If more pirate movies were like Muppet Treasure Island, no one would have anything to complain about. It has everything you want from a high sea adventure: catchy songs and dancing, a Hans Zimmer penned soundtrack, Tim Curry casting aside his fishnets and corset for a beard and tricorn hat, genderswapping in the source material, a pet anteater, and of course, maps, treasure and sword-fighting.
Let me reiterate: Muppet sword-fighting.
Bias first: this was the very first movie that my parents allowed me to see in a theater with my friends and no adults around. It holds a special place in my heart. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is easily one of the very best films in the Muppet canon. Of course, a lot of it has to do with how you prefer seeing the Muppets: for me, it’s a special kind of magic when the Muppets are playing characters rather than themselves as characters; being cognizant of the fact that they are taking on roles rather than dramatized versions of themselves is more fun for me, at least.
The cameos in this movie by human actors really shine — it’s one thing to get a throwaway line or two and share screen time with Gonzo and Fozzie, but Jennifer Saunders and Billy Connolly practically steal the movie within the first five minutes. And if you need to have a death scene at the beginning of a kids film, Connolly is probably the only man who should be allowed to do it.
The changes made to source material feel so natural here; Gonzo and Rizzo are an integral part of the plot to the point where it’s hard to imagine how the story would function without them — and their characters don’t even exist in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale. Benjamin Gunn gets a gender makeover and becomes Benjamina Gunn, adding a love story and some much needed female can-do to what has always been an all-boys tale. How can you miss old Benjamin when Miss Piggy is dodging details about her affairs with Captain Flint and Long John Silver (to Kermit’s clear dismay)? Her love song with Kermit is beautifully punctuated by pirates bounding through a pile of treasure — this is how love ballads in the 90s should have always been handled. I’ve heard that the scene of them hanging upside down from those ropes was one of the hardest things they’ve ever filmed with Muppets. I’m still at a loss to figure out how they managed it.
In addition, this movie showcases a Muppet who never seems to get his fair share of screentime on film: Sam Eagle. While having him pop in to denounce everyone as “weirdos” qualifies as comedic gold, it’s hard not to fall in love with him as Samuel Arrow, Captain Smollett’s righthand who spends the entire movie fretting about discipline, the captain’s raging (read: nonexistent) temper, and the safety quotient of every activity and item onboard the ship. He and Kermit share what is perhaps my favorite take in Muppet history:
To add that much needed dose of Muppet meta, we’ve got Rizzo’s cruise, which is taking place during the whole voyage, complete with anachronistic references to margaritas and water skis. The rats even take it one step further and go on an island tour that features “the jungle location of the movie Muppet Treasure Island.” In another movie this attempt might have been rendered clumsy, but these asides are somehow blended into the narrative in a way that keeps the cruise’s presence fresh and funny every time. Not enough meta? Well, there is the brilliant acknowledgement by Long John Silver that the Muppets better get their felted behinds upstage because he only has one musical number in the blasted film.
Which brings me to Tim Curry’s performance as the one-legged man himself. Always associated with his portrayal as Frankenfurter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tim Curry might have seemed an odd choice for the grubby ship’s-cook-turned-mutineer. Then again, Curry has more than enough credit where his comedic and musical chops are concerned, and manages to do something that I think Stevenson himself would have appreciated: Tim Curry makes Long John Silver oddly lovable. His awareness of his own camp and ability to tone it down in more quiet moments make him a fully realized version of a literary figure that could have easily been passed off into caricature. (It turns out that they had considered casting both David Bowie and Mick Jagger in the part first. Speaking as a huge fan of both of the rock deities, I’m honestly glad we ended up with Curry instead.)
It’s always a bit concerning when you know that a main character is going to be a kid because it’s rare to find a child actor who knows not to mug the camera and how to share space with other actors. Yet somehow Kevin Bishop manages to carry the movie alongside a cast of puppets as young Master Hawkins. The kid is damn funny; in fact, if you pay attention, he gives some of the best takes in the film. He does the best thing a child actor can do — melt right into the ensemble so you don’t spend the movie commenting on whether or not he’s doing a good job. He’s there, he’s professional, he’s on top of it.
While Kermit is a given for Bob Cratchett, watching him play the straight-laced Captain Smollett almost seems a better use of his talent. He provides the moral compass for our dear Jim Hawkins and when he has one of his classic breakdowns in the ship’s cabin, you know no one else could have played the part. It’s also always fun to see him in a role that makes him more sympathetic toward Piggy, since we’re used to seeing him try to escape her advances. He’s level-headed, he’s daring, he’s the able leader, he has A TATTOO ON HIS CHEST.
I’m sorry, I just completely lost my train of thought because Kermit the Frog has a tattoo on his chest (of Piggy) and is fighting with a sword. What was I talking about?
You know what, it probably wasn’t important. Go watch this movie. Watch it right now. You’ll be grinning from ear to ear by the end.