By the time Muppet Treasure Island came along in 1996, five other adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island had already been made. Nevertheless, it’s notable for being the first adaptation to cast an amphibian as Captain Smollett—and the first to provoke a lawsuit from the makers of Spam.
1. WE COULD’VE GOTTEN A KING ARTHUR MOVIE INSTEAD.
After the success of The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Jim Henson Productions decided to cast Kermit and friends in another period piece. “There were a whole bunch of ideas out there,” Kirk Thatcher, a writer who had worked with the company on the ambitious ABC sitcom Dinosaurs, said. Of those suggestions for a new Muppet flick, Thatcher's two favorites were “Treasure Island and a King Arthur story with medieval dragons and knights.” Once the former idea was chosen, Thatcher co-wrote the script alongside veteran Muppet performer Jerry Juhl and screenwriter James V. Hart.
2. ORIGINALLY, GONZO AND RIZZO WERE GOING TO BE THE LEADS.
The first draft split the Jim Hawkins character into two. “We had written Treasure Island with Gonzo and Rizzo as ‘Jim’ and ‘Hawkins,’” director Brian Henson recalled. “It never really worked, because, ultimately, Treasure Island is a story about a boy becoming a man. Kind of hard to do that with a rat and a whatever.” The reunified Jim Hawkins role was later claimed by the first actor who auditioned for it: teenager Kevin Bishop, in his feature film debut. Meanwhile, Gonzo and Rizzo were recast as his sidekicks.
3. TIM CURRY COPIED A FAMILY MEMBER’S VOICE WHILE PLAYING LONG JOHN SILVER.
“Well, certainly the inspiration for the way that [Long John Silver] sounds was my grandfather,” Curry revealed on the film’s DVD commentary. “Long John Silver talks exactly like [he] used to talk.”
4. FRANK OZ’S HECTIC SCHEDULE PRECLUDED HIM FROM PUPPETEERING MISS PIGGY AND FOZZIE BEAR.
Often described as Jim Henson’s “right-hand man,” puppetry maestro Frank Oz was an integral part of The Muppet Show. On that groundbreaking program, he originated Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and countless other characters. But a hectic schedule made it impossible for him to fully participate in Muppet Treasure Island. Though he voiced Fozzie and Miss Piggy, puppeteer Kevin Clash handled almost all of their physical movements.
5. OZ WASN’T (INITIALLY) A FAN OF THE RUNNING “MR. BIMBO” GAG.
Apparently, Frank Oz didn’t like all of the dialogue he was supposed to recite. Throughout Muppet Treasure Island, Squire Trelawney (a.k.a. Fozzie) converses with Mr. Bimbo—an imaginary friend who lives in his finger. According to Henson, he was told by Oz that “This joke will never work … I just don’t even get it, it’s such a stupid joke.” Nevertheless, he eventually warmed up to the gag and cited it as one of his favorite jokes in the film.
6. THE FILM’S MAIN SONGWRITERS ALSO CO-WROTE THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS’ “YOU’VE LOST THAT LOVIN’ FEELIN'.”
To create the film’s original songs, Henson tapped a couple of pop music legends: husband-and-wife composer Barry Mann and lyricist Cynthia Weil—a songwriting duo that has worked with artists from Tony Orlando to Dolly Parton. In 1964, they helped write The Righteous Brothers’ hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”—which Broadcast Music Incorporated has called the most-played song of the 20th century.
7. THERE WAS AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT INVOLVING MOTION SICKNESS MEDICATION.
Many sequences were filmed on indoor boat sets. Beneath each one was a huge, custom-built gimbal rig. To simulate the motion of the ocean, powerful hydraulics would gently rock these vessels. This illusion worked, but the director was worried about potential side effects. “I thought people were going to get seasick,” Henson admitted on the DVD’s making-of documentary. So, before shooting Long John’s introductory scene, the director made everyone take anti-nausea pills. Alas, his cure backfired and the medication ended up triggering a drowsiness epidemic. “No one could stay awake—including Tim [Curry],” Henson explained. “I remember he looked at me at one point and said ‘I’m going to kill you.’” Once the effects of the medication wore off, the shoot continued as planned.
8. THERE’S A SMALL NOD TO HENRY KISSINGER.
While searching for the treasure map in Billy Bones’ trunk, Gonzo and Rizzo happen upon a copy of Diplomacy. Written by Henry Kissinger in 1994, this bestselling book has been called “the seminal work” on international negotiation. As it happens, Alex Rockwell, who headed project development for Muppet Treasure Island, is his daughter-in-law.
9. PUBESCENT VOICE CRACKS COMPLICATED KEVIN BISHOP’S BIG SONG.
Jim Hawkins’ first number is “Something Better,” a hopeful song in which he, Gonzo, and Rizzo fantasize about seeing the world. During his audition, Bishop sang the song beautifully. However, as the actor told Den of Geek, his “voice had broken” by the time shooting began several months later. Thus, the filmmakers had no choice but to dub over Bishop with the recording from his aforementioned tryout.
10. THE CREATORS OF SPAM SUED THE FILMMAKERS.
Miss Piggy plays Benjamina Gunn, a tribal leader and (of course) Smollett/Kermit’s estranged girlfriend. Among her fellow residents on Treasure Island is a wild boar high priest—whose followers call him “Spa’am.” Get it? So did the Hormel Foods Corporation, the Minnesota-based makers of Spam, who claimed that Muppet Treasure Island had infringed on their trademark. As such, the company wasted no time in suing Jim Henson Productions.
Reporters soon nicknamed the odd trial “Spam v. Spa’am.” Hormel’s legal team accused Henson of “intentionally [portraying] the Spa’am character to be evil in porcine form.” Moreover, it was feared that the “nasty pagan brute” might harm canned meat sales. Ultimately, the court ruled in Henson’s favor. “One might think,” opined the appeals court, “that Hormel would welcome the association with a genuine source of pork.”