297. MEET THE FEEBLES (1989)

Braindead and Meet the Feebles…were wisely overlooked by the Academy…”– Peter Jackson, accepting his Best Picture Oscar for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mark Hadlow, Donna Akersten, Peter Vere-Jones, Stuart Devenie, Bryan Sergent

PLOT: A group of puppets, “the Feebles,” prepare for their first live TV broadcast. Unfortunately fragile egos, double-dealings, accidental killings, pornographic sidelines, rohypnol-aided assault, and drug and sex addictions plague their rehearsals. This ain’t no kid’s film.

Still from Meet the Feebles (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Jackson’s second film after 1987’s surprise low-budget hit Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles was originally conceived as a TV series until Japanese investors convinced Jackson to transform it into a feature. It was then hastily re-written and shot in twelve weeks.
  • The dialogue was recorded before filming began.
  • The film went over budget and over-schedule, forcing Jackson and crew to submit what they had so far to satisfy the New Zealand Film Commission, and then film a remaining scene (the Vietnam flashback) by breaking into the Studio at night. This sequence was then submitted as a separate film to the NZFC entitled “The Frogs of War.”
  • Won Best Contribution to Design for Cameron Chittock, for the puppets at the 1990 New Zealand Film Awards.
  • Bryan Pike’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The big finale where Heidi massacres fellow cast members with a machine gun.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Chicken/elephant baby; heroin-injecting flashback frog; “Sodomy” massacre

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: There are no human beings in front of the camera whatsoever (with the exception of Abi, a human-esque contortionist puppet), only a lusty rabble of puppet misfits all clamoring for television stardom. Somewhere between “Avenue Q” and “The Muppets” lies this unseemly purgatory of puppet scheming, murder and mayhem.


Meet the Feebles opening theme song

COMMENTS: Like Dead Alive (1992), Meet the Feebles is another fondly remembered title from this reviewer’s adolescence. I must have assaulted all of my friends with this puerile, projectile vomit-esque splatter of a film. Beneath the filthy veneer, however, is an on-point satire of the trappings and pitfalls of the theatrical world and the corruption at the heart of the Hollywood “star system.” “The Simpsons,” “South Park,” “Family Guy,” and basically anything on Adult Swim all owe a debt to Feebles’ punk energy and willfully disgusting humor. In turn, Feebles takes its cues from antecedents like and .

While there’s not a great deal of subtlety to Jackson’s humor here, and it frequently descends into grotesque shock value rather than piercing satire, there is still much to admire in Feebles‘ depiction of the “adult” puppet characters and their circumstances. From the duplicitous, secretive manager Bletch (a kind of amoral Walt Disney who sidelines in illicit drugs and pornography), to the burnt-out, drug addicted Vietnam veteran Wynard (whose lengthy flashback to his service in Vetam is arguably the highlight of the film) to the worryingly naive and idealistic Robert, Feebles presents us with a host of recognizable faces and scenarios from the show-biz world, often cringe-inducing in their familiarity. The star of the show, Heidi, is old, overweight and oblivious to the machinations of her lover Bletch, who’s intent on replacing her with a younger mistress. Jackson’s observation of the pressures on modern starlets to conform to an ideal of beauty and youth to remain relevant is keenly evident in this love triangle. In Harry’s rabbit orgies and depressed elephant Sid’s refusal to acknowledge paternity of his half-chicken son Seymour, we witness the promiscuity and a lack of responsibility of theatrical performers (whom I can faithfully claim from firsthand observation are often flaky and licentious). The director of the stage show, Sebastian, is bitter, sarcastic and artistically frustrated, while the role of the journalist is so low in Jackson’s estimation that it takes the form of a feces-eating fly. Scratch the slime-coated surface and Feebles reveals a depth of black humor and keen observation.

Of course the references to Vietnam and allusions to the HIV scare are dated now, and suggestions of racial breakdowns among the Feebles often seem offensive, but at the film’s release these references were timely and the presentation of stereotypes are part of the film’s angry, transgressive nature. More to the point: without stereotypes and generalizations we wouldn’t be able to produce works of satire. It does not operate as a mode or genre if one worries about offending the targets.

What is perhaps most striking about the Feebles, however, isn’t its satirical elements, but how well it operates as whole—especially for something hastily re-written late in the game. Breaking down the film’s narrative one quickly observes that it consists of disparate, often unrelated sketches, some of which do nothing to move the story forward (the guppy audition sequence, or the golfing sequence). Characters overlap from scene to scene, and these sketches do operate to introduce or develop the players and subplots, but they often have little to do with the central arc of rehearsing for the televised show. The reason why this sketch format work, compared to hit-and-miss affairs such as Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, is that every scene derives from this enclosed world, reinforcing and developing it. We don’t feel discombobulated by the contrasting sketches because they emerge from the same microcosm, with its own internal logic and recurring figures. The speed and variety with which the scenes hit the screen also keep the pace and viewer’s interest buoyed—along with the annoyingly catchy musical numbers. By the film’s end we don’t feel a single moment has been wasted on oblique deviations or threads unnecessary to the world of the film.

But yes, there are still buckets of blood, urine, pus, feces and vomit soaking the screen, alongside the solid satire and narrative construction. The film received mixed reviews upon release; had Jackson pulled back on the profane throttle this may have extended Feebles’ reception beyond its eventual cult status. While we can admire the fact that the film has lost none of its virulent impact (it’s easily as offensive as Team America: World Police), as adults we perhaps crave a little more subtlety in our satire and black humor.  Although the narrative is a straightforward satire of a theatrical troupe, kind of like a seedy “The Office” meets “The Muppets,” it’s filled with strange anthropomorphic characters and sequences like a man getting his head trapped up his rectum. Ultimately, the bizarre concept wins out, earning it a spot among the weirdest movies of all time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…destined to stand as an unfortunate footnote to Mr. Jackson’s career… Drugs, porn movies and a parody of a Vietnam flashback heighten the mood of hothouse fantasy without contributing much fun.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (1995 U.S. screening)

“The film is so off the beaten track that it makes Monty Python seem mainstream… Calling this film ‘bizarre’ is far too tame — it’s sick, ribald, and willing to try just about anything. That makes for a nearly-unprecedented monument to bad taste.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (1995 U.S. screening)

“The most bizarre moment altogether is a very funny parody of Platoon (1986) and Vietnam War movies – all conducted with Muppet frogs. Meet the Feebles is one of those films where you either go with Peter Jackson’s way-out venture into bad taste – and enjoy the film – or don’t understand it at all and hate it. Those who view Meet the Feebles coming to it after Peter Jackson’s more mainstream-accepted ventures like Heavenly Creatures (1994) and The Lord of the Rings tend to wonder what on Earth they have sat down to watch.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Meet the Feebles (1989)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Meet the Feebles | Film | NZ On Screen – This New Zealand film site entry is the closest thing to an official site with a trailer, stills, background essay, many links, and even a 29-minute behind-the-scenes television profile

Peter Jackson – A short entry on Meet the Feebles from Alfio Leotta’s book-length study on Jackson

Meet the Feebles | Peter Jackson Movies – For some reason, a fan page with lots of info and further links is nested inside another fan site (for the band Ween)

Meet the Feebles (Film) –  TV Tropes’ typically tongue-in-cheek rundown of plot devices in the movie

Meet the Feebles | Muppet Wiki – A Muppets fan site saw fit to create an entry for the movie

Meet the Feebles – WikiFUr, the furry encyclopedia – Speaking of unusual wiki sites…

DVD INFO: Coveted by collectors as a VHS tape, Meet the Feebles has been an even rarer find on DVD. There have been several competing releases, all of which seem like transfers from the VHS material, many likely bootlegs. No clearly sanctioned, restored official release has been found. Former releases have been from otherwise unknown or dodgy outlets like the defunct “Dead Alive Productions,” “Spectrum,” and the Canadian label “Substance.”

The DVD from Jef Entertainment (buy) is typical: the film itself, in 4:3 full-screen (the original aspect ratio was slightly wider at 1.66:1), a muddy picture, and no special features. Stomp Entertainment also offers a region free NTSC release, in full screen, in Dolby Stereo and with no extras or subtitles.

Meet the Feebles is not available at all on-demand or Blu-ray. Our guess is Jackson considers Feebles a stepping stone to bigger things, and prefers to forget about the movie entirely.

5 thoughts on “297. MEET THE FEEBLES (1989)”

  1. Pike! You’re a good man for knocking out this Certified review — I saw “Meet the Feebles” a few times years back and have had no inclination to re-visit it. So, thank you, and good work.

    I disagree, however, with part of your description: I’d say “Meet the Feebles” is somewhere well beyond the “artistic” space occupied by “Avenue Q”. Three words: Bunny Carrot Emergence.

    At any rate, *phew*. It’s certainly deserving of a slot, but it is probably one of the most unpleasant movies on the list.

    1. I have to be honest and say I was going to recommend it for the list anyway, so doing a review would never have been an issue for me.

      It helps that I found the film as teenager when I was seeking the angry, shocking and profane to set my self apart, but even so I still don’t find this film as distasteful as many obviously do. (Rabbit scat accepted, yes I agree with you, that element was completely unnecessary) I like this film; its not brilliant, its execution is flawed and the script could use some more wit but I’m a fan and will probably remain so.

    2. Sounds like you found it when I did (age-wise, that is; and for comparable motivations). I was not offended — I don’t offend easily. But there is that Gross-ness. I remember showing it to some peers and it definitely falls into that category described in our “About Us” section of being watched with very dismayed wonderment.

      I suppose that’s three Peter Jackson movies that have been Certified now. I do hope he makes another qualifier in the Autumn of his career. Perhaps he may have a mid-life crisis. (And from my recollection, there were enough survivors of the first “Meet the Feebles” for a “Where are they now?” documentary.)

  2. Unpleasant, gross, nihilistic — yeah, pretty much sums up why I really hate this film. Wish it hadn’t made the list but, diff’rent strokes ‘n all.

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