Way back in 1989, Peter Jackson released his second film, Meet the Feebles, a hardcore, gross-out puppet comedy which we decided to revisit this week because of a similar film being released in theaters, The Happytime Murders. And while that film is bad in all the wrong ways, Meet the Feebles is bad in all the right ones. Well, mostly the right ones.
Long before Jackson took us all to Middle-earth and won a mountain of Oscars in the process, he had a giant hippo murdering people set to a song about sodomy.
Meet the Feebles is kind of like if A Chorus Line met The Muppets in a dark, dirty alley. It’s a fly-on-the-wall, behind-the-scenes tale of a popular puppet variety show and the horrific shenanigans that go on backstage before a particularly important live performance.
Unlike The Happytime Murders, though, there isn’t a human to be found in Meet the Feebles. Every character is a puppet (though humans in costumes serve for several of the characters) and that immediately gives the movie a very distinct feel and tone. This is a world obviously influenced by Sesame Street and The Muppets, but wholly unique unto itself. It’s dark, grimy, and foul, and we’re just dropped into the middle of it with no idea what to expect.
At the beginning, though, it doesn’t seem that bad. Jackson does his best to ease the audience into things with a first act that’s not overtly disgusting or weird. Sure it’s a little disgusting and a little weird. The puppets are having sex and using dirty language, but compared to similar hard R-rated comedies, Meet the Feebles is about on par at the start. That quickly changes.
Soon puppets get STDs. They get squashed. Splattered. They secrete. Urinate. Shoot pornography. Fuck. Suck. Then things get really dark when there’s attempted rape. Attempted suicide. As these things continue to pile up, the film gets more than a little uncomfortable to watch. That’s also because all this stuff is happening without a real driving story. Basically, the plot is “the show must go on in 12 hours” and from there, Jackson manically weaves his way through the characters, most of which are incredibly horny or evil. Sometimes both.
The main two characters are Robert, a hedgehog who is new to the show and trying to learn the ropes, and the star of the show, Heidi, the aforementioned hippo who is coping with issues regarding her love life. Besides those two threads acting as pseudo through lines, Feebles loves to go off on wild tangents. Some of these fit in with the backstage drama of the show (a reporter digs for dirt on the stars) while others feel completely out of left field (a drug addict graphically detailing his Vietnam horror stories). It’s almost as if Jackson and his crew had their own, very warped perception of what show business is and, through these puppets, wanted to explore every little detail of that. And if a story didn’t fit? Whatever, it’s still puppets doing weird-ass shit.
By the end, that weird-ass shit escalates with the sodomy musical number underscoring a mass shooting in the theater. In 1989, it was probably viewed as a macabre twist meant to shock and awe. In 2018, it’s more disturbing than the entirety of the movie combined; an almost prophetic vision of modern society that feels way too real, even with puppets and singing. Obviously, that was not the intention, but it’s an unwelcome side effect that makes an already strange and disturbing film even more strange and disturbing.
Nevertheless, Meet the Feebles is one of those movies that you have to see to believe. The fact that a filmmaker so revered these days made a movie like this is stunning. But through it you see his style beginning to develop. A distinct voice beginning to be heard. And yes, it’s a bunch of disgusting puppets lampooning showbiz in gross, disconcerting ways, not all of which work. But damned if it’s not fascinating to experience.