The art of puppeteering is a strange one, requiring a unique set of skills. To be great, you’re part introvert (hiding from the world behind the mask of your puppet,) part extrovert (letting out your inner crazy via said puppet,) part skilled mechanic (navigating the physics of foam and fur to create the illusion of life,) part writer (since so much of puppetry is improvised lines and movement, even with a script) and, if you happen to be a Jim Henson puppeteer, part stand-up comic. Puppeteers can be world-famous, having their work seen by, literally, billions of people… and yet completely anonymous in their daily life. They can have gigantic egos with legendary eccentricities, though these legends are known only to a tiny circle of their peers who are, like them, competing for the few paying gigs that exist for a professional puppeteer. In short, it’s an odd but fascinating existence.
Jim Henson, of course, was the exception- a true creative genius who created worlds that his friends (and descendants) have continued to play in right through today, carrying out his gospel with strict devotion, and ironically turning something that was basically made-up-as-Jim-went-along into a full-blown institution. Henson’s effect on his peers and friends- not to mention our own culture, and hell, our entire planet- is impossible to quantify: The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and more, shows and characters that make up the DNA found in so many of us that it’s impossible to fathom our most formative years without his influence.
Which is why his main collaborator and BFF Frank Oz has decided to gather up some of the Henson O.G.’s for a candid conversation about Jim and the world they all created. It’s part tribute, part “secrets revealed” and part American History, capturing important tidbits and tales that give us a small window of insight into the magic that was their day job for a couple of decades. Oz, a Hollywood director in his own right, tries to keep the conversation loose and democratic, though it’s quite clear that he’s the keeper of the torch, and in the end ends up with the most time talking on camera. Jerry Nelson is probably next in line in terms of fame and creative input, and likewise spins a lot of fascinating tales- everyone has their “Jim Henson Origin Story,” all of them memorable.
The only real criticism one can find in this casual, friendly conversation is really a criticism of the times- Henson’s world was a Boy’s Club through-and-through (a White Boy’s club, mostly) and the inclusion of Fran Brill as the lone female in the film only underscores the fact. Fran gets to say almost nothing the entire film, with the exception of the loaded comment she makes about how it was clear to her and to any other female puppeteer that, try as she might to break in, she would never really be “one of the boys.” The clique was tight, and it was male. Oz starts to contradict her with a knee-jerk defense, yet the truth behind her statement is evident even in this film itself- the other four trade jokes and barbs the entire time while any little comment Fran makes is basically ignored. This is all unconscious bias, of course, but it’s a clear reminder that, even in the wonderful world of Henson- a supposed escape from the dreariness of reality, and a celebration of creativity and imagination- our own humanity falls short of the goal. Muppet guys talking, indeed.
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