Peter Jackson’s depraved puppet movie, Meet the Feebles, should, by rights, be the most incredible thing ever filmed. Like a kind of post-lapsarian Muppet show, it takes that show’s portrayal of backstage chaos one step further and shows the cast of the Feebles Variety Hour entangled in depravity, perversion, internal vendettas, and organized crime. It sounds magnificent–and we were all the more excited because we’d recently seen Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992), a hysterically beautiful zombie gorefest. Knowing what Peter was capable of in his depraved youth, and knowing the premise, the fact that Meet the Feebles turns out to be a repelling mediocrity was more or less soul-crushingly disappointing.
Just a turd.
Here’s the gist: the Ms. Piggy-style starlet of the show is a huge-breasted hippo puppet, who’s married to the owner of the troupe, a walrus, who’s fucking an alluring cat puppet about 15% of his size, while also engaged in a mob feud with a punk-ish coke-dealing hog with a Scottish accent. His grimy rat friend Trevor is running his porn business behind the scenes, and on the lookout for a new main attraction. The rabbit who hosts the Feebles Variety Hour is rotting grotesquely away from puppet syphilis, while an annoying fly representing the press hounds him. A Kermit-ish amphibian who does the knife-throwing act is going through coke withdrawal due to a dry-up of supply, and lapsing into Vietnam flashbacks. Meanwhile a naïve young hedgehog arrives to join the troupe, full of hope and optimism and almost giving us someone to care about in this movie. See, just reading this gets me excited about seeing it, and then I realize oh yeah… I did 🙁
This still might sound like a damned entertaining movie, and it probably could have been. It’s just that all these plots simply aren’t funny or even shocking. There were only four genuinely funny moments in the film:
- In the Vietnam flashback, when the Vietnamese soldiers are debating the finer points of socialist statecraft while roasting and eating captives (though the humor of this one moment doesn’t make up for how flat-out racist the Vietnamese puppets are). yeah, it’s pretty uncomfortable.
- The Kermit-style guy finally getting his fix and shooting up in the bathroom, with a comically large syringe for his noodle-like puppet arm
- The hippo trying to hang herself, and awkwardly fitting the noose over her giant rectangular head.
- The rabbit running excitedly out of his room after learning he doesn’t have puppet syphilis after all, only to get gunned down immediately as the start of the closing killing spree.
That’s it. Knowing why these four moments work shows us why the rest of the movie doesn’t. In the last three, there’s actually something funny about the execution: some sight-gag or clever timing. In the first, there’s an actual contrast that creates absurdity, between the calm intellectual debate and the brutal goings-on.
Part of what makes the movie not funny or interesting is just crummy execution. The sound is pretty fucking horribly bad. People like to say that you only notice sound in a movie when it’s done badly, but I think most people don’t notice when it’s done badly either: they just notice that they feel bored, or not drawn into the movie. That’s the kind of bad sound we’re dealing with here, the kind that always feels a little distant and never gets you immersed in the movie’s world. The lighting is also bad; it’s constantly too dark and muddy, either to hide strings and imperfections in the puppets, or to set the grungy atmosphere of the film (and doing it fucking horribly wrong.)
The other problem is that that grungy atmosphere is pervasive. Even in the first scene, where the puppets are doing their happy opening number, the world around them is dark and hazy and shitty-looking, and when the music ends we plow directly into
people puppets treating each other like shit. There’s basically no attempt at a bright foreground for the grimy underbelly of puppet show-biz to peep through; they depend on your awareness of the actual Muppet show to set the necessary contrast, but it just doesn’t work. For it to be surprising there has to be some expectation to subvert, but puppets acting shitty in an entire world of puppets acting shitty isn’t surprising.
In the end, Meet the Feebles just feels like one of those grimy show-business/crime stories where everyone is shitty to everyone else, and there’s no point to anything. It’s the kind of story that makes you feel a little dirty and unenlightened when it’s made with human actors, and depends on the mere fact that it’s puppets to make it funny, over and over again. Too bad. It’s just a regular shitty movie with puppets instead of people. This is the first time I’d criticize a movie for a lack of irony– there’s no advantage taken: whether the actors are people, puppets or animals with CGI mouths, this movie would still suck and make you feel bad.
If you want to see some fucked-up puppets done right (on no higher of a budget) go watch Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared instead.