A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 257 – Muppet Treasure Island

Muppet Treasure Island – November 12th, 2010

I have a cold. It sucks a great deal and I’m a little out of it really, so today I needed a movie that would be easy on my brain. Normally I’d save a movie like this for a really bad day at work, preferably one that got out late, since the movie’s on the shorter side. But I think a sick day is a good justification for a short easy movie, don’t you? And really, any Muppet movie is a good one for when you need something fun and easy to watch. Sure, some are better than others, but I honestly don’t think there are any flat out bad Muppet movies. They’re all fun and they’re all full of Muppets and that’s really an impressive thing. Better than the Star Trek franchise, that’s for certain.

Muppet movies seem to fall into two categories (three if you count things like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal as a category on their own): Original stories and adapted stories. They started out with originals, but since then there’ve been a few adaptations of classic books and you know what? I’m really good with that. There’s a certain something I love when the Muppets do a send-up of something established. Look at Monsterpiece Theater on Sesame Street, for example. Or Sherlock Hemlock, also a Sesame Street spot (and those references to things adults would know always made Sesame Street extra awesome). So when the Muppets tackle something like Treasure Island I sort of know what to expect. There will be goofy asides and there will be fourth wall breaking, like in any Muppet movie, and there will be alterations of certain characters to suit the Muppets as a cast. You can’t expect anything remotely serious-minded here. The closest you’re going to get is a bit of touching character arc and maybe some Piggy and Kermit romance.

This movie is, as the title suggests, based on Treasure Island, and I’ve never read the book myself, so I won’t be making any comparisons here (I’ve mentioned my aversion to “classics” before, I’m sure). Mostly what I want to talk about are the musical numbers, Gonzo and Tim Curry. I’m not really a big fan of the kid they got to play Jim, but I can’t say it’s a problem with his acting. It’s mostly because they gave him a couple of songs to sing and they’ve always seemed to me to be a little incongruous with the rest of the musical bits. They throw it to him in the middle of “Sailing For Adventure” and out of the gung ho, sung with character and humor Muppet lines comes this youthful choral voice. When the other humans singing are over-the-top pirates and Tim Curry? It’s just never quite worked for me. The rest of the numbers, on the other hand, are a lot of fun. Even “Love Led Us Here” – so long as it’s the version in the movie, done by Piggy and Kermit, and not the end credits version. But without question, my favorite musical number in the movie is “Cabin Fever”, which I reference oddly often, given that it’s a jazzy number about being becalmed on the ocean. But it’s got the whole cast of Muppets and extras dancing around on the boat, doing Muppet weirdness perfectly.

Now, while Kermit has always been at the heart of the Muppets and been the focal figure of many movies, he takes a bit of a secondary seat in this one and I found I don’t mind. I love Kermit, don’t get me wrong. But I love Gonzo too, and he’s certainly front and center in this movie. Let’s face it, the story isn’t about the captain of the Hispaniola. It’s about Jim, and placing Gonzo with the human actor playing Jim was a good move. I do find it interesting that in the Muppet adaptations I’ve seen, there’s always a human playing one or more of the key roles (Ashanti in Muppet Wizard of Oz and Michael Caine in Muppet Christmas Carol in addition to Kevin Bishop and Tim Curry here) as opposed to the humans being the baddies and cameos in the original stories. I think I prefer the Muppet focus in the originals, all things considered, but this movie definitely tried to split the spotlight by giving Jim two co-cabin boys in Gonzo and Rizzo and I like how they’re used here. Gonzo is his typically bizarre self, putting starfish in his pants and enjoying the rack, and Rizzo brings in some humor to the ship by running a cruise for other rats. I love that rat cruise bit, by the way. It’s a fantastic little joke about rats on ships and makes for some great bits with the rats treating the whole story as shipboard entertainment.

Really, though, if you want to know what solidifies this movie on my favorites list? It’s Tim Curry. This is a man who revels in chewing scenery and here he’s been let loose amongst the Muppets. It’s a match made in heaven, really. I would have loved for him to have been on the original Muppet Show and I am rather sad to know there’s no turning back time to get him on it. This is as close as I’m likely to get and I’m pretty damn happy, really. He hams it up more than any of the pigs on screen and it’s a joy to see him so obviously enjoying himself. He has just the right attitude to be playing a scheming baddie in a Muppet movie.

Add Tim Curry to Cabin Fever and the rest of the movie could be utter blah and I’d still be happy, really. But it’s not blah. It’s a heck of a lot of fun on top of Curry and Cabin Fever. There’s the main cast filling in a number of major and minor roles, like Sweetums as one of the pirates and Statler and Waldorf as the mastheads of the ship in addition to Kermit as the captain and Piggy as the stranded Benjamina Gunn. I do love a lot of the pirates, like Clueless Morgan and Dead Tom, and I love the inclusion of Sam the American Eagle as first mate. It’s all just a lot of great Muppet work and some fun casting and songs. The fun truly does outweigh the meh by a large margin, which is as it should be.

November 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Muppet Treasure Island

November 12, 2010

Muppet Treasure Island

In the years after Jim Henson’s death the Muppet franchise was, if you will forgive the awful pun, somewhat rudderless. This was the second post-Henson Muppet movie, and the second adaptation of a popular book. I’ll admit that at the time I was disappointed that although a new Muppet movie was coming out it was not an original story (we would have to wait for Muppets From Space for that.) I have fond memories of my father reading the book to me when I was a child, but it was never like this. This is, however, a really fun movie. It sounds odd that you could make a lighthearted musical comedy from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of pirates and treasure, but that is exactly what we have here.

There’s a whole lot that this movie has in its favor. It has a whole lot of catchy musical numbers, it retains the playful Muppet spirit throughout (even when depicting some of the less family friendly parts of the story), it has a lot of fantastic performances from the Muppet crew as well as the human guest stars, and it has one thing above all else that raises it up to a higher level of awesome: Tim Curry. There aren’t many people who can class a movie up by being such a ham, but Tim does an amazing job doing just that. His Long John Silver is a broad caricature and he chews so much scenery that it must have given him severe indigestion, but when your co-stars are all made from polystyrene, rubber and felt that kind of performance actually works.

As with several of Muppet movies this movie casts a human in one of the lead roles and surrounds him with Muppets. In this case it is Kevin Bishop as young Jim Hawkins, the boy hero of the tale who is the center of the whole quest to find Captain Flint’s buried treasure. (This trend of casting humans as the leads in Muppet movies puzzles me. They have done the same thing in just about every literary adaptation the Muppets have done from Cinderella to The Wizard of Oz. I don’t tend to watch these movies for the humans, so why do they end up with central roles? I like it better when they’re restricted to supporting roles and cameo appearances.) Many of the people Jim meets on his journey, however, are played by Muppets, and it’s kind of fun to see how the casting has been done. The captain of the Hispaniola for example is played by Kermit the Frog. The whole joke is that it is Kermit playing a role, which means he gets to be Kermit, but he also gets to take part in a swashbuckling adventure.

The strangest bit of casting is that the half-mad marooned hermit Ben Gunn is now played by Miss Piggy, which means that he becomes a she, and that she’s now got some romantic history with Captain Smollett. And with Flint. And with Silver. It is a very odd choice, but one that boldly sets this adaptation far apart from every other one and makes it something of an original work.

This movie also worked to introduce one of my favorite new Muppet performers, Bill Barretta. He’s better known now for Pepe the Prawn, but it was here, as Clueless Morgan, that I first noticed him. I’m not sure what it is – the deft puppeteering, the perfect comic timing… Bill just has that magical ability to steal any scene. Check out his work as Bobo in Muppets from Space too. Hilarious stuff.

Speaking of deft puppeteering, I have a question for anybody in the know who happens to stumble across this review: how on earth did the magicians behind the Muppets do the “Love Led Us Here” number? It features Kermit the Frog (now played by Steve Whitmire) and Miss Piggy (Frank Oz – possibly the last time he performed her in a movie, although IMDB claims that he was in Muppets From Space) dangling upside down while singing. In the close up shots I’d imagine that the performers just lay on a platform of some type and held their hands below them, but in the long shots there’s nowhere for the performers to be. It could be a blue-screen processed shot, but the way that the characters dangle and swing seems too natural for that. At one point Miss Piggy actually begins to spin around, which couldn’t be done if a performer were manipulating her from behind. My suspicion is that they used some kind of remote-control rig for the long shots with servos running the puppets, but how did they get it to look so smooth and natural? It’s a very clever sequence, and one that shows that Brian, directing this film, has inherited his father’s love of experimentation in the name of bringing these puppets to life.

I’d also like to say that it was in this movie that I finally felt Steve nailed his performance of Kermit and captured the spirit of Jim Henson. Maybe it’s that this was the first time since Jim’s death that I had seen Kermit have a proper screaming fit of anger. It’s as though people thought it would be irreverent to let Kermit show any negative emotion, even though some of his funniest moments on Sesame Street and the Muppet Show involved him losing his carefully maintained cool and shouting. (I want my Kermit the FROOOOOG T-shirt!”) It was almost cathartic to see him berating the officers on the ship here for hiring a crew full of terrifying cut-throats.

We put this in tonight because Amanda isn’t feeling well and we needed something light hearted that we both love. And because it had been too long since we last reviewed a Tim Curry movie (almost two weeks!) And because I wanted to watch all the scenes with Clueless Morgan again. And because, hell, it’s just a fun movie to watch.

November 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment