The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the very first movie I ever saw in the cinema. Toy Story 2 is the film I saw the most times in a theater, with 4 different screenings. Good Burger was my childhood heroes from Nickelodeon coming to the big screen–and I still vividly remember watching it in ’97 with my mom and cousin. And yet, there’s one movie in particular that holds an even dearer place in my heart. If I were to name my all-time favorite nostalgic film, the one that comes to mind immediately whenever I recall my childhood, it would have to be Muppet Treasure Island. It’s in the running even now for the film I’ve seen the most frequently throughout the course of my life. I’ve watched it in at least 5 different cities, with my family, with childhood friends, and even people I’ve met in adulthood. (Hell, I’ve been to kink events where the littles gathered together to watch it!)
My cousins and I spawned a million inside jokes from our experiences with Muppet Treasure Island over the years. As a result, I always think of all the good times we had down at the beach together when I view the film now. It’s permanently connected to those warm memories of playing mini golf at the boardwalk, hanging out on the wrap-around porch at night, watching Whose Line is it Anyway? and then muting the TV to ad-lib our own dialogue over 7th Heaven. (Looking back, our improvised riffing was kind of similar to Mystery Science Theater 3000, though we acted out our own twisted version of the show rather than “talk back” to it like Joel and the bots.) There was a time in my life when it just wasn’t summer until I’d popped in the videocassette. Even now, I still try to make a point to watch Muppet Treasure Island again at least once a year.
I don’t think anyone could say in good conscience that Muppet Treasure Island isn’t a fantastic kids movie, rose tinted glasses or no. The humor is on-point and timeless, from the goofy bits for the kids to the innuendos. (“Well hello, Loooong John!”) I especially love the ongoing gag with the anachronistic rats enjoying their vacation without a care in the world while people die and struggle all around them. The songs are catchy when they’re not adorable, and we even get what’s arguably the best overlooked power ballad of the ’90s. The two human leads (Kevin Bishop as Jim Hawkins along with Tim Curry as Long John Silver) are fantastic and play off the Muppets very effectively. I never doubted for a second that there was a genuine friendship between Jim, Gonzo and Rizzo despite the difficulty in playing off an inanimate object. (And the absurdity of a human befriending a rat and a whatever.)
Overall, it’s not quite as expertly crafted as Brian Henson’s earlier take at directing, (Muppet Christmas Carol) but leaps and bounds better than anything he, or any other director that’s taken on the Muppets, has ever done since.
The Understated Moral of the Story
The best scene in the film, posted below, is when Jim catches Long John in the process of escaping and rejects the only father figure he’s had in years. The music, while subtle, perfectly captures a feeling of wistfulness to set the mood. The standoff involves Long John trying all his old tactics from the threat of force to emotional manipulation in order to get Jim to back down. When nothing works, Long John surprises Jim (and himself, I suspect) by being unable to back up his threat and lowers the gun. He’s proud of the person Jim is, fearless and just, yet ashamed in himself that he possesses no such positive qualities. The two honor the bond they’ve shared by doing each other no harm as they part ways. Long John returns the compass, Jim’s last reminder of his father, as his first act of selflessness. I always interpreted the compass as a symbol for how Jim, as a result of this experience, now has the capacity to navigate the world around him. He’s older in more ways than one, and wiser for the wear.
Nevertheless, the crimes Long John has committed are unforgivable and he irreparably hurt Jim in the process. Deep down, Long John really liked the kid and appreciated having someone who was innocent enough to look up to him for once. I’m sure most people whom Long John deals with on a regular basis only fear and/or resent him. One gets the impression that Long John might have been a great father if he had only made the right choices earlier in life rather than succumb to piracy. Perhaps his experiences with Jim have forced him confront that reality for the first time.
The dynamic between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver is one I’ve seen play out several times in my own life. I’m talking about cases where I still have affection towards the other person, but I needed to separate myself from a painful situation they created and couldn’t have them around anymore as a result. I like to believe that for the few times I’ve been ghosted or held at arms length, the circumstances were similar on the other end. (Or maybe I just suck, who knows? 😛 ) If there’s one universal truth I’ve learned about people, and the overall human condition, it’s the following. I don’t say this to be depressing or pessimistic but every single person you know is going to hurt you at some point. Whether it’s malicious, intentional, indifferent or careless. Whether it’s action or inaction, letting you down or behaving in a way that makes you feel somehow less-than. And you are gonna hurt a lot of people in turn, either by failing to live up to their expectations, not taking their feelings into account before acting, or putting yourself first in a way that makes them feel insulted. Every relationship, from friends to family to romantic partners is built on vulnerability and therefore pain is inevitable.
None of what I just said is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a fact of life we all need to accept going forward, both with how it pertains to us as the receiver and as the giver of such pain. Everyday in life, we have the make choices and sometimes people are going to be upset no matter what choice we make. Just be more mindful of your own actions going forward, try not to hurt people if you can avoid it. Give others the benefit of the doubt when it’s reasonable as long as they haven’t taken advantage of your good nature in the past. Otherwise, the choices you make could come back to haunt you someday. This small 2 minute scene from a children’s movie is the best expression of that lesson I’ve ever seen. (Or at least it left the biggest impact, considering this film was such a huge influence in my development.)
Without belaboring the point, I believe what I’m saying about the Jim and Long John dynamic also applies to Captain Smollett on some level. In this same scene, I love how Smollett doesn’t care about the stolen treasure or escaped criminal. Instead he feels it’s more important in this moment to affirm that he will try to be the father figure Jim needs going forward. As far as I’m concerned, “All done, Jim. Your father would be proud,” is the kids’ movie equivalent of “He knows, doctor. He knows.” It signifies a profound understanding between two characters in the aftermath of a defining loss. Throughout the voyage, Smollett never really got to be a mentor to Jim because of his duties as captain. He had to be the “bad guy” by forcing Jim to give up the map, for example. Smollett hurt Jim, without meaning to, and partially pushed him into seeking camaraderie from someone like Long John who did not have the boy’s interests at heart. Seeing how vulnerable Jim is now after losing the person he thought was his best friend, Smollett steps up without a moment’s hesitation to fill the void in Jim’s life. He understands that Jim needs a father figure and there’s no one else around who can do it. It’s a really beautiful but unobtrusive moment if you stop and think about it.
Before interacting with anyone, especially someone whom you know is particularly vulnerable, think to yourself “how can I be there for this person?” and “what does this person need to hear right now?” That’s the moral I got from this film, and why I feel it stands the test of time even without the benefit of nostalgia.