A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , , ,

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