Monday, November 14, 2011

Blind--Er--Visually Challenged Pew

Saturday in lieu of in conjunction with rereading Treasure Island for Victorian Children's Literature, I watched Muppet Treasure Island, arguably the last decent muppet movie--hopefully until Thanksgiving.

Please keep in mind: I love this movie. I saw it for my seventh birthday party. I eBayed the older DVD for the commentary with Rizzo and Gonzo. I know Sailing for Adventure by heart. But maybe because of the fact that I should have been reading the book, I watched the movie with a critical eye this weekend.

It's a fairly faithful adaptation with several notable alterations. First, let's talk about what's not changed: The first "dark" pirate in the movie is Blind Pew:

And Long John Silver is still the one-legged man.

Moreover, among the pirates there is "One-Eyed Jack" (who has an eyepatch, with no other eye) and Short Stack Stevens, a Little Person. There are no characters with disabilities on the "good" side. There are a couple of muppets with glasses (though if you're familiar enough with the muppets you know the rat with glasses is Chester, who is a pathetic, allergic mess), and in crowd scenes one or two walking sticks that could be canes. No explicit disabilities (though I suppose all muppets are differently-abled).

Blind Pew is a laughing-stock. He walks into walls and cats. He mistakes Jim Hawkins for a girl because he feels long hair (or maybe it's the kid's singing-voice). He walks out of a fire saying "I think I smell something burning!" In one of the commentaries Brian Henson justifies their choice to use two actors to perform the muppet because "He doesn't know what his hands are doing because he's blind." (REALLY?)

Now, the movie specifically forbids against applying modern concepts to it. "I think they prefer visually-challenged fiend," Gonzo says, and the absurdity of this statement reminds you that this negative-portrayal of a blind man comes from 1883, when the mindset was different.

But this is underscored by several things:

1. The innkeeper is changed from Jim's parents to Mrs. Bluveridge, who is a badass. Granted, Jim's mom is the main innkeeper for a good deal of the book, but she faints. Mrs. Bluveridge takes out muppets bodily. Clear winner.

2. Benjamin Gunn becomes Benjamina Gunn, played by Miss Piggy. Aside from giving away the location of the treasure so no one kills "her frog" and being a bit promiscuous with the pirates, she's also a butt-kicking badass.

Meaning the novel has been altered to be less paternalistic. Yet, it's still painfully ableist.

The other major biases in the novel are underscored too. The "manly men are we" is canceled out by the falsetto it's sung in. The natives being afraid of the boom-boom sticks is canceled out by the way they stand up to Long John in the end--and Kermit's joke "We mean no harm to your culture. We embrace all creatures of different nationalities." (although their presence on the ship bound for England does bring up more questions) but there is very little to make up for the ableist subtext.

Except perhaps him.

(What does it say that I can't find an image showing him with the crutch?)

I know. Long John Silver is the bad guy. He's necessarily a negative mark. He's even punished more in the movie than the novel. There's a scene with Jim having stolen his crutch, and Long John laughs about it. He uses his crutch to manipulate Jim later (payback, perhaps, but implies that people with adaptive equipment aren't trustworthy).

The movie ends with him bailing out in a sinking lifeboat. The book ends: "Of Silver we have heard no more. That formidable seafaring man with one leg has at last gone clean out of my life; but I dare say he met his old Negress, and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and Captain Flint. It is to be hoped so, I suppose, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small."

Except.... aside from being the fabulously awesome Tim Curry, .he's the most complex character in the movie. His one-leggedness, in spite of being the way he's identified, doesn't hinder him, nor is it what Jim fears in the way of the book. He's untrustworthy, which shouldn't be good for a character with a disability, but he manipulates his way out of every jam this gets him into. He also has an honestly positive connection with the main character of the movie, meaning you can't entirely hate him.

And what kid doesn't want to be the pirate every once in a while?

I'm not saying the character makes up for the ableism of the movie. But it is an adaptation of a Victorian novel. There are only a few ways in which characters with disabilities are generally shown in Victorian lit, and a complex character like Long John potentially does more for the cause than say, this adorable yet stereotypical character:

Maybe they did the best they could with Long John. Cutting the one-legged fact may have been more ableist, if you really think about it. And, fine, Short Stack Stewart isn't shown at a disadvantage, except for being a pirate. But Blind Pew I have major problems with, because he's nothing more than a character with a disability being used to comic purposes. He could have been cut without altering the validity of the adaptation any more than BenjaminA Gunn, or the man who lives in Fozzie Trelawney's finger.

This has been your critical analysis of a movie that otherwise makes me clap my hands in glee.

Here, have some happy:

Muppet Treasure Island Quotes here

Treasure Island Quotes here

Win a signed copy of My Very Un-Fairy Tale Life here