Peter Jackson's first professionally made feature came about after funding fell through on his zombie project Braindead, shortly before filming was due to start. Originally conceived as one episode of a possible late night TV show, Meet the Feebles was quickly expanded into a feature, after some early self-funded footage attracted interest from a Japanese film company.
An initial application for NZ Film Commission money was rejected, ironically by commission executive Jim Booth, who a short time later would leave the organisation to 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 a worried commission removed its credit from the film.
Dubbed a 'spluppet creature feature', Meet the Feebles follows the same idea as Jackson's first feature — 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 this ambitious production 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 (Danny Mulheron) 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 composed the music for Braindead and Heavenly Creatures. Some of the songs were also written by his mate Fane Flaws, who played with Dasent in band Spats (later The Crocodiles).
Jamie Selkirk does a fine job as editor, while puppet designer Cameron Chittock won an NZ Film Award after taking on the gargantuan task of designing 90+ plus puppets (Richard Taylor and his partner Tania Rodger helped Chittock bring them to life). Afterwards Chittock moved to TV3 and went on to make his own TV shows; Selkirk, Taylor and Rodger became key members of Jackson's team, and were in on the launch of the Weta effects and design empire.
Feebles had very mixed reviews; some international journals were enthusiastic, but many were 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.
Or as Philip Kemp put it in British publication Sight and Sound: "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, Review of Meet the Feebles - Sight and Sound, May 1992