During a recent episode of Down and Out Reviews, a podcast I do with a friend of mine (and you can find it on Spotify), we briefly touched on the Muppets. Given how random our recordings can get, I cannot tell you how we landed on this subject. When Jim Henson’s famous puppets were mentioned, I wondered whether or not they had fallen victim to the so-called “cancel culture.” He scoffed, but somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recall seeing something about people raising questions about it being racist. Then again, what is not these days? He also pointed out that there is still the Muppets in 3-D show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. So, who knows? Disney is usually pretty quick to react to such social pressures, so perhaps I am misremembering. The only reason I bring any of this up is because while watching Muppet Treasure Island (1996) last night, I caught a slight fourth wall break where one of the Muppets (I forget which) turns to the camera and protests to how inclusive are their bunch. As someone who grew up on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, I never thought otherwise. Still, I will confess that nostalgia is a big reason as to why I enjoy Muppet Treasure Island even today.
Muppet Treasure Island is a fair adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel of the same name, albeit sans Muppet. It is accurate, that is, if you are able to accept certain key characters being played by puppets in the form of animals. The Muppet version begins roughly as does the classic one, with Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop) working as a busboy at the Admiral Benbow Inn overlooking the sea. He is assisted in his duties by Gonzo the Great (voiced by Dave Goelz) and Rizzo the Rat (voiced by Steve Whitmire). Also in the tavern is veteran pirate Billy Bones (Billy Connolly), who is weaving tales of a famous buried treasure of Captain Flint where most of the crew who hid it were killed. Adding to the mystery surrounding the lost loot is Billy’s warning to be wary of a one-legged man. There also arrives that night a note for him, a blank piece of paper with a black dot on it, a pirate death sentence. Enter Blind Pew (voiced by Jerry Nelson), another pirate, who knows that Billy has a map to Captain Flint’s gold, though unsurprisingly has trouble locating Billy given the limitations suggested by his name. To assist, Blind Pew brings a band of ruffians with him. Thinking he is done for, Billy hands Jim the map and tells the boy, along with Gonzo and Rizzo, to run. They do, and they end up at the offices of the Trelawney Shipbuilding Company, requesting a boat to go after the riches. They are shown in to see the half-wit brother of the owner, Squire Trelawney/Fozzie Bear (voiced by Frank Oz), who is convinced to fund the expedition by a man living inside his finger. The crew is put together by another suspicious character, Long John Silver (Tim Curry). Jim is made a cabin boy, along with Gonzo and Rizzo, though they have reason to be cautious of Silver because he has one leg. Regardless, Silver disarms them with a warm welcome. The captain is selected by selected by Trelawney, and it is none other than Captain Abraham Smollett/Kermit the Frog (voiced by Steve Whitmire). And they set sail. Along the way, rumors begin to spread that the crew is after buried treasure, and that Jim is in possession of a map to it. With this knowledge, two people vie for his trust: Captain Smollett and Silver. Captain Smollett wants it for safe keeping, and eventually order Jim to hand it over to be locked in his cabin. Silver wants it so that he can take the riches for himself. In order to get it, he fools the ship’s first mate, Mr. Arrow/Sam the Eagle (voiced by Frank Oz), to give Silver the keys to the ship while Mr. Arrow tests out a life boat. With map in hand and the target island in sight, Silver is sent by Captain Smollett to reconnoiter the area. The captain plans to maroon all the bad apples on the island, but they snatch Jim at the last moment as a hostage. Furthermore, the crew that is left behind takes over the ship. The captain, along with Trelawney, Gonzo, and Rizzo, manage to get away, though they end up being captured by the island’s natives. This is when they discover that their ruler is Benjamina Gunn/Miss Piggy (voiced by Frank Oz), who had been stranded there by Captain Flint’s crew after being stood up at the altar by Captain Smollett. Meanwhile, though Silver allows Jim to escape, he is able to capture Benjamina and find the treasures’ true location. Thankfully, Jim works with the miraculously returned Mr. Arrow to retake the ship, save the captain, and thwart Silver. After the dust settles, Jim returns the favor by letting Silver slip away with laden chests, though his dinghy soon begins to sink.
I often find it hard to describe comedies, and Muppet Treasure Island is no exception. The source material on which it is based is a thrilling tale of adventure on the high seas. Yet, if you are not familiar with the story, or the Muppet version, you might think what I described above is a serious film. It is not. Piracy is no laughing matter, especially not during the time in which the film is set. However, when you have talking rats and bears, you know you are in for something different. That is part of the genius of the film, and Muppets in general. Not only do they add levity to serious matters, but they are self-aware and effacing, as likely to make fun of themselves and whatever situation they find themselves in as they are to poke at anything else. This fits my brand of humor perfectly, and it is embodied in the other rats that Rizzo sells tickets to before the ship leaves to find the treasure. The running joke with them is that they think they are going on a Caribbean cruise, like anyone setting off for a week-long excursion on a luxury liner. Whenever they were on-screen is when I chuckled the most. Sometimes, I believe that I have a reputation for being a serious fellow. I feel that other faithfully practicing Catholics have the same stigma attached to them. To be sure, a relationship with God is something that should be approached with sincerity of heart. At the same, many who seek to grow in Faith will tell you that they have found that God does laugh. Admittedly, there are some things I laugh at occasionally that are probably not appropriate. Yet, check out the post credits in Chosen: Custody of the Eyes (2017). Here you have this wonderful documentary film detailing the process of becoming a cloistered Franciscan nun. At the end is a scene where they are tossing rotten fruit to one another and hitting them with a baseball bat. I can imagine such people enjoying a film like Muppet Treasure Island, and that makes me smile.
Because of its style of humor, I recommend Muppet Treasure Island to any and all audiences. It is also one of those movies you can watch as an adult that will still be funny. There are references to things that only older people will understand, but nothing crude as is seemingly so often the case with cartoons these days. What can I say? The Muppets are great.