On a ‘Treasure’ quest

Both the method and madness behind taking a literary classic and Muppetizing it into a feature worked well once, so why not a second time?

Slated for a February release through Disney, “Muppet Treasure Island,” based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, is the fifth feature to star the durable creations of Jim Henson, and the second to be directed by his son, Brian Henson, who helmed the company’s successful outing into Dickens territory with 1992’s “Muppet Christmas Carol.”

“With ‘Christmas Carol’ and ‘Treasure Island,’ we wanted to take a classic tale and say ‘How would the Muppets do this?'” says Henson of the Muppets’ move into literary adaptations. “The world of Robert Louis Stevenson is dark and eccentric and a little edgier than Dickens. And the Muppets kept that world dynamic.”

The company’s relationship with classic literature began with the 1986 TV series “The Storyteller,” for which Henson’s Creature Shop devised effects for stories based upon European folk tales and Greek mythology. “The Storyteller” was produced by Duncan Kenworthy, who also produced the upcoming “Gulliver’s Travels” miniseries, a four-hour adaptation of all four Swift books, which is filled with Creature Shop creations.

The word on “Gulliver’s Travels” is that it’s remarkably true to its source – indeed, most “Gulliver” adaptations never make it past Lilliput. Does that same unadulterated vision apply to the Muppets’ tackling of Stevenson?

“With the Muppets on board,” laughs Henson, “we veered right off the story!”

As in the Stevenson classic, young Jim Hawkins (played by 15-year-old Kevin Bishop in his screen debut) is given a treasure map by a dying pirate. Taking swashbuckling liberties with Stevenson, Jim teams up with such Muppet stalwarts as Gonzo, Fozzie Bear, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker in a search for the gold. They set sail aboard the Hispaniola, where Jim must choose to follow either Kermit the Frog’s good Captain Smollet or Tim Curry’s dastardly Long John Silver.

The film was shot over a 14-week period last spring at London’s Shepperton Studios. ‘The British are very good at creating an altered reality,” says Henson, quickly adding, “Not that we won’t be producing in LA.”

Of Tim Curry’s performance, Henson says, “He almost topped the Muppets, and not many people can top them.”

Curry had his first encounter with the Henson team back in 1976, when he was working on a Shakespearean television show at Shepperton right next to “The Muppet Show” studio.

“I dropped by quite often and got to know some of the puppeteers,” says Curry, who claims to have “waited years to work with these tiny but perfectly formed creatures.”

Curry was thrilled to find himself working with many of those same puppeteers on “Treasure Island,” though he quickly discovered that holding up the human end of the effects-filled production was no walk-through. In fact, walking itself posed problems, as Muppet sets have very little in the way of floors for flesh-and-blood performers. Curry often had to hit his marks while traversing two-foot wide planks over a four-foot drop, leaving block-off space for as many as thirty puppeteers and their alter egos.

“It was astonishingly technical and really quite hard, particularly with half a leg and a crutch,” says Curry, who nonetheless considers his work on “Muppet Treasure Island” “a real pleasure.”

“Most film sets are a festival of egos, simply concealed or not. The Muppet set wasn’t like that. It was the most genuinely collaborative experience I’ve ever had on a film. In a way, the sensibility of the Muppets, passed down from Jim, is the last gasp of the ’60s.”

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