A review requested by Brian Malbon, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Two things at least can be confidently stated about Meet the Feebles: it's a movie that goes to great lengths to be the most fully-expressed version of itself possible; and Peter Jackson's career would have been indefinably more fascinating if he'd stayed in this vein instead of finding his way into enormously costly tentpole epics. The director's first feature was titled Bad Taste, and that's the quality that his third, Braindead/Dead Alive, exemplifies. But this 1989 sophomore effort is in a wholly different league from those. It's not enough to call it "bad taste" - Meet the Feebles goes so enthusiastically deep into offensive crudeness that it achieves a kind of freestanding surrealism above and beyond a scenario that's pretty damn surreal all on its own.

What we have here is basically a parody of The Muppet Show: a live TV variety show is being put on by a team of exaggerated animals, all carried off through puppetry and giant suits, and the personality quirks of the characters make it almost impossible to keep the show going on the way it's meant to. The parody is extremely specific in some ways: the gluttonous prima donna Heidi the Hippo (physically performed by Danny Mulheron - one of the Jackson's three co-writers - and voiced by Mark Hadlow) with a hopeless love for the show's producer is an obvious gloss on Miss Piggy. Mostly, though, the parody is more conceptual, taking the setting and goals of the Muppets and transforming them into an excitedly savage parody of celebrities, show business, and the awful things people do for fame and fortune. It's not devoid of humanism; unexpectedly, it ends up having a lot of patience and affection for its solitary mostly decent character, Robert the Hedgehog (Hadlow as well), an innocent lost in a sea of depravity who just wants to put on a show and make people happy. It's a bit odd that the film's most expressly Jim Henson-style character should end up treated so kindly by it, especially given the unhesitating violence that it's eager to mete out on the cast in particularly evocative effects work. That Peter Jackson, he's a big old Kiwi softie.

To be honest, the relative - relative - generosity with which Meet the Feebles handles Robert proves to be close to its saving grace. Without some kind of sympathetic anchor, it would be easy for the rest of the film to turn into a sour freak show (a lesson Jackson & co-writer/wife Fran Walsh would run with on Braindead, which is a full-on romcom once you scrape off the stage blood), nothing but a montage of pointlessly gross cheap shots at a much too easy target. Which is still a charge one could levy against the movie, and make it stick fairly easy. Frankly, "take this thing beloved by kids and make it obscene and nihilistic" is one of my least-favorite kinds of humor, since it comes almost exclusively from a place of smug faux-sophistication, though Meet the Feebles is exactly the kind of project to justify that "almost". Its bones might be a parody, but the film fully commits to its internal reality in a way that forestalls it being nothing but a piss-take of the Muppets. It is a story about pornographer rats and junkie frogs and sex-addict rabbits putting on a show that we're honestly meant to believe in, and everything about the way it has been shot and lit and scored, to say nothing of the impressive design and construction of the puppets and suits on what could not have been a very generous budget, is dedicated to that end. If there's just one way to link the snot-nosed Peter Jackson of Meet the Feebles with the Oscar-winning Peter Jackson of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (and there are two - they both directed giant spider attacks using some virtually identical camera angles), it's that in both cases the director was able to keep a whole flotilla of craftspeople in line to make something unified and seamless set in a world that is completely made-up in every respect.

Purely in that respect, Meet the Feebles is miraculous accomplishment, all the more so since the film starts piling up baffling developments so quickly that keeping it tethered to its own reality seems like something of a paradox (it's also why I'm not bothering with a plot recap - it's an assemblage of several subplots stitched together with one-off gags, all barreling towards a deus ex machina ending). That's even without bringing up the film's enthusiastic embrace of gross-out humor of all stripes, some of which is purely disgusting (a gossip columnist fly - itself a fairly sophisticated multilingual gag, when we recall that "paparazzi" is ultimately derived from an Italian word for a buzzing insect - who graphically eats feces in one scene; and even that's a metaphor, if an appalling one), some of which is so startling random that it leaps beyond disgust into some BuΓ±uelian register of incomprehensibility. For example, a seedy walrus promoter screwing a starlet cat is offensive on one level, but that's not the level the film presents it at; the sheer impossibility of the act comes first, then its relation to character, and only then the fact that the filmmakers are performing a travesty of children's entertainment. And that's a relatively sane moment; there are regurgitated talking fish already half-digested, lengthy Vietnam flashbacks, and inexplicable basement monsters ready to eat the corpses of animals accidental killed in making bondage porn to be had, and none of those are even half as explicable on a plot level as the film's frequent, anatomically implausible cross-species sex.

All of the shocking humor and the free-for-all plotting, combined with the inventive and frankly realistic filmmaking (no actual Muppet film ever used such a variety of close-ups, deep focus, and low angles in insisting on the physical reality of its characters), certainly leave Meet the Feebles as a unique experiment, and one whose insights into human behavior - people do awful things to be successful in show business and then hate themselves for it - aren't as important to it as its sense of curdled black humor. And yet it has insights nonetheless, so we can't write it off as just a gonzo provocation. It presents a pageant of terrible human activities with enough wit and creativity that I'm absolutely pleased it exists and that I've seen it; it also presents that pageant with an unsparing enough level of morbidity and cruelty that I'm pleased that I probably won't be seeing it again for a long time. But it sure is a special little gob of bile.