Meet the Feebles (1989, Peter Jackson)
[Note: Apologies for the low-quality screencaps on this post. This isn’t the easiest movie to get your hands on in the U.S.]
Before being co-opted and watered down by the Disney empire, the Muppets were a smart and subversive creation by one of the most sensitive and intelligent popular artists of the period, Jim Henson. The Muppet Show and some (though not all) of the accompanying films and media-wide spinoffs were sharp, satirical, warm, genuinely charming. Much of that extends even to the peripherally related, more directly kid-targeted Sesame Street. For this reason, I take slight issue with the premise of Peter Jackson’s bizarre cult favorite Meet the Feebles. It’s a dark-humored, cynical, drugged-up and even morbid parody of the Muppets — an institution that, frankly, needs and invites and deserves no such treatment, particularly not in so histrionically unsubtle fashion as to feature heroin-addicted muppets enduring withdrawal, washed-up stripper muppets, a rabbit muppet afflicted with a seemingly terminal and disgusting STD, a group of muppets illicitly shooting a porn film, drug-running mobster muppets, and every kind of sleaze you can imagine.
But alas: Feebles, the obscure but celebrated-in-certain-quarters movie Peter Jackson memorably shouted out when accepting his Lord of the Rings Oscar, is a surprisingly complete creation that boasts considerably more imagination and spark than you’d expect, given that it’s the kind of thing “in-the-know” stoners chuckle about to one another. Like all of Jackson’s films, it cannot possibly be charged with laziness — even if you deeply disapprove of the premise of this or Dead Alive, or if you feel the way I do about Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, it’s not easy to look past Jackson’s dedication to his craft any more than it is to look past Baz Luhrmann’s (and I don’t care for any of Luhrmann’s films). The puppeteering work in this flawlessly-designed and fully three-dimensional world seems too impressive to come from a director who’s exclusively worked otherwise in live action. I assume Jackson got a lot of help, but his resourceful script and his complete immersion in, and sending up of, this sort of kiddie-variety is nothing to swat into a nearby toilet.
In addition, strange though it sounds, this is one of Jackson’s more strongly photographed films — perhaps because his wide-angle jubilee is better suited to a world he fully controls, and controls with a sense of comedic exaggeration. The picture is downright lovingly shot by Murray Milne, later to serve as DP on Jackson’s Dead Alive before working exclusively afterward on TV shows and underwater photography. The dimly lit world of the Feebles’ variety show is believably layered in dust and regret, with a gleam of misplaced magic underneath that lends the blackest of jokes here a sense of tragedy. The comedy, indeed, is at times almost suffocatingly cruel and cold, hinging as it does principally on a quarrel between a showbiz-flogging walrus and the star of his big show, a lovelorn hippo, after she catches him getting blown by a cat named Samantha. It gets uglier — later, the sole likable character in the film slut-shames the supposed love of his life after she’s nearly raped! And that’s before the bloodbath. For a film cowritten by a husband-and-wife team (Jackson and longtime spouse and collaborator Fran Walsh), the comforts of any kind of familial hope are surprisingly absent. Some will have an easier time with this than others; I find my satire actually less toothless when it admits to some level of humanism.
As an outgrowth of this, I’m mildly concerned at how Jackson and his three cowriters mistake being “shocking” for being funny, a boring and outdated conceit indeed. And at that, the picture’s not really “shocking” at all unless you think context is everything — no one would bat an eye if all this were taking place in a conventional behind-the-scenes showpiz picture, or if we read about some of it in the Sunday paper, but cast the whole thing with puppets and you’ve got yourself an automatic controversy. But carefully constructed setups like a threesome involving muppet rabbits, or the entire porn flick subplot, or (especially) the pointedly gleeful sustaining of suspense over a paternity test mistake mundane, hollow ideas for some sort of wit — and overestimate the audience’s capacity to laugh simply at the “hey, we’re really doing this stuff even though it looks like that show you used to watch when you were eight!” premise. Humor’s an outgrowth of disruption of established patterns, yes, but you presumably already know what the idea behind Meet the Feebles is when you sit down to watch it, hence negating any jokes that are simply elaborations on that precise theme.
These problems are somewhat redeemed because the film does contain a few clever and wondrously funny sequences. One knife-wielding strung-out maniac we have the honor of meeting regales us with a flashback to Vietnam, encompassing a truly brilliant Deer Hunter parody that one-ups that film, goes on for a good while and could easily be longer. (Can we expand it to a feature, even?) And the proto-TMZ fly, whose presence and amusingly irksome voice characterization by Brian Sergent are an asset for most of the first half of the picture, is a weird but tremendously amusing and on-target idea, including logistically — it just makes sense that the proverbial “fly on the wall” would be a Paparazzo, doesn’t it? It’s a pity the bulk of the material isn’t this good, or that these ideas didn’t find a better movie to call home.
When things really get moving in the last twenty minutes, though, Feebles is truly a blast; it acquires simultaneously the classic Hollywood musical motif of everything coming together just in time for the big show, but turns it upside-down in a balletic matchup with the equally classic Hollywood screwball comedy motif of everything being in perfect synchronicity to screw up horrifically. But beyond knives going where they shouldn’t and a possible HIV-positive bunny trying to save face, there is finally the culmination: Heidi the Hippo loses her shit and kills everyone. The vindictive, crime-of-passion massacre goes on too long but its one joke is a pretty good one, and as in the later Dead Alive, Jackson plumbs the depths of gore and tastelessness to achieve something oddly cathartic and sublime. Best of all, the “Sodomy” song that serves as our true climax correctly plays its humor on its singer-composer’s wide-eyed belief in it, and yeah, fine, there’s nothing not funny about a muppet on heroin.
Feebles never made it far out of New Zealand and, ten years on from Jackson’s Oscar speech, has yet to attain the broad midnight-movie cult status it seems destined to someday enjoy, especially with its director now an A-list superstar and arguably the most famous filmmaker since Steven Spielberg (or Tim Burton, at the very least). In order to see this myself, though, I had to descend into the murk and find a stream on one of those pirate websites with the window flanked by Korean lettering and the constant fear that some copyright zap from the ether will remove the video (or you) from existence mid-film. You may have to do something similar unless you’re sure enough of this film’s appeal to you to pay full-price to own it blind. However you choose to see it, keep one thing in mind: it’s hard to imagine now, but this production predates The Simpsons, predates Parker & Stone and the “age of irony” and every element of open, fearless sarcasm and bleakness that we would come to associate with the ’90s. Jackson was ahead of the curve on something here, and it’s not grown less so into the Youtube era — he got the twenty-year jump on Sad Kermit, didn’t he?