Ivan Reitman’s 1979 feature, Meatballs, marked the beginning of two major cinematic forces: the summer camp film, which would persist as a subgenre of both comedy and horror well into the 1990s, and Bill Murray, who continues to do what Bill Murray do best to this day. The film relates an incredibly loose narrative about a single summer at Camp North Star, where campers, counselors, and counselors-in-training (CITs) alike make new friends, find love, and, of course, learn a little something about themselves. At the center of all this we find head counselor Tripper (Murray) befriending a lonely, first-year camper (Chris Makepeace) and training him to become a contender for the main event in the camp’s annual two-day Olympiad against rival Camp Mohawk.
Although Meatballs was, to the best of my knowledge, the first of the summer camp movies, all the pieces were already there. We’ve got young love, the requisite archetypal menagerie of kids from the athletically incompetent loner to the self-absorbed cool guy, and a climactic face-off against a rival camp in which the aforementioned loners become camp heroes. Already too the film acknowledges its own formalism in this, as Bill Murray designates Makepeace’s character as the token “short, depressed kid” upon first sight. Of course, there is always the possibility that this line constitutes a brilliant ad-lib by Bill Murray rather than a moment of lucid self-reflexivity on the part of the screenwriters, which is entirely possible since Bill Murray pretty much is Meatballs as I see it. After all, what would Meatballs be without Bill Murray? Nothing! Except… actually… it’d be Meatballs II, III, and 4, wouldn’t it?
The film entirely revolves around Bill Murray, making his feature film and starring role debut here, even as he serves to make the other characters’ narratives more interesting by association. And although the film provided the perfect showcase for Murray and his particular brand of sardonic humor since the filmmakers allowed him to improvise and rewrite dialogue at will, he did not initially want to do the film. Reitman went into production, in fact, without filling the starring role and still unsure whether or not Murray would agree to play it. Fortunately for Reitman, his reputation and us, the comedian arrived on location in Canada on the third day of principal photography.
Earlier this month, Lionsgate Home Entertainment premiered a Blu-ray version of Meatballs featuring a commentary track with director Ivan Reitman and co-writer/producer Dan Goldberg. The picture quality in this 1080p HD transfer represents a marked improvement over previous DVD release of the film I had encountered. And with the exception of the slightly desaturated, imperfection-laden first reel, vibrant colors and a sharp image characterize the visuals throughout. The colors do at times (especially in the first reel) appear a bit splotchy and there is occasionally a bit of damage in the transfer print. But overall, the $10 price tag of the Meatballs Blu-ray makes an awfully compelling case for viewers to forgive its imperfections.
Yet this release also suffers from a severe lack of bonus content. The terrifically-informative commentary features the eloquent Reitman, supported by Goldberg, detailing the film’s incredible journey from their initial 160-page, formless screenplay to the polished comic piece we know today, with a touching story of mentorship at its core. Perhaps unsurprisingly too, we learn from the commentary track that many of the film’s strongest comedic bits were improvisations by Bill Murray, bits which Reitman and Goldberg graciously point out in their remarks. Aside from this commentary, the Blu-ray lacks special features entirely, lest you’d count a gallery of trailers for other Lionsgate home video releases. But I don’t. Notably absented are the standalone Reitman commentary and the making-of featurette included on the 2007 Special Edition DVD release of the film.