The Muppets are a television phenomenon: it is hard to imagine that the glove puppets could have been created especially for the cinema. But once Jim Henson's stable of weird characters had become known through The Muppet Show during the Seventies, it was almost inevitable that at some stage they would spin off on to the big screen. There, sensibly, instead of trying to reproduce the format of the television show, they concentrated on developing the personalities they had acquired.
In 1992, having stormed Hollywood and Manhattan in Muppet adventures, they became the stars of an adaptation of Dickens' Christmas Carol, casting Muppet characters in leading roles (Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy against type as his wife), alongside Michael Caine (Scrooge), all apparently playing with utter seriousness, but framed in a narration that is full of knowing ironies and sly addresses to the audience: the first post-modernist Christmas Carol. Now, in the same spirit, they have taken on Treasure Island.
Once again, there are problems finding a star role to suit Miss Piggy, who ends up as the castaway, Benjamina Gunn, which (as you would imagine) involves a fair amount of rewriting of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel. The human support, this time, is provided by Tim Curry, Kevin Bishop, Jennifer Saunders and Billy Connolly. Connolly gets the black spot early in the proceedings: "He can't be dead," Rizzo exclaims, leaning over the corpse. "This is a children's movie." Yes, but a good deal will be appreciated better by their parents.
For some reason, Treasure Island proves less successful under this treatment than Christmas Carol: perhaps there is too much action and not enough opportunity for Muppet antics, despite all the anachronisms, asides to camera and references to other films. Children will enjoy it as a straightforward adventure and some older ones will appreciate the ironies; but it would be sad if younger children had learned to distance themselves too much from the story.
There is still more ingenious combination of live action with animation in James and the Giant Peach (to be released on August 2). The film, directed by Henry Selic, who made Nightmare Before Christmas, uses almost every variety of traditional, stop-motion and computer animation to bring Roald Dahl's fantasy to life, with the character of James played by Paul Terry and later animated as a puppet.
The animation is effective with the animal characters and there are marvellous sequences while the peach is flying across the Atlantic and is attacked by sharks and by a huge cloud which turns into a charging rhinoceros. But the effects are always at the service of the story and the characters, rather than the other way round, and while accompanying adults may be impressed by the brilliance of the animation, their children will surely marvel at what is going on.
It promises to be an interesting summer for film-goers. In London, the National Film Theatre has a comprehensive Truffaut season in July. There are also a good number of re-releases, including at the end of this month the early Robert Bresson film Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess. The mechanism for giving a renewed theatrical showing to old films is now well-established and Hitchcock has benefited from it, with Rebecca in April and North by Northwest in May giving audiences a chance to see new prints of his major works on the large screen.
I Confess is probably the most interesting of these three to rediscover. Hitchcock disliked the film: he told Francois Truffaut that it had been a mistake, probably because of his troubles with the scriptwriter and with the star, Montgomery Clift. But he makes good use of the Quebecois townscapes, and the plot, though implausible, is gripping.
The film is going out with Robert Lepage's The Confessional, a first feature about family secrets set in Quebec at the time when Hitchcock was filming there in 1952. It is not only the Muppets who expect us to have a thorough knowledge of old movies.