Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: The Muppets — following the schtick-heavy misadventures of an eclectic race of puppet-like beings who thrive and survive amongst us in the regular human world. Birthed in the mid-1950′s by puppeteering super-champ Jim Henson for use in advertising commercials, the Muppet aesthetic/brand has since infiltrated every conceivable niche, medium and outlet imaginable, including television, music albums, motion pictures, video games, comic books, view finder stories, and literature. Since I imagine some may be disappointed to learn that I won’t be covering The Muppet Show, I figure an explanation is due… The reason is twofold: 1) While The Muppet Show is obviously where Henson’s Muppet creations solidified into the form we think of when we hear “the Muppets,” it was really just the culmination point of Henson’s success story; several of the central Muppets, like Kermit, Rolph and Gonzo, had already existed for many years by that point, as had the word “Muppet” to describe them. And more importantly, 2) TV is a can o’ worms. Why include that show and not Sam and Friends, Sesame Street, The Jim Henson Hour, Muppet Babies, Little Muppet Monsters, Muppets Tonight, etc, etc? And then there are the crazy number of TV movies and specials. It defeats the entire purpose of this column for me to pick and choose installments based on what I think is “good” or “relevant.” It is easier and frankly I think more interesting to boil the franchise down to something that is readily discussable — like the Muppets’ ventures onto the big screen. So, for the sake of tidiness, I will be battling the six theatrical feature films, plus the forthcoming The Muppets relaunch.
The Installment: Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
We open with narration from Billy Bones (Billy Connolly), detailing the secret burying of a vast fortune in gold by the dread pirate Flint. Bones is a drunken regular at a tavern/inn where the young Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop) is employed, along with his buddies Gonzo and Rizzo. Before Bones dies, he gives Jim a map which he claims will lead to Flint’s buried treasure. So Jim, Gonzo and Rizzo set out to find it, getting a ship from Dr. David Livesey (Bunsen) and Squire Trelawney (Fozzie), which is captained by the noble Captain Abraham Smollett (Kermit). On board the ship Jim makes fast friends with the cook, Long John Silver (Tim Curry), which makes things awkward when Silver and his gang of thugs commit mutiny and take the ship. Pirate and island adventure shenanigans ensue, including Smollett getting reunited with his ex-fiance, Benjamina Gunn (Piggy), who has been marooned on the island for years, lording it over a tribe of porcine natives.
Muppet Christmas Carol was not a huge hit for Disney, but people mostly liked it and it presumably did well enough on video that Disney decided to support Brian Henson directing another Muppet literary classic adaptation — this time, Robert Louis Stevenson’s definitive pirate tale, Treasure Island; fitting, considering that it was Robert Newton’s heavily accented portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 Treasure Island that popularized the whole “Yarrr/Arrr!” pirate cliche in the first place. And it would seem that at least someone at the Henson Company felt that Carol suffered from the same problems that I did, as far as the Muppets themselves are concerned, because – though I have some nits to pick at in a moment – by and large Treasure at least feels like it is trying to be a Muppet movie and not just a movie using the Muppets as a contrivance.
Again we are given a human protagonist instead of a Muppet, but this move is deflected somewhat by making Jim part of a trio with Gonzo and Rizzo. It would seem that enough people didn’t hate the Gonzo-Rizzo duo in Carol like I did (I blame smelly children), as the filmmakers felt inspired to drop them in front and center here, playing comic relief characters that aren’t in Stevenson’s book. Though I very much did not like Gonzo and Rizzo as a duo in Carol, there are two things I like about this decision: 1) Making Jim the boring straight man allows Gonzo to become Gonzo once more. I couldn’t tell you what Gonzo’s basic personality trait was in Carol. Really he was just filling in for Kermit, because the Henson Company seemed reluctant to use a non-Jim Henson Kermit as our centerpiece Muppet; either just out of respect, or fear of audience reaction, or both. But now Gonzo is restored to the classic off-beat masochism that had defined the character since The Muppet Show — like when Gonzo is put on the rack by the mutinous pirates and his limbs are painfully elongated, yet Gonzo excitedly replies, “Look at this! I’m taller. This is so cool.” Or when the trio are telling someone that pirates are after their map, Gonzo excitedly exclaims, “Yeah, and they want to kill us for it! Isn’t that exciting?” And 2) Unlike Carol, creating these roles for Gonzo and Rizzo demonstrates that Treasure is willing to stray noticeably from Stevenson’s story for the purposes of making the movie more Muppety. Whereas last time Brian Henson seemed to place more importance on crafting a faithful adaptation of Christmas Carol than servicing the Muppet characters, Treasure is the inverse — Stevenson’s novel is used simply as loose source material from which to stage Muppet escapades.
Also unlike Carol, the Muppets don’t feel marginalized here. Aside from Jim and Silver, every single notable role is a Muppet, and casting a human as Silver feels appropriate, because he’s the villain (in keeping with Muppet Movie and Caper). Again we have some new creations, but as opposed to the un-Muppety Ghosts of Christmas in Carol, the new puppets in Treasure are straight-up Muppets. Some of these characters are great too. I loved the Frenchman pirate Blind Pew (a character from the book), who is voiced by Jerry Nelson, and keeps referring to Jim as a girl. I’m not entirely sure how many of the pirate Muppets are original to the film (they easily could’ve been from a Henson TV project I never saw), but they’re one of the best aspects of the film. I particularly liked Clueless Morgan, a dopey goat pirate, who has a lot of great lines. Though, more important from an overall franchise perspective than simply showcasing the Muppets in good roles, our established Muppets retain their personalities. As already noted, Gonzo is the most welcome restoration. Fozzie isn’t playing a character named Fozzie, but he’s still Fozzie; he’s insecure and boobish and screws things up. He’s given a weird The Shining-esque quirk where he believes there is a man named Mr. Bimbo that lives in his finger, who tells him to do things. I can’t say I entirely understood the dillio with this addition, but it didn’t detract from Fozzie and is funny in parts, so whatevez. Again Bunsen and Beaker are heavily featured, but are no longer wasted. They have inventions and… Beaker gets blown up and injured routinely! Hurray for violence against Beaker! (Poor Beaker.)
In this post-Jim Henson/Richard Hunt (who died of AIDS complications in 1992) era of the franchise, it is interestng seeing which Muppets get a promotion, for lack of a better word, when the Henson Company is clearly uncomfortable showcasing some of Henson and Hunt’s characters, like Rowlf, Scooter, and the sad collateral damage of the Electric Mayhem (Henson was Dr. Teeth; Hunt was Janice). While the upgraded usage of one-note characters like Bunsen and Beaker feels a little strange, the promotion Sam the Eagle has received is awesome. Sam is possibly the funniest Muppet in Treasure, perfectly used as the over-serious and easily fooled Samuel Arrow, first mate to Kermit. He’s got some great moments, like stiffly saying “Let’s not get sloppy just because we’re singing” during a big musical number. He also has the film’s silliest plot point, when Silver tricks him into obsessing over the water safety of the life-boats, and abandons him at sea. This gag comes back into play during the climax, and again at the very end after Silver has escaped with some treasure, when Arrow informs Smollet, quite concerned and with zero irony, “Captain Smollet, I have most distressing news. One of the jolly boats is missing and I know for a fact that it was terribly unsafe.” And we then cut to Silver trying to bail out his quickly flooding boat. Comeuppance! Wacka wacka!
Rizzo drove me nuts in Carol, but here he spearheads the film’s funniest “subplot.” Before the Hispaniola (the ship) leaves port in England, Gonzo and Jim discover that Rizzo is making some money on the side by pretending that their journey is a luxury cruise… for rats. This becomes a perfect Muppet running gag, as during random scenes – even action scenes – the camera will pan down and we’ll see the rats carrying on as though on vacation. Such as a moment on the titular treasure island, when during an action scene we cut to the rat vacationers being given a tour; the tour guide informs them that what they’re seeing is the “actual location for the movie, Muppet Treasure Island.” It is all toned just right, and made even better by the fact that none of the other characters seem to notice any of this is even going on. Overall the film has a respectable amount of good gags. I dug the scene where Smollett is running through the roster for his less than admirable crew, like Headless Bill (who has no head), and eventually getting to a character named Dead Tom who is, appropriately, already dead (this leads to a funny bit later where one of the other pirates sadly morns Dead Tom’s “death”). Schtick is back in full-form, like the screwball slapstick set piece in which Gonzo and Rizzo are trailing gunpowder all over a room while evading pirates, or a classic bit of idiocy in which Fozzie keeps pouring himself a drink of expensive booze and then tossing it out a window based on the current status of a conversation between Silver and Smollett. Treasure is also extremely meta in proper Muppet fashion. We see the Swedish Chef in a quick cameo living amongst the island natives, who Piggy rules over and who are all pigs themselves. Chef has a strap-on pig nose on his face, and a piece of talking fruit on his cooking table says to us, “Well, how else did you think we were going to get him in this movie?”
I like Tim Curry. Who doesn’t? But Curry is no Michael Caine. Caine wasn’t a perfect Scrooge, but he worked especially well in the film partly because you could imagine him being cast as the character in a totally straight adaptation of Dickens’ book. Curry’s Long John Silver on the other hand is not that memorable, and Curry could only hope to be cast seriously as the character in a B-grade TV movie. That said, Curry hams up a storm in the film and the extent to which he is clearly having a ball doing so practically pulsates through the screen. So it is nearly impossible not to enjoy his performance, at least on an entertainment level. He’s just having so much fun acting with puppets. Billy Connolly deserves a shout-out too for his brief but delightfully Billy Connolly role as Billy Bones. No one does Billy Connolly quite like Billy Connolly.
Like Carol, the film has superb, imaginatively stylized production design, specifically the exterior of the tavern that Jim works at during the early portion of the film. The look of the island is a lot of fun too. It was also an inspired move to hire veteran songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil to pen the film’s tunes. Mann and Weil’s careers stretch back to the 50′s, and include such seminal pop songs as “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” “Don’t Know Much” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” as well as notable film tunes like An American Tail‘s “Somewhere Out There.” This combined with the fact that Hans Zimmer is doing the score really gives the film’s music a kick in the pants. I didn’t walk away from the film with any of the songs stuck in my head, but they’re pretty across the board good. The film’s opening number, “Shiver My Timbers,” sung by the island’s animals, human skulls, and native-carved sculptures, is a stand-out as far as overall numbers go.
What Doesn’t Work:
I’m not going to run through the reasoning why our hero should be a Muppet, as it remains the same logic as it did for Carol. Our hero should be a Muppet; Jim Hawkins should have been Kermit; blah blah blah. Jim being a human comes off better in Treasure than it did with Scrooge in Carol because Jim is saddled with Gonzo and Rizzo. Also, he is a pretty boring and personality-less protagonist, carried along purely by the story beats of Stevenson’s tale. Scrooge was a perfect protagonist; that was the problem. Jim being a shitty protagonist forces the Muppets to do more heavy lifting, which is great, but if we’re looking at the film as a film (and not just something to showcase Muppet shenanigans) then we’re still left with a shitty protagonist. Carol was a lousy Muppet film, but it was a wonderful Christmas Carol adaptation. Treasure succeeds and fails, in its own ways, by being the exact opposite. The Muppet shenanigans are honorable, and the movie is funny, but it is held back from being really good by the fact that its not that compelling narratively. Jim is a dud. So his relationship with Silver, the dramatic backbone of the story, exists purely as surface-level plot. Brian Henson wisely never asks us to take the film truly seriously, but nonetheless, almost every scene involving Jim that isn’t going for a laugh provided by a Muppet is a waste of time. So in the end, Treausre is fun and funny but feels something of a lark (though that isn’t so bad, really; don’t want to entirely negate the positives said in the previous section). And I don’t know if Kevin Bishop did his own singing, or if he was dubbed, but in either case Jim’s singing voice is hilariously annoying.
I can’t hold it against the film that Kermit isn’t very good, considering that it’s not like Jim Henson could be brought back from the grave, nor could the film get away with sidelining Kermit like they did with Rowlf. But for some reason Steve Whitmire’s Kermit seems to have gotten worse. And I don’t mean his voice (though that does seems worse too). He just lacks a certain Kermit-ness. Kermit is probably the least interesting Muppet in Treasure, which is a damn shame. To be fair, part of this I think is just the Smollett character, who is totally boring until we arrive at the island and he is re-united with Miss Piggy’s character. But this improvement is because Piggy is still firing on all cylinders as a characters (as is Frank Oz’s performance). The only Kermit scene I genuinely liked is his climactic sword fight with Long John Silver, in which it is revealed that Smollett has a sailor chest tattoo and some sweet sword moves.
As much as I like the stylized sets, I do miss seeing the Muppets in the real world. It makes them stand out more, whereas the humans seem the odd-ducks in both Carol and Treasure — which only heightens the inherent issues with placing a human in the protagonist role.
Celebrity Cameo Count: None.
Best Celebrity Cameo: Not applicable.
Upon first seeing Smollett, who is rumored to have quite the temper.
Jim: That’s the raging volcano? He’s a frog.
Rizzo: Maybe he gets hopping mad.
Worst (aka Best) Fozzie Joke: Not applicable.
Most Ridiculous/Bizarre Joke: The whole Mr. Bimbo thing.
Best Meta Moment/Line:
After Jim, Gonzo and Rizzo witness Billy Bones die.
Gonzo: He died? This is supposed to be a kids movie!
Joke No Child Could Understand:
Said to Miss Piggy.
Kermit: “Don’t cry for me, Benjimina.”
Not sure a lot of kids will get Andrew Lloyd Weber references.
Sadly Under-Featured Muppet: I miss Dr. Teeth.
Should There Have Been a Sequel: Sure. I’m not a huge fan of this human protagonist/literary adaptation gimmick, but even watered down the Muppets are still pretty great. Plus, this was the second highest grossing Muppet film (behind The Muppet Movie) so clearly some other peeps are enjoying this era.
Up Next: Muppets from Space