A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.


September 24, 2010


Today is Jim Henson’s birthday, so we decided to watch a Jim Henson film. We’ve reviewed a few of them by now and if you’re reading this blog then you probably already know how much I love Jim and all his works. This movie, however, exhibits an altogether different set of skills that he had than some of the more personal works we have looked at like The Dark Crystal and The Muppet Movie. I’ve always felt that this movie is less about Jim Henson’s vision and creativity and more about his power to inspire people and bring them together to work on a collaborative project.

There are so many great names attached to this project. The goblin designs are directly from the illustrations of Brian Froud. The screenplay was written by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. George Lucas acted as producer. Jennifer Connelly was not a household name at the time, but she would go on to star in a great many wonderful movies and eventually win an Oscar, so it’s fun to see her just starting out on her career. Of course mega super-star David Bowie stars as Jareth the goblin king. There are the usual teams of talented artists and puppeteers. And helming the whole thing, managing the armies of goblins, overseeing the entire project there’s Jim Henson. I think it was in the book Jim Henson: The Works that he was quoted as saying “Whenever I find somebody more talented than I am, I hire them.” He was a man who could inspire loyalty and love and could make amazing things come to life as a result.

I have to say that I like this movie more as a performance piece than as a coherent whole. For some reason it never really captured me when I saw it in the theaters. It’s strange, really, because this movie is filled with things that you would think were custom tailored to appeal to my sensibilities. It has a lonely girl who surrounds herself with toys and books and lives in fantasy worlds. It has a great cast of characters and a lot of humor. It has a magical fantasy realm full of magic, puzzles and deception. But I was never drawn into it in the way that I was by, say, The Neverending Story. I’m not altogether sure why. I’ve always sort of wanted to like the movie more than I actually do.

On the other hand, I am mesmerised again every time I watch this movie by the technology and the performances of the puppeteers. This movie is a showcase for what can be accomplished with “wiggling dolls” and features just about every different type of puppet ever conceived. There are simple hand puppets, there are rod puppets, there are complex remote-control servo operated puppets (a technology that started here with Hoggle and became a mainstay of the Henson Creature Workshop used in movies like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies and the Dinosaurs television show.) There are tiny puppets that are dangling on wires. There is the colossal gate guard that stood twenty feet high. This movie was Jim Henson demonstrating just how versatile and creative he could be in his chosen profession.

In many ways for me this movie is less a film that I watch to be drawn into the world and carried along with the adventures of the characters, and more a series of vignettes designed to highlight the talents of the people who made the film. Take, for example, the Fireys. They were performed by teams of black-clad puppeteers against a black velvet backdrop so that they could come apart and be brought back together in strange ways. It’s a classic puppeteering technique and one that Jim had used for some sketches on the Muppet Show. (For a more recent and very cool example check out “Matrix ping-pong”) Or look at the Helping Hands! They’re the most basic form of puppet ever – just hands put together to look like faces – and they’re my favorite part of the entire movie.

I also see this movie as a sort of passing of the torch. Jim’s son Brian performed the voice of Hoggle and was credited with puppet coordination. Oh, what it must have been like to be Brian, raised surrounded by puppets and muppeteers. I’m always delighted to see him taking some joy in his father’s world (his Dr. Van Neuter is one of my favorite new characters in the Muppet family for example) and if you watch the special features on this film you can see a wonderful bond between father and son as they work together. You should watch those features just to see Jim and Brian demonstrating the helping hands to some of the other puppeteers. Jim invited Brian to show what he has brainstormed with some of the other performers as ways to create faces from just hands and he practically glows to see Brian at work.

If I were a bazillionaire I would put together a Broadway show of this movie. There are so few special effects here. Jim chose to do the vast majority of the performances directly in front of the camera and most of the effects are practical. The giant mechanical gate guard was an actual twenty-foot-high puppet driven by vast hydraulics. The goblin city and the labyrinth are sometimes matte paintings, but are more often practical models and forced perspective. I think it would be amazing to see many of these things performed live. Maybe bring the puppets out into the theater itself and bring the audience right into the labyrinth. I really do feel that many of the things in this movie would be more enchanting and wonderful live and in front of you than trapped on a movie screen.

September 24, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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