Long before The Happytime Murders, Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles featured perverted puppetsAugust 24, 2018
There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
Meet the Feebles is a 1989 musical comedy produced and directed by The Lord of the Rings mastermind Peter Jackson. The film is set behind the scenes at a Muppet Show-like theatrical company, and it nods to The Muppet Movie with its story about raggedy puppet entertainers dreaming of making it big. Except in Meet the Feebles, most of the puppets are diseased, drug-addicted, and / or sexually perverse. Jackson, his partner Fran Walsh, and fellow New Zealand weirdos Danny Mulheron and Stephen Sinclair collaborated on a screenplay that weaves together about half a dozen subplots; the most prominent involves the talented hippopotamus Heidi, whose lover (and the troupe’s impresario) Bletch is cruelly dismissive and adulterous. As the Feebles prepare for the show that could be their big break, their personal problems start to spill over onstage.
Why watch now?
Because The Happytime Murders opens this weekend.
Written by Todd Berger and directed by Brian Henson — son of Muppets creator Jim Henson — The Happytime Murders is a hard R-rated comedy set in a world where puppets and humans coexist. Melissa McCarthy plays a cop who tries to track a serial killer with the help of her felt-skinned ex-partner Phil Philips, who’s now a hard-boiled private investigator. A cast of Henson veterans provides the puppets’ voices, while McCarthy is surrounded by comic actors adept at crude humor, including Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, and Joel McHale. Picture Who Framed Roger Rabbit but with PBS kiddie show characters instead of cartoons — and with many, many more explicit jokes about sex and drugs.
Berger and Henson are far from the first people to come up with the idea of making puppets say and do filthy things. (And judging by the savage reviews The Happytime Murders is getting, they’re far from the best.) Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s action movie satire Team America: World Police put marionettes in compromising positions. The musical Avenue Q won a Tony for its R-rated spin on Sesame Street. Fox’s sitcom Greg the Bunny, its MTV spinoff Warren the Ape, and MTV2’s acid-trip alt-comedy series Wonder Showzen also remain cult favorites among “strange TV” buffs.
And then there’s Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson, who in his late 20s made Meet the Feebles. Jackson began his career in New Zealand, working with similarly geeky friends to produce darkly comic genre pictures with cheap but imaginative special effects. Meet the Feebles is the middle part of what could be called his “trash trilogy,” which began with the wildly inappropriate 1987 science fiction riff Bad Taste and ended with his 1992 splatter farce Braindead. (Known in the US as Dead Alive, the movie that made Jackson’s reputation Stateside.) He took a decidedly classier turn with the Oscar-nominated 1994 true-crime story Heavenly Creatures, which began his ascent to Hollywood’s A-list.
When his trilogy-capper The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won 11 Academy Awards in 2004, Jackson joked that the voters had failed to honor Meet the Feebles 15 years earlier. Yet while he was admitting that his early work is offensive and sophomoric, a big reason why his trash trilogy is still passed around and discussed by so many film buffs is because there’s an obvious intelligence and creativity behind them. Meet the Feebles isn’t just an excuse to show puppets having sex and doing drugs. Between the big, showy gross-out scenes, Jackson and company work in several elaborate musical numbers — including a catchy tune about sodomy — and an ambitious Deer Hunter-inspired Vietnam flashback.
Who it’s for
Adult puppetry aficionados and total sickos.
Let’s not mince words here: Meet the Feebles is disgusting and abrasive. Just about every kind of bodily fluid imaginable — from just about every kind of animal — spews all over the place in scenes that are often more stomach-turning than funny. And because Jackson’s cast really “commits to the bit,” as the saying goes, there’s an undeniably grating quality to the sing-songy, Muppetesque voices… especially given that they’re pretty much always hurling loud, abusive comments at each other.
But like the similar cinematic provocateurs John Waters, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Lars von Trier, the young Jackson mitigates the ugliness he’s wallowing in by borrowing liberally from florid Hollywood melodramas with their big colors and bigger emotions. The “puppets being raunchy” schtick only carries Meet the Feebles so far. What’s really remarkable about the film is how Jackson and his crew coax the audience into feeling real sympathy for Heidi the Hippo. She’s not just their version of Miss Piggy, minus the bravado; she’s a passionate artist who’s been controlled and belittled throughout her career. There’s a real story being told here, with a sense of scope far beyond the bratty Muppets parody Meet the Feebles initially seems to be.
Where to see it
It’s currently free on the ad-supported service Tubi.tv. And for more early Peter Jackson grotesquerie, Bad Taste is also on Tubi and available to Amazon Prime Video subscribers.