Monday, May 9, 2016

Muppet Treasure Island

It’s recently been pointed out to me – and I find this hard to believe – that I’ve never done a post about one of my favorite pirate movies, Muppet Treasure Island. Well, that lack of material ends now. This week, it’s the Muppets!

Muppet Treasure Island was released in 1996, the second movie after the tragic death of Muppet founder Jim Henson. It followed Muppet Christmas Carol, a movie which was successful, and it used some of the same storytelling techniques. Like the previous movie, it uses live humans as the main characters (in this case Kevin Bishop as Jim Hawkins, and Tim Curry as Long John Silver) and employed Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as narrators.

The original intent had been for Gonzo and Rizzo to BE Jim Hawkins (one playing a character named Jim, the other playing a character named Hawkins.) But the writers quickly realized that the heart of Treasure Island is Jim’s development. Since Muppets, almost by definition, do not develop their characters, the lead in Treasure Island must be human. And if Jim was human, Silver, to maintain the proper relationship, must be human too.

Muppet movies as usually short, and MTI clocks in at 99 minutes (1 hour and 39 minutes.) For this reason, the story has been substantially modified. It has also been modified in order to stick to the “rules” of the Muppet universe.

Muppets need a G rating, and the material needs to be innocent and kid-friendly. This means that the drunken antics of the pirates can’t be shown, and also that certain sections of the book, including Jim’s killing of Israel Hands needed to be cut out. Another “rule” of Muppet movies is that ALL the important Muppets must make an appearance in every movie. (This will be important.)

The movie starts a chorus of Muppet wildlife singing “Shiver My Timbers” as Captain Flint and his human crew take the treasure to be buried.  The song, the ferocious-looking Flint and the human pirates convey a sense of danger and dread, and the scene ends as Flint pulls his pistols and murders his crew members (off screen.)

Cut to the inside of an Inn, where it is revealed that this is a story being told by Billy Bones – played by Billy Connolly. We also meet Jim Hawkins, Gonzo and Rizzo, who are three friends who work at the Inn in exchange for a food and a place to sleep. Gonzo longs for adventure, Rizzo longs for food, and Jim longs to go to sea, following the footsteps of his deceased father.

This very night, Blind Pew and a host of former pirates - some human, some Muppet - show up, trying to steal Bones’ map. Bones dies of heart failure (played for laughs with several fake-out deaths) and various Muppet hijinks ensue. Jim and his friends end up on the road, alone, carrying the map.

By cutting out Jim’s mother and his ownership interest in the Inn, the story moves forward much faster, and several characters are eliminated, making for a more streamlines story.

Looking for a ship to take them to Treasure Island, Jim and company show up on the doorstep of Squire Trelawney, Fozzie Bear, who in this movie is the dimwitted son of a shipbuilder. To prove that Fozzie is playing a confused character (and it’s not just Fozzie’s own mental and emotional limitations) the character is given a sidekick, Mr. Bimbo, and invisible man who lives in Fozzie’s finger. Clearly, this character is just the sort of person who would loan a valuable ship to complete strangers on the strength of a treasure map.

This action speeds up the story once again, and eliminates some more of the pirate doings.

Along with the ship comes Long John Silver – Tim Curry, with a pet lobster on his shoulder instead of a parrot. The crew of the ship consists of various lesser-known Muppets, including Sam the Eagle and Sweetums.  Kermit plays Captain Smollett, and immediately wins our support by telling Jim, “I knew your father. He was a good man.”

But Jim’s job as cabin boy means that he assists Silver in the galley, and just like in other versions of the tale, the two form a father/son relationship. Unlike other versions, Rizzo books a number of middle-aged rat couples on a “Caribbean cruise” aboard the ship, and Gonzo finds out what the pirates are up to, and is tortured (which Gonzo, being Gonzo, finds both cool and enjoyable) Dr. Honeydew and Bunsen show up to un-do the results of the torture.

In order to provide a fun musical number, the ship is caught without wind, and the crew suffers from “cabin fever.”  This results in more chaos, Carmen Miranda costumes, square dancing, singing in German, Mariachi hats and an appearance by Lew Zealand and his boomerang fish.

Once they reach the island, Silver kidnaps Jim in order to obtain the compass left to the boy by his seafaring father. Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo and Rizzo go to the rescue and end up captured by savage pigs.

And here we have a problem. The real story of T.I. contains no women. How can the Muppets add Piggy to the mix? Answer: Make Piggy the leader of the local natives, and also give her the part of Ben Gunn (now Benjamina Gunn), maroonee. The Swedish Chef shows up at the feast, dressed like a pig.

Here we learn that Benjamina and Smollett were engaged to be married, and Smollett left Benjamina at the altar. (Frogs always get cold feet.) After a confrontation, Benjamina agrees to help her former lover.

Meanwhile, the pirates have a musical number (played by The Electric Mayhem) and find the original location of the buried treasure, only to discover it has been removed. The causes a brief mutiny against Silver, who puts his life on the line to allow Jim to escape. The pirates then capture Benjamina and Smollett, and find out where Benjamina has hidden the gold. Then the pirates and hang them over a cliff. As the rope slowly frays, the two make up and have an upside down duet and fall back in love.

They are rescued when Jim brings the ship under them, and the figureheads (played by Statler and Waldorf) catch them. A fight with the pirates follows. Jim and his Muppet friends prove very brave, and Silver and his men are captured.

True to T.I. tradition, Long John Silver escapes before he can be brought to justice, getting away with a lifeboat full of treasure. But the boat sinks, and Silver loses it all. The movie ends with the rats scuba diving to the tune of reggae music, trying to raise the treasure.

The movie charming because it simply uses the Muppets to add warmth and color to an already colorful tale, while remaining in the spirit of the original and letting all the Muppets pretty much be themselves.

One more interesting fact about the movie – because of it, Hormel (makers of Spam) sued Henson Productions, claiming that the wild pig character Spa’am had damaged their product name integrity. The judge threw it out, on the basis that 1. Hormel could not prove that any damage was done. 2. “Hormel should be pleased to have their product associated with a genuine source of pork.”

Whether it’s as a genuine source of pork or hamming it up, the Muppets add a lot of affection and humor to a sometimes frightening tale. It’s a wonderful way to introduce kids to a classic story, and an loving retelling that will warm the hearts of adults as well.  


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