THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: Muppet Treasure Island

25 May, 2019 at 8:39 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: Gonzo can never refer to himself as a “Whatever” ever again. Except I don’t think we ever learned what his people are called… And I remain disappointed that there wasn’t an explicit reference to Koozebane anywhere in the film.

TITLE CARD: Muppet Treasure Island

The film opens with a long slow pan over physical mountains on location and seamlessly wipes to a studio lot that allows a mixture of Muppets and men to interact in song-styled backstory as narrated by Billy Connolly. There’s quite a bit going on here, according to director Brian Henson on the commentary track. He mentioned that this complicated melding of a composite helicopter pan with an on-set dolly pan was the same technique he used to open Muppet Christmas Carol, thus allowing us to infer that he feels it should be either a signature move for him as director or for Muppet movies under his watch. What’s interesting is that Henson is successful enough at the technical melding of the elements that it looks smooth and therefore feels… underwhelming? It should feel spectacular, but instead it just feels like a jumble.

While well done, it’s not showy enough to be impressive, which is a metaphor for the entire movie and perhaps the existence of the Muppets at large. We’ll return to the bicycles alluded to in this series’ intro post to see how full-body Muppets in space — like Gonzo on his tractor in Muppets in Space — are a technical achievement that becomes sufficient normal that audiences, instead of saying, “Wow, how’d they do that!”, are more likely to think, “Oof, we should not be able to see Fozzie’s legs.” Trick photography, well-constructed sets, Muppeteers stuffed into underwater tanks, and multiple stunt Muppets employed through careful cuts are all employed to take the characters from their artificial Muppet Theatre random half-height walls and place them in the Real World. And when it’s done well, it’s almost invisible. And perhaps that invisibility helps reduce the amount of craftsmanship involved.

Sweetums, Kermit, and Rita Moreno in the 'Talk Spot'Degrees of invisible craftsmanship are relative, though, when it comes to fake animals and singing foam statuary. It is acceptable to have the singing statues in the opening number look like Muppet statues, rather than have them be, say, photo-realistic stone idols that magically, seamlessly have flapping mouths. The former is part and parcel of what an audience accepts when it attends something with the Muppet trademark attached. The latter hypothetical scenario would also require realistic acting on everyone’s part, and would involved far fewer flagrant demolishing of the fourth wall.

Because the nominal stars of this film — in addition to the novel’s traditional human lead, Jim Hawkins — are Gonzo and Rizzo playing their twentieth-century selves. It’s hard to claim that there are jarring shifts in tone when the film prominently features singing alligators and the prototype of Sal the Monkey in the opening, but it remains strange to have Rizzo talk about pizza in an eighteenth-century public house, and to have Billy Connolly’s Billy Bones break from his extended straight Stevenson dialogue to call Gonzo “hose-nose”.

And while Kevin Bishop, as Jim-lad, doesn’t break character or do much beyond make a confused face when something asynchronious comes up in dialogue, his voice isn’t especially in period. The clear, chiming tones of a boy soprano transcend time period, especially in Europe, where they have been part of religious celebrations for quite some time, but there’s something about the simple purity of Bishop’s songs that don’t click with the gritty, felty surroundings. A 2012 interview with Bishop reveals that his voice broke part-way through filming, which meant that his songs are early test-tracks that were used as the final soundtrack. I was wondering why his voice sounded so out of step with the songs in which he sang, and I wonder if that’s why: not a lack of skill on the young actor’s part to match vocal performance and physical presence, but the fact that an early, draft performance wouldn’t have necessarily have the nuance that a later, more directed recording session would.

I actually quite enjoy the off-kilter modern references that the Gonzo/Rizzo duo bring to the movie. It’s not just that when I participated in live-action roleplay, I consistently enjoyed playing a character that could not stop making contemporary references in the midst of our fantasy setting. It’s just that whether in this, in Treasure Planet, or the 2012 Eddie Izzard Treasure Island television series, I’ve never really been captivated by the plot mechanics of the story, and much prefer being distracted by the antics of a series of Rat Tourists.

RIZZO: Thank you, Mr. Plagueman. Next!

Especially since the popularization of the idea of a one-legged pirate and the omnipresence of Long John Silver as a cultural icon, the twist that Silver is not just a cook, but the secret mastermind behind the manipulation of Captain Smollett and Squire Trelawney simply can’t come as a surprise to anyone beside the youngest of viewers. Which means that a production has to hinge upon the charisma of the Silver character, of having him tread the balance between someone who as a certain righteousness in his claim of the treasure but someone whose ruthlessness makes him dangerous. Someone that Jim could both be scared of and love, so that his betrayal is keenly felt, but that his eventual escape and survival is tinged with earned hope. A slippery, protean actor is needed to manage that charisma, and Tim Curry is a solid choice. His greatest accomplishment is balancing the kind of camp that should accompany a Muppet production and projecting genuine care for Jim Hawkins.

His introduction is particularly strong. He plays the part perfectly straight, with Silver coming across as ingratiating and slimy, with only a soupçon of menace. In a non-Muppet film the performance would have been sufficient to allow one to believe that he could have bamboozled Squire Trelawney into hiring a crew of almost entirely pirates, and that his role of ringleader would have felt like a betrayal, and not a slow inevitability. He hits the right tone of being confusingly menacing, ringing alarm bells without clear indicators. The film then moves on to no longer muddle the issue, and by the time that he is serving drinks to Kermit and Sam in the captain’s quarters, any ambiguity has gone out the window.

This largely the result of the direction, which isn’t interested in maintaining the mystery, and partially due to the timing of the immediately preceding joke sequence of introducing all of the ship’s crew as well as the simple fact that Trelawney is played by Fozzie. The latter is fascinating. There is a running gag where Fozzie is in regular conversation with “Mr. Bimbo”, a little man who lives in his finger. This helps make him a strange and deluded character — or a “bozo”, according to Rizzo — in a concrete and absurdist way rather than in whichever satirical manner Stevenson originally portrayed him. It is an extremely odd, very specific bit of lunacy that is so out of keeping with Fozzie’s traditional schtick that I assumed it had to be part of the original material, and it just has a cheerful Dickensian weirdness to it. So I was surprised to discover that it was an original idea by screenwriter Kirk Thatcher, and unsurprised to find the widely-quoted Muppets Wikia article saying that Frank Oz took some convincing that the joke would work. It mostly does, though, despite the fact that it doesn’t feel like Fozzie at all and even seems to be some people’s favorite part of the movie.

The other most successful gag is the nutsy pirate crew that Mr. Bimbo hired on the advice of Long John Silver. While the novel has a few piratical names that feel at home in the midst of a Pirate Name Generator, like Black Dog, Pew, and Dirk, most of the named pirates in the novel just have, well, English names. Tom Morgan, George Merry, Dick Johnson… these are not the sort of key, copywritable names that really stick in the public consciousness. So the Muppets give us, instead:

Short Stack Stevens, One-Eyed Jack, Black-Eyed Pea, Walleyed Pike, Polly Lobster, Mad Monty, Sweetums, Old Tom, Real Old Tom, and Dead Tom, Clueless Morgan, Headless Bill, Angel Marie, and Big Fat Ugly Bug-Faced Baby-Eating O’Brien.

The last being a joke right out of The Goon Show, which at least fulfills the Muppet’s classic Muppet Show requirement of stealing vaudeville and music hall gags from the previous generation.

Speaking of music hall traditions, a brief thought on the songs. “Sailing for Adventure” does a good job capturing the rhythm and structure of evoking Pirates of Penzance or something Gilbert & Sullivan, and it’s just a pity that the inclusion of Kevin’s sweet soprano doesn’t gel with the rest of the number — it would have been understandably hard to thread it in throughout the song when one is only dealing with a previous recording, but it does make his voice and his character appear in its own little world. “Love Led Us Here” has quite good harmonies, and I enjoy the cross-cutting between the discovery of the pirate treasure and the relationship between Captain Smollett and Benjamina. The romance numbers in Muppet films often grind them to an absolute halt, so the montage is very clever and keeps it lively. However, when it’s is sung again over the end credits by a country singer who featured on two soundtracks and was seemingly unable to capture the public’s imagination despite the mystifying efforts of whichever A&R man represented her, it is utterly forgettable. Ziggy Marley’s commissioned “Love Power”, well, it exists. Barely. What doesn’t seem to exist much any more is the accompanying rock video with Kermit in dreads and the Muppet company engaging in some very odd cultural appropriation. Hopefully this video was “canceled” for the right reasons.

Unlike this series, which still has four more entries to go, so (swash)buckle in for the long haul. Not counting Kevin Bishop or the aforementioned Big Fat Ugly O’Brien (whose only other credit on IMDB was two years earlier playing a young Heather Graham, which raises all sorts of weird questions, but none interesting enough to watch Desert Winds), Treasure Island clocks in with a Celebrity Human Score of 3, which I think will be the lowest in the series. And, despite a few solid pleasures, I have the unfortunate responsibility of RATING it on the Old Tom, Real Old Tom, or Dead Tom scale as a DEAD TOM. Sorry, all.

NEXT: It’s a good thing I like the Gonzo/Rizzo pairing, because they get to be Charles Dickens and his own Greek Brooklyn chorus in the previous Muppet adaptation film. And we’ll find out if Ebenezer Scrooge, upon being confronted by a spectral doorknob, decides “to blow the bloody doors off!

Related links:
A propos of the image of the “Talk Spot” wall, here’s an interview with pictured guest star Rita Moreno about her Muppet Show appearance.
A strange comedy post positing that Mr. Bimbo has actually been living in Steven Spielberg’s finger and advising him for some time.
For anyone inclined to moralize about the beginning of a family film featuring a spot of off-screen mass murder, here’s a study showing slaughter isn’t that rare in children’s cinema.

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