The idea of making dark and twisted versions of the Sesame Street and The Muppet Show characters is nothing new. The Muppets themselves have been brutal since the 1950s when they did Wilkin’s Coffee Commercials that centered on puppets murdering each other over their coffee tastes. Meanwhile, Rowlf the Dog remarks in The Muppet Movie about “going home, take myself for a walk, drink a couple beers.” These characters are already pretty adult, which makes the idea of lewd parodies a strange concept. However, the public perception of these characters as being exclusively family-friendly has led to tons of R-rated parodies. The entirety of The Happytime Murders, for instance, or a key sequence in Forgetting Sarah Marshall are all predicated on the comedic possibilities of Muppets dropping brutal language and engaging in sexual intercourse.
These have been done to varying degrees of success, but one of the better examples of this trend has got to be Meet the Feebles. An early directorial effort from Peter Jackson, Feebles is a far cry from the world of Middle-Earth with its rampant sex, casual death, and a barrage of unlikeable characters. However, it’s also a great model for how to do dark puppet movies right, especially when compared to more lackluster adult parodies of The Muppets.
Meet the Feebles focuses on the members of the Feeble Variety Hour theatre troupe, a collection of bizarre animals (all brought to life as puppets) each going through their own struggles. For instance, hippo Heidi (Mark Hadlow) has just found out that her boyfriend, Bletch (Peter Vere-Jones), a powerful walrus, is cheating on her. Meanwhile, hedgehog newcomer Robert (also Mark Hadlow) has fallen in love with one of his co-stars and tries to muster up the courage to ask her out. There are also drug addicts, pornographers, and a gay red fox director who delivers the song “Sodomy!”
There’s a lot going on in Meet the Feebles and, much like Jackson’s other earliest directorial efforts, much of it is predicated on just shocking the viewer in the moment. But there is some real thought going on here, too, some even unintentional and informed by larger constraints, that show how Feebles does this dark Muppets routine better than other movies. For starters, the low-budget nature of Feebles aids it greatly. The obvious cheap nature of the project sets it apart from the glossy Muppet movies, which have enough money for technological feats like Kermit biking around the countryside. No such feats here, but that’s to the film’s advantage.
To cover up the budget-informed cracks and seams in the puppetry and sets, Feebles adopts a grimy dimly lit aesthetic. The bright backstage world of The Muppet Show is worlds away here. Meanwhile, the more ramshackle appearance of the puppets themselves make the inhabitants of Feebles immediately seem like grotesque offshoots of the pop culture properties it’s parodying. Too much polish in the designs and the puppet characters of Feebles could’ve felt too derivative of the real thing. Instead, having a limited amount of money allows the production team to lean into a constrained and grounded aesthetic that feels unique and fitting for the similarly downbeat story.
Compare these visual qualities to the default visual style of The Happytime Murders from 2018. Supposedly a comedic noir parody, Happytime eschews the visual hallmarks of the noir genre in favor of oversaturated bright lighting. It all looks so cheap and more reminiscent of a sitcom than something playing on the big screen. Meanwhile, the puppets themselves look too reminiscent of traditional Muppets, which is at least consistent with how the film’s ribald gags are derivative of other superior R-rated comedies. The Happytime Murders would’ve always been a letdown in its visuals under any circumstances, but it especially looks lackluster compared to the appropriately grimy sensibilities of Feebles.
It’s also worth noting that Feebles features a character who could fit right into a traditional Muppet production, Robert the Hedgehog. The one delicate soul in a cast of people fueled by debauchery, Robert doesn’t just function as an audience point-of-view character within this madcap world. He’s also a great way to remind the viewer how far removed from traditional Muppet characters the rest of the Feebles cast members are. The raunchy antics of these critters stand out as extra risqué when they’re placed next to a hedgehog who could be the distant cousin of Bean Bunny. Plus, the presence of Robert as an eventually heroic figure in the story suggests that the artists behind Meet the Feebles don’t hold any disdain for the classic Muppet characters. They just see the comedic potential in delivering a warped version of these pop culture mainstays.
And boy, does Meet the Feebles ever get warped. If there’s anything that makes this feature stand out from other “adult” puppet movies, it’s that Feebles truly commits to delivering a perverse and grisly universe. Fish with dreams of stardom get eaten alive on-screen, a dog melts into a puddle after ingesting the wrong drugs, and the whole story concludes with Heidi going on a machine gun rampage that massacres most of the film’s characters. This devotion to following the concept of a twisted version of The Muppet Show to its most disturbing extreme shows real talent on the part of Meet the Feebles’ screenwriters. The same can be said for how the movie wrings humor out of standalone digressions rather than relying solely on pastiches of prior Muppet productions. Most notably, an extended flashback to knife thrower Wynyard’s time in Vietnam isn’t a parody of anything Fozzie and friends ever did. But juxtaposing the tone of a war movie and straight-faced homages to The Deer Hunter with puppets turns out to be darkly hysterical all the same.