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Thank Kermit that Muppet Treasure Island let Tim Curry be as wacky as his Muppet co-stars
This month is a big deal for Muppet fans, as they celebrate a banner milestone: the 25th anniversary of Muppet Treasure Island, the silly riff on Robert Louis Stevenson's legendary adventure story about marauding pirates. In recent years, the other Muppet feature of the 1990s, The Muppet Christmas Carol, has gotten a lot of nostalgic love due to its central performer, Michael Caine — not to mention that it's a holiday rewatch classic. With the anniversary in mind, though, there's no better time than now to talk about Muppet Treasure Island and its most delightful element: Tim Curry's performance as Long John Silver — arguably the best human performance in any Muppet movie.
Curry followed in a long line of talented humans working opposite the Muppets on the silver screen, but most specifically Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol. On the surface, Curry as Long John Silver functions similarly to Caine's Scrooge. He's playing one of the most recognizable characters in English literature, in an adaptation where he's surrounded almost entirely by non-human characters. A Christmas Carol isn't the easiest book to Muppet-ize, but the Muppet version is surprisingly faithful to the source, and Caine's performance is intense, emotional, and unwavering.
Curry, though, is at his most theatrical as Long John Silver. It helps that Muppet Treasure Island is a loopy film; one song, "Cabin Fever," depicts the pirate crew (sans Silver, sadly) singing and dancing about how crazy they're becoming while stuck at sea in an attempt to locate buried treasure. The film's sense of humor is much more in line with the giddy chaos of The Muppet Show, and Curry is working his a** off to ensure his performance fits perfectly with some of the best verbal and visual gags in the Muppet lexicon. Curry's version of Long John Silver is confident of his superior intellect, but he's also flamboyant, outsized, and ridiculous.
Consider Curry's big musical number, "A Professional Pirate." (As Curry's Silver says to his fellow pirate Muppets, "Upstage, lads. This is my only number.") The song serves as Long John's final plea to his possible protege Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop), to join the side of plundering and looting instead of truth and morality. However, the song really serves as another part of the four-course meal of a role Curry has, diving in with aplomb and gusto. Here and throughout the film, Curry has to strike a delicate balance. Anyone over a certain age is no doubt familiar with the story of Treasure Island (or at least the idea that Long John Silver is a bad dude). Within the confines of the story, though, Curry has to convince us at the very least that his villainous dog of a pirate could come close to luring Jim to the side of evil. As much teeth-gnashing as Curry does, he's able to switch to more paternal emotional notes as needed.
The quality that makes Curry's performance the best in any Muppet movie is his ability to clown around. It's not that a consummate performer such as Caine couldn't be goofy, but that his Scrooge is — like the version by Dickens — dour and humorless until the very last scene when tenderness finally shines through. Muppet Treasure Island feels like a welcome throwback to the days of The Muppet Show (which will be streaming for the first time when it hits Disney+ on Feb. 19). Back during the '70s, the puppet variety show would, for instance, do an episode-long riff on the story of Robin Hood. And unlike the eventual feature adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the Muppets were gleefully untethered to a faithful adaptation, keeping just the broad strokes of the story in place.
With Tim Curry as Long John Silver, he's able to add the relevant amount of villainy and warped gravitas. When Long John — tied up by his fellow pirates after they feel he's led them astray — is able to turn the idea of being handed the dreaded "Black spot" into a way to shame the Muppet-y pirates for ripping a page out of the Bible, you can see how much fun it must have been for the performer to interact with these felt creations.
A role like Long John Silver only works if the performer treats it like a meal, and Tim Curry is the kind of guy who treats every role like a meal. He was as perfect a fit for his role in Muppet Treasure Island as Caine was for The Muppet Christmas Carol — the big difference is that Curry was allowed to be as wacky as the Muppets surrounding him. As Muppet Treasure Island turns 25, it's the perfect time to revisit this underrated gem and revel in its extreme silliness. With Tim Curry at the head of the table, it doesn't get much funnier than watching him with a glint in his eye carousing with Kermit and his pals.