Tag Archives: Jim Henson

The Dark Crystal

Although my sisters and I were massive fans of Labyrinth when we were kids (I was later shocked to find out that David Bowie was some kind of rock star!) and can still sing every word to ever song, The Dark Crystal was never on our radar. But it recently popped up on Netflix (not randomly: they’re actually making a series), so Sean and I thought we’d better give it a go.

And honestly, my life would have been better off without it. I was almost instantly confused, and I was utterly unprepared to be confounded by the complexities of a muppet movie. I told Twitter about my problem, and of the 43 people up at 2am and willing to commiserate, plenty of them simply made fun of me for how high I was (though honestly: doesn’t it seem like the kind of movie IMPROVED by weed???), but lots of them declared that this was among their favourite movies. And I was like: what the heck???

First, a synopsis as told by a lady (me. I’m the lady.) who did not understand the movie for any five second stretch. Some dark crystal was damaged a long time ago and bad things have been happening ever since. For like 1000 years or something, so it’s weird they even remember the precipitating event at this point. Their little felt thumbs don’t look all that opposable but I guess they must be stellar record keepers. The Skeksis are so ugly you just know they’re the villains. They’ve been the evil overloads of their planet ever since. But our hero, Jen, has been raised by peaceful wizards. Jen is not like them though. He’s a Gelfling, the only one – or so he thought, until he meets a second, very pretty Gelfling named Kira, and she helps him on a quest to find the broken piece of the dark crystal, which would restore the universe’s balance.

Jim Henson clearly believed that being scared was a healthy emotion for kids to deal with. The Dark Crystal is a very dark fantasy, with little of Labyrinth’s signature levity. There’s a lot of peril encountered and a lot of responsibility on Jen’s shoulders, and let’s face it: there are lots of scary-looking creatures hatching evil plans. And there are also some drawn-out deaths, like depressing old age shit that most kids movies stay away from.

Conceptual designer Brian Froud dedicated 5 years of his life to the look and feel of this movie, and almost all of it, from the design of the creatures to the world they inhabit, stemmed from his mind. In fact, he ended up changing a major aspect of the film when he came back to Jim Henson with designs that left him perplexed. Henson had intended to call the film The Dark Chrysalis, but Froud misheard and had developed the The Dark Crystal instead, and Henson was so enamoured with those first concept designs that they just went with it.

This movie came out in 1982, the same weekend as E.T., in fact, and went on to be the highest grossing film of the year in both France and Japan. It obviously has its share of fans, and perhaps a bit of a cult following. And I do see the incredible world-building undertaken by Jim Henson and Frank Oz; the ingenuity evident in the different sets and the creativity poured into each creature’s development. I just find that the characters in Labyrinth are friendly entry points into their universe, while the laborious time spent with both the wizards and the villainous Skeksis felt more arduous and less compelling. The Dark Crystal is a fascinating tour of the creature workshop, but I didn’t feel invested in a single character, whereas Labyrinth still feels like a group of childhood friends.

Aside from the fact that I legitimately could not maintain a grasp on the story, The Dark Crystal just feels less colourful, less humourous, less memorable than its counterpart. I get that Henson wanted to just drop us into this strange land, and immerse us in it through showing rather than telling, but it made me feel alienated and cold. We hardly come to know the characters, except through what they’re doing. It just doesn’t speak to me or particularly engage me, but the one thing I’m impressed by is the lack of dumbing down for kids. Not a single fart joke in sight. Jim Henson really trusted his audience to make the leap along with him. Did you make the leap? Do you love the film? Help me understand why – leave comments down below.

The new Netflix series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, will be a prequel, focusing on a lost Gelfling civilization. It will look very familiar to fans of the original as Brian Froud is back, and he’s not a lone. A nifty detail: Brain met a puppet designer on the set of The Dark Crystal named Wendy. They married and had a son, Toby, who went on to play little baby brother Toby in Labyrinth. All three of them are credited in the series. It’s got a LOT of major voice talent: Alicia Vikander, Andy Samberg, Simon Pegg, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keegan-Michael Key, Mark Hamill, Taron Egerton, and a lot more besides. It’ll be available on Netflix August 30.

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SXSW: Muppet Guys Talking

Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind The Show The Whole World Watched is a documentary directed by Frank Oz. It features several of the “original” muppet puppeteers\voices – Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Bill Berretta, Jerry Nelson (now deceased), and Oz himself. It’s a very loving but simple film, just friends and colleagues having a chat over coffee. They discuss the characters they helped create and bring to life, the shows that made them famous, and the man behind it all: Jim Henson.

The documentary runs just over an hour but is packed full of priceless recollections. These people are still brimming with admiration for Jim Henson all these years later, and it’s clear that his legend lives on. Muppet Guys Talking is a testament to the power of creativity, and the importance of having the freedom to truly embrace it. It’s also just a lovely tribute to the characters we all grew up loving, and a reminder that the hidden humans behind those characters are not just providing a voice, but have also got their hands up their asses.

dave-gonzoDave Goelz is perhaps best known for puppeteering\voicing Gonzo. He also does Bunsen Honeydew and Zoot from The Muppet Show, Boober Fraggle and Uncle Travelling Matt from Fraggle Rock, and the puppetry for  Sir Didymus in Labyrinth, and dozens more.

Fran Brill was an actor before she turned to puppeteering, but Jim Henson knew she FranBrill-ZoePrairiehad good instincts and recruited her for his workshop. It paid off: she won an Emmy for her work on
Sesame Street, where she has originated many characters, including (but not limited to!) Zoe, Little Bird, Betty Lou, and Prarie Dawn.

D23 EXPO 2015, The Magic Behind the MuppetsBill Barretta got his start puppeteering on Dinosaurs, and later developed characters for Muppets Tonight including Pepe the King Praw, Johnny Fiama, and Bobo the Bear. He also took over some of Jim Henson’s characters after his death, including Dr. Teeth, Rowlf, Mahna Mahna, and Swedish Chef.

Jerry Nelson’s most-loved character may be Sesame Street’s Count Von Count, though he was jerry-nelson---voice-of-count-von-count-on-sesame-street-55b75bda60f9fffaalso the original puppeteer for Snuffleupagus.  On The Muppet Show he did Sgt. Floyd Pepper, Dr. Julius Strangepork (from Pigs in Space), Kermit’s nephew Robin the Frog, and Gonzo’s girlfriend, Camilla the Chicken, among many, many others, and he often did the show’s announcing as well. On Fraggle Rock he did the lead character, Gobo Fraggle, Pa Gorg, and Marjory the Trash Heap.

sesame_street_jim_henson_frank_ozFrank Oz is of course the man behind Miss Piggy, plus Fozzie Bear, Animal, and Sam Eagle from The Muppet Show, and Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover from Sesame Street, and even did the puppeteering and voice work for a minor character in Star Wars – Yoda. Besides this documentary, he’s the director of films such as Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob, In & Out, and Death at a Funeral.

Each of them reminisce about the inspiration behind the characters, how they helped shape them, how they evolved over time, the crazy contortions they pulled hiding behind their more recognizable but felt-based counterparts. It was a very cool documentary, and lucky us, we also got to sit in on a Q&A session with the performers (moderated by Robert Rodriguez!), so look for some of that in the comments section!

 

Best Live-Action Fairy Tale Adaptations

TMPIt’s Thursday again and you know what that means – this week we’re being asked to list our favourite live-action fairy tale adaptations. Not such an easy feat for some of the Assholes, but we’re giving it a go! Thanks, Wanderer, for your inspired themes.

 

Jay

It’s probably telling that though we owned copies of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, I was never a very Princess-oriented little girl. Even as a kid, I preferred darker stories, and so my go-to fairy tale was always and still is Labyrinth.

I’m sure you know it: it’s about a teenaged girl (Jennifer Connolly) who makes a stupid wish that actually makes her baby brother disappear. Realizing her mistake, she has to win her brother back from the Goblin King by solving his labyrinth in just 15 hours. This movie combines two labyrinth-2_1389186934things that are so awesome I might call them otherworldly, and putting them together just multiplies their effect. First, David Bowie as the Goblin King: absolute perfection. To this day you couldn’t cast it better. The hair, the pants, the eyebrows! Second, Jim Henson. He brings some fairly complex puppets into the mix, some inspired by the genius work of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. Henson surrounds Bowie with a cast of Goth Muppets that create this hyper-real fever dream. The story’s fairytale roots stoke the fires of Jim Henson’s imagination beautifully, and we’re absorbed and suspended into a world where anything can happen.

For my second pick, I’m going with Penelope. Penelope is lovely girl (Christina Ricci) from a wealthy family who was born with the face of a pig. The pig-face is the result of a curse put on her family by a witch in retaliation for their rejection of a  house maid turned away when a penelopemember of the house impregnates her. Generations later, Penelope bears the brunt of her family’s indiscretion. To break the curse, Penelope must find “one of her own” to love her. Her suitors (including a roguish James McAvoy), however, may be more interested in her money than in true love. The movie gives life to the other side of the tale, a modern girl born only to be hidden away in shame, and what that has meant in terms of self-worth. I think it’s also an interesting example of how, with a little suspension of disbelief, we can invest in a fairy tale without a lot of big-budget effects and other trappings familiar to the genre. The fairy tale is made much more accessible and relatable on this plane.

I’ve been waffling over this third pick for a while. I felt like maybe I should go with a more classic adaptation, but damn it to hell, I’m going with a Cinderella story because it’s one that’s been told more than 700 times, in many different ways, all around the world. We just saw Disney’s live-pretty-woman-GCaction effort last night (quite good), but the one that will still stands out to me is Pretty Woman. It’s actually a pretty faithful adaptation, if a little modernized: a young woman with no family is forced into a life of hard work (prostitution, if you will). She meets a handsome prince (or millionaire businessman) and they start to fall in love, but she’s not from his world, so neither of them thinks the love with last. However, with the help of a fairy godmother (called Visa) she is magically transformed. But the prince must love her for who she really is, so she feels, and he follows, searching her out on her turf, his heart (and possibly other organs) swollen with love. And because this is a fairy tale, the ho and the ethically-questionable businessman live happily ever after. We assume.

Matt

If you joined us last Thursday, you might have noticed that I gave Luc a bit of a hard time about his lack of interest in black and white movies made after (or even before) 1970. Well, I’m hoping he loves live-action fairy tale adaptations because I can’t seem to find the same level of enthusiasm this week. It’s not that I object on principle. I don’t see any reason why stories that have so often inspired such great animated films can’t be reimagined as great live-action ones, especially with less pressure to conform their content to a G rating. Maybe because we can’t bring ourselves to set aside our cynicism for even two hours without the obviously manufactured world of animation but it’s a lot harder to believe in magic when it is Elle Fanning- not Sleeping Beauty- who can only be woken by True Love’s Kiss and almost every recent film in this sub-genre is almost embarrassing to watch. Still, after thinking about it all week, I have managed to come up with 3 worthy exceptions especially when allowing myself a little leeway with the rules.

Babe- When I say that Babe is one of my favourite films of the 90’s, I don’t mean “favourite babe-james-cromwellfamily movies”. I don’t know if it can be called a fairy tale under the strictest definition but it seems to think of itself as one. There may not be any fairy godmothers, pixie dust, or spells, but there are singing mice, scheming cats, an unlikely hero with the most innocent of hearts, and one of the most genuinely magical experiences of its decade.

 

Hook-  Steven Spielberg makes my list two weeks in a row. Technically more a Peter Pan sequel than a peter Pan adaptation, Spielberg’s 1991 film is one of his most underappreciated. Now a cynical corporate lawyer who hates flying, Peter Pan (Robin Williams) is all grown up and has literally Hook-1forgotten about Neverland. With the help of Tinker Bell (Julia Roberts), he must learn to fly again to save his young kids who have kidnapped by Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) who is still holding a grudge. Hook makes great use of almost every one of Williams’ many talents and Hoffman is brilliantly cast and will likely put Garrett Hedlund to shame in this summer’s Pan.

Into the WoodsSome of the most memorable fairy tale characters of all time meet in the intothewoodswoods in last year’s extremely entertaining adaptation of the Broadway musical. The stories take on a darker tone than we might be used to but the spirit of the stories survive.

 

 

Sean:

The Princess Bride: the best of the best. This is a fairy tale that a teenage boy could not only princess_brideenjoy and relate to, but could talk about with other teenage boys. The Princess Bride is endlessly quotable, sincere but not serious, and effortlessly original while remaining true to the essence of a fairy tale. I still love this movie and I expect it will be one that continues to be discovered and enjoyed for as long as we watch movies.
wizard-of-oz-original1The Wizard of Oz – this is a timeless movie that still holds up. Even the changing technical limits of the day add something to the movie, being in black and white initially, with colour then appearing once Dorothy gets to Oz. It’s so well done, the songs are catchy, the characters are memorable, and the big reveal at the end is one of the best twists ever. One of my favourite parts about the movie is that even after the curtain is pulled back, everyone still gets to live happily ever after, the very definition of a fairy tale.
Cinderella (2015) – we just saw this last night and I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. rs_1024x759-141119042502-1024_Cinderella-JR-111914No surprises, no changes, no updates to the classic Disney tale, and that’s probably for the best. It was the definition of a fairy tale made into a live action movie, line for line, shot for shot, and mouse/horse for mouse/horse. At our screening, all the little (and some not-so-little) girls in their princess costumes clearly loved this movie and I could see exactly why they did. I would have said Cinderella is this year’s Frozen except that this year’s Frozen is going to be Frozen Fever, the short accompanying Cinderella, which made a little girl in the theatre gleefully exclaim, “Look at those dresses!”