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Muppet Treasure Island Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    Muppet Treasure Island Review
    Celebrating Kermit's fifty years of “Bein' Green” - has it really been that long? - Disney DVD have re-released the Muppet movies across the world and all its regions in, wait for it, anamorphic widescreen. At long last, I might add. Now, as a long-time lover of The Muppet Show, I've had to admit that they haven't always translated too well to the big screen, their early outings being quite appallingly unfunny - the sight of Kermit riding a bike in The Muppet Movie, notwithstanding. But, when it comes to adapting established stories, and hurling the cosy-furred critters into them with pantomimic gusto, they have certainly found their niche. The Muppet Christmas Carol was a simply outstanding movie, in every way (yep, even having Michael Caine sing!) and, to my mind, one of the best versions of Dickens' classic tale that the screen has so far offered. The relatively new Muppet Wizard Of Oz has its moments, too. But, here, it is my pleasure to review the R4 Australian release of Muppet Treasure Island, Brian Henson's take on the immortal story Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and, once again, the team have retained the essence of the yarn whilst injecting enough of their own brand of wacky humour and inimitable characterisation to give a full-blooded, please-all version that never once outstays its welcome. A colourful, bawdy romp that can't fail to entertain.

    “You know, the ocean? The big, blue wet thing ...”

    With a screenplay by Jerry Juhl (who also adapted The Muppet Christmas Carol), Kirk R. Thatcher and James V. Hart (Bram Stoker's Dracula), the original story is pretty faithfully adhered to. Once again, bored young Jim Hawkins (played here by man-faced sprog Kevin Bishop) longs for adventure across the high seas. After his father takes off towards the distant horizon, the young dreamer listens with envy to the stories and shanties belched out by drunkard Billy Bones (a guest spot from Billy Connelly) at the old Admiral Benbow inn, which is strangely populated by pigs, these days, and cannot believe his luck when the old buccaneer's fabled treasure map ends up in his possession. So, narrowly escaping the clutches of Blind Pew (who looks like something out of Terrahawks - remember that, anyone?) who is intent on procuring Billy's old map, Jim, along with loyal chums Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat, hires the good ship Hispaniola and sets off to seek the fortune indicated on the withered old parchment. Of course, of all the ships tied up at the harbour, he has to go and pick the one with a certain one-legged pirate posing as the cook, doesn't he?

    “That's the raging volcano? He's a frog.”

    “Maybe he's hopping mad!”

    With Kermit taking on the role of the noble Captain Smollett, Sam the Eagle (one of my favourite Muppets) as his stern Second-in-Command, Mr. Arrowe, Tim Curry as the eyeball-rolling, brine-blooded rascal Long John Silver and a ship full of familiar fuzzy-faces including the awesome Sweetums - who actually gave me nightmares when I was a kid - the course is set for riotously-ribald behaviour, some incredibly naff songs and a smartly-played and spirited sea-faring grin-fest featuring all of the usual suspects. Having the perennial hecklers Staedler and Waldorf as the Hispaniola's grumbling twin-figureheads is a cool notion, their barnacled barbs adding salty sarcasm to the script. I love the way that Mr. Arrowe applies an aggressive interpretation to all of Captain Smollett's rather more lenient commands - “Er ... I was just paraphrasing, sir,” - and the uncanny way in which his deceptively granite-set face can alter expression just by the degree to which the puppeteer's open his mouth. Gonzo and Rizzo don't act as narrators this time out, but their skittering about the baseline of the camera is a practically constant companion-piece to the movie. Check out Gonzo's perversely sadomasochistic streak when tortured below-decks. And it's nice to see Animal and the band supplying some musical accompaniment to the voyage, too. Kermit, however, is simply Kermit in a Naval uniform, his un-altering persona completed when he discovers Miss Piggy on Treasure Island. As the wayward Benjamina, the lover he jilted at the altar when the high seas beckoned, she appears to have worked her way through many more of the cast before finally being adopted as the Queen of Treasure Island's tribe of native boars.

    “I got cold feet.”

    “You're a frog. You're supposed to have cold feet.”

    But any version of Treasure Island has to be measured by its portrayal of Long John Silver and, in Tim Curry, we may have a decidedly less-sinister incarnation, but that doesn't stop his scenery-chewing with grinning, throaty-voiced relish. He manages to walk the fine line between arch villainy and pure pantomime with agreeable conviction and style. Far better suited to hell-bent, treasure-obsessed piratical zeal than humbled, soul-searching father-figure to Jim Hawkins, Curry (whose crowning moment was as Darkness in Ridley Scott's under-achieving Legend) definitely looks and acts the part amid all those puppets with considerable aplomb. With him in the role, the danger was that the character would lapse too swiftly into overtly camp excess, but he manages to avoid such pitfalls by the skin of his wickedly grinning teeth. Even young Kevin Bishop - who keeps on reminding me of Mel Gibson, for some reason - handles performing amid a welter of Muppets with dignity and charm. Although, it's a different story when he sings - these being opportune moments to fast-forward a little bit. The relationship between Jim and Long John Silver is one of literature's greatest, and most difficult, things to pull off accurately and, obviously, in a Muppet version we can hardly expect the appropriate twisted emotions, heartrending guilt and betrayal, and then its ultimately unique mutual-understanding (in fact, I was surprised at how brilliantly Disney's under-valued Treasure Planet coped with it) and, barring only a few quiet moments of tender bonding, the film wisely opts to ditch such sentimentality. Silver may have some love for the erstwhile, brave and thoroughly decent Hawkins, but the Muppet screenwriters prefer to have him remain primarily as a rogue. Albeit, of a considerably less-cutthroat variety.
    “I hate your life, too.”

    “If I had a life - I'd hate it, too!”

    But what really adds to the entertainment value of Muppet Treasure Island is the incredibly diverse and skilful way in which it has been filmed. Utilising some tremendous sets - all patently fake in a polystyrene-rock kind of way, admittedly - the film drips atmosphere. The island setting is wonderfully evocative, with its singing skulls, tendril-vines draped everywhere and terrifically moody lighting. There are even some nice matte shots if it lying there enshrouded in fog. Olde England is nicely realised too, with some great askew roofs, cobbled streets and striking photography. Brian Henson's direction is on-the-ball, as well. He keeps the camera roving through the sets and amongst the vast array of flamboyant characters with flair and energy, adopting many great angles to ensure the action is vivid and engrossing at all times. That trademarked low angle from the TV show works particularly well with the stage-bound sets, adding height, depth and realism to the proceedings, but he is also keen to have the camera venture far away from its beaten track to provide an energetic and involving experience that whistles around the Admiral Benbow Inn during the initial attack, the Hispaniola throughout its voyage and, naturally, the island, itself. This is, arguably, the most filmic of all the Muppet movies, although some of the distance shots of the ship at sea don't look so hot. Hans Zimmer's score, meanwhile, lacks the drive and vitality to properly rouse. Even for a kid's Muppet movie this needed a thunderously sea-faring theme to exhilarate and excite, the material practically demands it. But his music fails to stimulate in any way, I'm afraid. And the songs? Well, they aren't up to much, either, proving themselves to be anything other than catchy or memorable - with the one notable exception of Miss Piggy's pounding tribal introduction, which is good fun. Overall, the song and dance set-pieces have a striving for effect about them that smacks of desperation, as though the makers knew they had to supply some foot-tapping interludes but somehow couldn't quite put their heart and soul into it. However, it is cool to see Kermit and Miss Piggy croon to one another as they dangle, upside down over a cliff's edge, a fire slowly burning the ropes that hold them - a scene marvellously inter cut with Silver and his men finding the treasure. Another clever filmic nod. Check out Kermit's already bulging eyes bulge even more when he catches hold of Piggy's ankles.

    “He died? And this is supposed to be a kid's movie!”

    So, another successful interpretation of Stevenson's tale. Quite what he would have made of a frog, a pig and the rest of that ragtag gaggle of whatever-they-are's pillaging their way through his prose is of pure conjecture, but I, for one, love it. Muppets rule the seven seas. Sorry if I didn't mention Fozzie Bear, folks ... but he's the one Muppet that I cannot stand. And yep, he is in it. Unfortunately.