Jim Henson (1936-1990) was a puppeteer, writer, producer, and director. Henson attended the University of Maryland, College Park, where he created Sam and Friends as a freshman. After struggling with a few programs that he created, he would find success with Sesame Street. The success of Sesame Street allowed Henson to create The Muppet Show, and later on Fraggle Rock and the animated Muppet Babies. He would also have a chance to direct some feature films as he continually strove for revolutionary approaches to puppet performance, staging, and construction. He embraced technological developments, experimenting with video compositing techniques and pursuing CG puppetry (the real-time manipulation of computer animated characters). His work in virtual puppetry led to a U.S. patent for the Henson Digital Performance System. The focus of this appreciation will be on the only three films he directed (all of which were good): The Great Muppet Caper, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth.
Henson made his directorial debut for the second Muppets film, 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper. This film centers on Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, and Gonzo the Great who, as newspaper reporters, go to England to investigate a jewel heist. Featuring Muppeteers Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, and Carroll Spinney, as well as human performers Charles Grodin, Diana Rigg, Jack Warden, John Cleese, Peter Ustinov, and Peter Falk, this critically acclaimed film grossed over $31 million domestically on a $14 million budget. Joe Raposo received the film’s sole Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (for the song “The First Time It Happens”). This film would be followed by six more theatrically-released Muppet movies (including Muppets Most Wanted, which will be released in March 2014).
Henson followed The Great Muppet Caper by co-directing 1982’s The Dark Crystal with Frank Oz. The film centers on a young Gelfling on a faraway world who journeys to the Skeksis castle with a shard from the dark crystal so that he can restore it. Featuring Muppeteers Henson, Frank Oz, Steve Whitmire, Kathryn Mullen, and Dave Goelz, as well as the voices of Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, and Billie Whitelaw, this critically acclaimed film grossed $40 million domestically on a $15 million budget. The film features a classic score by Trevor Jones and excellent designs by Brian Froud. It also won a Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film and is banned in Iran due to the ceremonial imagery depicted in the film.
Henson’s final directorial effort would be 1986’s Labyrinth. The film centers on a young girl who sets out to rescue her baby brother from the Goblin King and must make her way through a labyrinth in order to reach the Goblin King’s castle. Featuring Muppeteers Frank Oz, Karen Prell, Steve Whitmire, Kevin Clash, Ron Mueck, Dave Goelz, and Shari Weiser, as well as human performers Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, and Toby Froud, this critically acclaimed film grossed only $12 million domestically on a $25 million budget, but has gone on to become a cult classic. David Bowie contributed and performs several songs in the film, and Trevor Jones wrote his terrific score around the songs. Brian Froud provided the concept designs once again and baby Toby was in fact his son. Like The Dark Crystal, this film was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film (but unlike The Dark Crystal, it did not win).
It was kind of unexpected that my recent trip to Atlanta, Georgia would end up being Jim Henson-themed (I got to see 1985’s Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird! at the Studio Movie Grill in Duluth, a midnight screening of Labyrinth at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, and I attended the Center For Puppetry Arts, which still had a Jim Henson exhibit). I was only six when he died, but he and his creations were such a big part of my life at the time, and I continue to be a big fan of his. Jim Henson was taken away from us too soon; he still had so much more to give to the world. May he continue to rest in peace.
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