The late, great Jim Henson was guaranteed immortality when he first put his hand up a green sock puppet and decide to name it Kermit. As the man behind The Muppets, Henson became almost as famous as his creations.
But The Muppets are far from Henson’s only interesting work. Everyone knows his key successes – the Muppet TV shows and films, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth – but he was a far more daring and inventive filmmaker and storyteller than he is often given credit for. Working both with and without puppets, Henson made or oversaw some truly brilliant non-Muppets movies. Some of were very hands-on projects, others were just Jim Henson Company productions, but here are some of his lesser-known films that are really worth tracking down.
Time Piece (1965)
Despite breaking into TV with the 50s puppet show Sam And Friends, Jim Henson never initially saw himself as a puppeteer. Throughout the early ’60s, his passion project was this eight minute short, which owes more to the French New Wave than Miss Piggy. It’s an abstract, wordless piece, starring Henson himself as a man always on the run through various situations. He starts out in a hospital bed accompanied by a ticking clock, and then begins a mad dash through a Mad Men-style office, a stereotypical nuclear family dinner, a jazzy nightclub and so forth.
It’s a simple metaphor for life and onward march of time, and it’s pretty damn pretentious in a very 60s way, but its really, really enjoyable. It has a terrific score, which mixes jazz drumming with crashing sound effects and noise looped to the beat, There’s also abstract animation that frequently breaks up by the action, not unlike the bumpers from Sesame Street. The short was eventually nominated for an Oscar.
The Cube (1969)
In Brian Jay Jones’ excellent biography of Henson, he’s quoted as saying that back in the ’60s he considered himself an experimental filmmaker. Nowhere is this more obvious than this one-off drama made for NBC. It focuses on a nameless protagonist being trapped in blank white cube, constantly being hassled by visitors who offer him rambling, meaningless advice.
Intentionally obtuse, its hour long running time does drag in a way that Time Piece’s eight minutes definitely don’t, but it’s still a fascinating glimpse of where he could have gone as a director (or just what he needed to get out of his system before The Muppets).
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)
Several Muppet productions have become Christmas traditions, but Jim Henson also made this wonderful non-Muppet seasonal special. Based on Russell & Lillian Hoban’s children’s book of the same name, it’s a riff on O. Henry’s festival tale The Gift Of The Magi, and follows Emmet the otter as he enters a talent contest in order to afford Christmas presents for his family. It’s has a slower, sweeter pace than your average Muppet show, with a lovely Wind In The Willows meets Southern Gothic feel. The otter puppets are adorable, and there’s a host of great original songs.
It aired on HBO in the US, and the fact that the fledgling cable network was only available to a very limited number of homes meant it never really entered the public’s consciousness, but it’s definitely worth getting hold of when December comes around. The special was originally introduced by Kermit, but modern day DVD and digital releases have him edited out as Disney now own The Muppets.
The Christmas Toy (1986)
Almost a decade after Emmet Otter, The Jim Henson Company made another Christmas special. This one wasn’t directed by Henson himself (he only operated a few puppets), but is still a really interesting film. The basic set up is pretty much the same as Toy Story – on Christmas Eve, a group of toys that come to life when no one is around begin to worry about what new toy will be unwrapped, and if they’ll be replaced. When the presents are opened and the She-Ra like Meteora interacts with the others, she even does the whole naïve-Buzz Lightyear routine ten years before Pixar did.
But it’s the key differences that it has with Toy Story that make the special really remarkable. In this world, if the toys are ever seen moving by human being, they permanently freeze. They never use the D-word as such, but they clearly die if this happens. It brings an incredible bleakness and horror to the special, giving it unexpected gravitas about the meaning of human (toy?) relationships when a key character is frozen. It’s heavy stuff and as great as it is I’d probably keep it away from younger Muppet fans to be honest.
The fact that these are real physical objects that come to life, in real time, make them actually feel like living toys, coupled with the looming presences of barely seen human actors, gives the whole thing a tactile quality that Pixar could never match. I’m not saying it’s better than Toy Story, but it’s an interesting sidepiece. Like Emmet Otter, an introduction from Kermit has also been cut from recent releases.
Dog City (1989)
The short lived Jim Henson Hour, which ran for 12 episodes in 1989, gave us some of the most interesting late-period work from Henson. Essentially, it was an anthology show introduced by him (in the style of Walt Disney’s old shows), pairing new Muppet sketches with longer content, like the excellent John Hurt-fronted Storyteller series (also definitely worth tracking down).
Occasional episodes would be dedicated to longer TV movies, of which Dog City was one. Very Muppet-y in vein, but featuring all new characters (and a Rowlf cameo), it’s a big brash musical parody of classic gangster movies. Canine tough guy Ace Yu runs through every noir cliché in the book as he tries to avenge his uncle’s death and win the heart of a dame.
You know exactly where this is going, but it’s the sheer scope that makes this one such good. Henson builds a massive living, breathing city filmed with dog gangsters and cops. There are big musical numbers, (intentionally) god-awful puns and dog jokes, and even a Muppet car chase. It was later spun-off into a Saturday morning animated series, but the original film is where it’s at.
Living With Dinosaurs (1990)
This incredibly lovely British-set comedy-drama originally aired as the final episode of The Jim Henson Hour, and I’m honestly shocked it isn’t a beloved family classic, to be honest. Taking clear influence from Calvin and Hobbes, it centres on a young boy called Dom, and his best friend Dog, who’s a talking stuffed dinosaur (voiced and puppeteered by Henson’s son Brian). Dom is an awkward child starting a new school, and his situation isn’t helped by his unorthodox artist dad, as well his mum being pregnant.
It’s a simple, uneventful coming of age tale, but it’s just so beautifully told. The relationship between Dom and Dog is perfect – only Dom can talk to him or see him move, but it’s never explicitly stated weather he’s magical or just imaginary. It’s the perfect use of magical realism used to accentuate character. Dom slowly grows up over the few days the film spans, and there’s an aching sense of melancholy as you feel he could soon be letting Dog go (the ‘Dinosaurs’ in the title could as much refer to the parents he’s living with, as it does Dog). It’s not a film of big events, and it’s left open ended, and is all the better for it.
I’m really surprised it’s not a regular TV fixture in Britain. It has a recognisable British cast (Juilet Stevenson plays Dom’s mum, and Cassandra from Only Fools And Horses pops up as a teacher), and hasn’t really dated at all – it really feels like the sort of thing that should be on every Boxing Day. There is a plot point about Dom having a list of enemies he’d like to die that probably wouldn’t fly post-Columbine, but it’s perfectly innocent and an accurate expression of pre-teen angst. It doesn’t seem to be available at all – not even on VHS – but it’s a truly wonderful film and I really implore you track it down if you can.