Peter Jackson's first professionally made feature came about after funding fell through on Braindead, shortly before filming was scheduled to start. Originally conceived as one episode of a possible late night TV show, Meet the Feebles was expanded into a feature after some early self-funded footage attracted interest from a Japanese film company.
An initial application for Film Commission money was rejected, ironically by executive director Jim Booth, who a short time later would become Jackson's producer. The Commission did eventually grant the production two-thirds of its $750,000 budget, though relationships between the funders and the production soured as the film fell behind schedule, and the Film Commission removed its credit from the film.
Dubbed a 'spluppet creature feature', Meet the Feebles follows the same idea as his first — Bad Taste — but ups the ante in tastelessness. Every sacred cow is exploded — literally — in fact, it seems like the primary aim of the film is to offend as many people as possible.
However, while the premise is pretty puerile, the way it was put together reveals the hand of a filmmaker who knows his craft. The action sequences are impressive, and the design of the puppets, while looking somewhat tawdry (differentiating itself from shows like The Muppets), show a remarkable imagination at work. Some of the set pieces, such as a riotously referential Vietnam War flashback sequence, are especially clever.
The film follows the hours leading up to the live television broadcast of the ‘Fabulous Feebles Variety Hour', during which we get to know the cast of performers and their aberrations. Extreme examples include a knife-throwing frog whose cravings for heroin mean his aim is not so good (cue blood and gore) and a rabbit who seems to be afflicted with ‘the big one' — a terminal sexually transmitted disease (a brave move to play AIDS for laughs in 1990).
The final sequence, in which Heidi the buxom hippo chanteuse turns ballistic with a machine gun when she discovers Samantha the slutty Siamese orally pleasuring her walrus lover, gives Jackson plenty of opportunity to go to town with the splatter effects.
As the film is about a variety show, there's lots of music in it, and some of the songs are great. One, written by Danny Mulheron in praise of sodomy (sung by Sebastian the fox), is a delight. Most of the music was written by Peter Dasent, who also wrote the music for Braindead and Heavenly Creatures. Some of the songs were also written by his mate Fane Flaws, who played with Dasent in Wellington bands such as The Spats and The Crocodiles.
Peter Jackson regular Jamie Selkirk did a fine job as editor, and Richard Taylor, who with his partner Tania Rodger, met Jackson during the Bad Taste shoot, made many of the 90 or so puppets (working under the supervision of puppet designer Cameron Chittock). Jackson, Selkirk, Taylor and Rodger now co-own the special effects company Weta Workshop, based in Wellington.
Feebles had very mixed reviews; some of the international journals were enthusiastic but the locals less so. Local box office was disappointing, at only $80,000. Love it or hate it, whatever your taste, Meet The Feebles is clearly a romp in the rumpus room for the talents of Jackson and his crew:
"In high-concept terms, Meet the Feebles is easily defined: it's The Muppets Go Sleazebag. Aiming to do for the perky world of puppets what Fritz the Cat did for animation — ie. overwhelm it with filth, sex and drugs — Peter Jackson's film sets out to be relentlessly, gratuitously offensive. Most of the time, fortunately, it succeeds."
Philip Kemp, Sight and Sound (May 1992).