Extended Thoughts on ‘Muppet Treasure Island’
Directed by Brian Henson
Written by Jerry Juhl
Starring Tim Curry, Kevin Bishop, Jennifer Saunders, Billy Connolly
It is, admittedly, strange to criticize a movie adaptation of a well-worn classic for being too faithful. Some movies, of course, are too stuck on the books or plays they’re adapting, unable to break free from the tethers of the previously written word. But most often, we want our movie versions of beloved stories to be very much like those stories. Otherwise, what’s the point? Sometimes, however, the more faithful an adaptation is, the less successful it is as a movie. We have to remember that a book and a movie may tell the same story, but they can never tell it the same way. This point got lost in the shuffle during the Harry Potter franchise, but it’s pertinent: whatever experience you had reading those books, they can’t be replicated on film. There’s literally no way, just because your imagination isn’t the same as that of the films’ directors, unless you’re, you know, David Yates.
So, then, what must a film adaptation achieve? The answer isn’t as static as you might think, depending on who’s adapting the story to the silver screen. Why should anyone expect the Muppets, for example, to provide a mostly unerring and faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ most famous work, A Christmas Carol? It’s not wrong to assume that varying mediums within cinema—live-action or animation, for example—can provide adaptations with equal fidelity to any story, but when you enter the Muppets into the equation, you wouldn’t be wrong for assuming some playfulness instead. The Muppets represent anarchy, a dose of chaos in an otherwise straitlaced world. That’s, at least, how they represent themselves in their iconic 70s variety TV show, and in The Muppet Movie, gleefully breaking the fourth wall with abandon.
The Muppet Christmas Carol did break the fourth wall, too, but in a more toned-down, serious kind of way. Yes, Gonzo and Rizzo get to interact with the audience and comment on the general grimness of Dickens’ classic tale, but director Brian Henson steers away from even lightly mocking the story or characters. I love A Christmas Carol. I love the Muppets. I do not love a faithful retelling of A Christmas Carol by the Muppets. What I wanted from that film was a spark of clever, goofy life, one that’s very much present in the other 90s-era Disney movie starring the Muppets, Muppet Treasure Island. Like The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island is based on a seminal work of fiction from a British author, one that most people are familiar with even if they haven’t read the whole thing. But for whatever reason, the people behind the film—Henson and screenwriter Jerry Juhl worked on both of these movies—decided to steer away from fidelity, and embrace silly chaos.
Mike and Gabe would argue, to varying degrees, that this choice sinks Muppet Treasure Island, but I come today to praise the film for its silliness. It makes perfect sense that this movie opened merely a month before ABC attempted to revive The Muppet Show with something called Muppets Tonight, which lasted two short seasons, but was by no means a success. (Sidebar: when, exactly, will Disney realize that reviving The Muppet Show now would be huge? Nostalgia for the show is intense among people my age, and there’s no shortage of celebrities who wouldn’t love to appear on the show, if the number of big-name actors in the two new Muppet movies are any evidence. Get on that, Disney.) What better way to advertise for that show than with a similarly themed full-length comedy? Muppet Treasure Island, all the comedy aside, isn’t totally unfaithful to the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, but I think it gets away with some of its changes, if not all of them, because people aren’t as widely familiar with its story beats. Yes, you know about Long John Silver and the pegleg and the parrot, but his connection to Ben Gunn may be a bit shakier for some of us.
Faithfulness aside, it’s most important to acknowledge the big reason why I still love this movie so much: it’s incredibly, surprisingly funny. I say “surprisingly” not because the Muppets are antithetical to comedy, but because the Muppets post-Jim Henson’s tragic death appear a bit neutered, as if their ownership by Disney has sapped them of that anarchic streak. It’s not that the Muppets were ever so scandalous, but they almost became inoffensive and a bit bland. Muppet Treasure Island doesn’t exactly skirt the edge of bad taste in its humor, but a lot of the running gags feel like they’re straight from The Muppet Show itself, such as an escalating roll-call scene where Captain Smollett realizes that he’s on a ship with, among others, pirates named Old Tom, Real Old Tom, and Dead Tom, the latter of whom is literally a skeleton with a pirate hat. Silly, but even typing out that description makes me smile.
Where Muppet Treasure Island stumbles is in its unwillingness to move totally forward. You could argue that the Muppets, at least after they had their TV show in the 1970s, have existed in two eras, one with Jim Henson and Frank Oz at the helm, and one without. The latter man is still alive and working, but he’s essentially stepped away from Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and the rest of his beloved characters, allowing others to perform where he once stood. And even though he’s present in both The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, it’s hard not to keenly feel Oz’s absence in each of them. Really, the lack of the main three characters in these movies—Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie—is what makes them seem lesser, minor Muppet movies.
Muppet Treasure Island is imperfect, but is more willing to embrace the old spirit. These are not the original Muppets, of course–many of those who get speaking lines aren’t the ones we grew up with. And that’s been the case for the past two decades, that whatever original characters get major parts in Muppet movies aren’t the main three. (The new Muppet movie, as well as the sequel–from what is known of its plot so far–is an exception.) It is a bit depressing to watch these newer films, knowing that the Muppeteers weren’t willing to keep Kermit, Piggy, and Fozzie around as the main characters even if their performers weren’t there, either at all or full time. But at least Muppet Treasure Island feels like a Muppet movie.
That, in essence, is my issue with The Muppet Christmas Carol. And, sometimes, the following phrasing can be applied to the work of eminent comedians working in drama. The Muppet Christmas Carol, unlike Muppet Treasure Island, is not so much a Muppet movie as it is a movie in which Muppets appear. (For others, it works like this: Punch-Drunk Love isn’t an Adam Sandler movie, but a movie in which he appears.) The Muppets are on screen, but it’s just…they feel like they’re interlopers in their own film, sadly. Muppet Treasure Island may not be the most faithful adaptation of a classic adventure story, and it may be inherently silly, anachronistic, and full of goofy songs. But that’s what made The Muppet Show, and the Muppets, so special. Revisiting those memories, and doing so charmingly, is what makes this film even remotely as remarkable as what inspired it.