair (1962): Rating: **

Oklahoma!: Rating *** 1/2

The Sound of Music: Rating: ***

State Fair / Oklahoma! Extras: Rating: ***

Sound of Music Extras: Rating: *** 1/2

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