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Meatballs (1979)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 6/5/2007

All ratings out of 

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 5/30/2007

Due to the Hollywood's fickle nature and it's "flavor of the week" mentality, stars come and go faster than ever these days. Thus, for members of my generation, it's difficult to go way back (further than a few years) and see an actor in an early role. For people my age (which we won't discuss), Bill Murray is one of the funniest actors around and his films ruled the 1980s. Therefore, it's a treat to go back over 20 years and see Murray in his feature film debut, Meatballs.

Meatballs is set at Camp North Star, a quaint summer camp. As the film begins, a new season is beginning and camp counselor Tripper Harrison (Bill Murray) is working on getting his C.I.T.s (Counselor in Training) ready for the season. Of course, being teenagers, the counselors are more interested in relationships than being the best camp employees that they can be. Similarly, Tripper is very interested in fellow senior counselor, Roxanne (Kate Lynch), who has little time for Tripper's tomfoolery. On the first day of camp, Tripper meets a boy named Rudy (Chris Makepeace), who appears very sad. Rudy is a naturally shy kid and he has trouble making friends at camp, so Tripper becomes his mentor. As the summer progresses, friendships and relationships are formed, and the residents of Camp North Star prepare for the season-end games against their rivals, the snobs from Camp Mohawk.

Some will disagree with this statement, but Meatballs is what I would call a semi-classic. When I first saw the film in the early 80s (when I was but a pre-adolescent), I loved it and was entranced by the naughty shenanigans portrayed at Camp North Star. Seeing the film again today, the pros and cons of the movie become much more apparent.

Meatballs was directed by Ivan Reitman, who would go on to make his name with films such as Ghostbusters and Stripes. But, Meatballs was only his second film as a director (he'd just come off of producing duties on Animal House) and he still had something to learn about pacing. Meatballs drags at times, and the movie has a very difficult time encompassing all of the camp's characters which it wants to portray. Many of these characters are interchangeable (A.L. and Candace may as well be the same person) and they aren't very interesting. (And as a complete aside, allow me to say that this movie has one of the ugliest casts which I've ever seen).

Even as a child, I knew the film's true saving grace and that fact is all the more evident today: Bill Murray. It's an understatement to say that Murray steals the show and it would be more appropriate to say that he's in a different film than the rest of the cast. There may be some scenes without Murray which elicit a casual chuckle, but the film's true laughs come from the man himself. This movie gives us an early look at the cool no matter what the situation demeanor which he would perfect in Ghostbusters. On the DVD's special features, we learn that Reitman went back and shot additional footage with Murray when he realized that the film wasn't working. Smart move.

Looking back on Meatballs nearly 30 years later (man, I'm old...), we find an interesting movie. There's no denying that it set the standard for wacky summer camp films and was the clearly the influence for the spoof Wet Hot American Summer. Seen today, the movie has an odd vibe for a PG-rated film. The movie has a 12-year old as one of the leads and offers a great deal of sophomoric slapstick, and yet there's a palpable undercurrent of (ugly) sex here. I don't find the movie nearly as funny and charming as I did back in 1980, but Murray's presence and his great lines ("Look at those steamin' wienies." and "Hey you, on water skis!") still make me laugh. Without Murray, Meatballs would be utterly forgettable, but thanks to him, it's an important piece of nostalgia.

A new Meatballs DVD goes away for the summer on DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. This new special edition replaces the out-of-print HBO Video release from 1999. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. According to the DVD box, this DVD features an "All new high-definition digital transfer supervised by Ivan Reitman." But, when compared to the old DVD, it doesn't look that much different. I can tell you that they were both struck from a similar master because the scene in which Rudy meets his bunk-mates for the first time has a line running down the left side of the screen in both transfers. Whatever the case, the image looks good for a low-budget film of this age. The image is sharp and clear, showing only minimal grain and only slight defects from the source material. The colors look fine, but they are slightly washed-out in some scenes. There are several exterior shots which are surprisingly clear, giving the impression that we are watching a recent film. Some video noise elements were noticeable at times. The DVD carries a newly created Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. And like most newly created Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks, it's not very impressive. The dialogue and sound effects are fine, as are the film's familiar songs, but beyond that, we don't get much in the way of stereo or surround sound effects, and there's basically no bass action.

The Meatballs: Special Edition DVD carries a few extras. We start with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from director Ivan Reitman and writer/producer Daniel Goldberg. This is a somewhat interesting chat, as the pair share many anecdotes about the making of the film. Actually, the amount of details which they remember are pretty amazing. They talk about the casting, the location, and the challenge of making a movie of this scale on very little money. Reitman talks at length about Bill Murray and he keeps saying, "Bill Murray -- who didn't want to be in this movie..." without really elaborating. There are similar stories told in "Summer Camp: The Making of Meatballs" (48 minutes). This featurette is needlessly divided into three sections and contains so many clips that I felt as if I'd watched the film again. But, there are interviews with Reitman, the producers, and several cast members, but not Bill Murray. Here, we get more details about the re-shoots which took place with Murray and Makepeace to improve the film. Again, this was a very smart move.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long