It’s fitting that ABC premiered their new comedy series starring the Muppets this week, as September 24th marks what would have been Jim Henson’s 78th birthday. While the legendary puppeteer and director is best known for creating the Muppets and many of the iconic characters of Sesame Street, Henson worked on a variety of fun and imaginative television shows and movies that continues to fascinate and delight children and adults. To celebrate his birthday and the release of The Muppets, here’s five of our favorite non-Muppets Jim Henson projects:
A hallmark of modern cinema, Labyrinth is the only movie to ever feature David Bowie singing and dancing with a cast of monstrous puppets while trying to seduce an underage girl. Labyrinth starred a 15 year old Jennifer Connelly as a young girl who ventures into a bizarre and otherworldly maze after she accidentally allows a goblin king (Bowie) to snatch her young brother away. Along the way, the goblin king falls in love with Connelly’s character, giving the movie a bit of a creepy undertone. Henson produced the movie with Star Wars creator George Lucas, who helped with the scripts and final edits to the film. Labyrinth received mixed reviews during its release, with some critics praising the imaginative story and elaborate puppetry, while others felt the movie didn’t live up to Henson’s other work. Although Labyrinth underperformed in theatres, the movie gained a cult following after its release and remains an enduring part of Henson’s final legacy.
What happens when you mix groundbreaking special effects, a Tolkien-esque fantasy story and evil alien buzzards? You get The Dark Crystal, a 1980s fantasy film co-directed by Henson and his longtime collaborator Frank Oz. The Dark Crystal featured a young elf-like creature’s quest to reunite the pieces of a broken crystal to prevent an evil group of buzzard aliens from obtaining permanent power. All of Dark Crystal’s were either puppets or animatronics and Henson claimed that the movie was the first live-action movie with no humans on screen. Much like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal has an enduring fan base, which has led to the creation of several comic book prequels in recent years.
HBO made headlines recently when the network announced they had partnered with Sesame Street to finance additional episodes of the longrunning children’s show and create several additional educational programs based on the show’s popular muppet characters. While the news was unexpected, this wasn’t the first time that HBO had aired a children show with Jim Henson characters. In the 1980s, HBO was the American home for Fraggle Rock, a fun, musical show about a group of creatures who lived inside a tunneled out rock. Although not as popular as The Muppet Show or Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock ran for five seasons, tackling important social issues and entertaining with high energy musical numbers. Recently, plans moved forward with a new Fraggle Rock movie, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Before Henson’s Muppets became internationally famous, Henson wrote several experimental films, which employed weird circular plots and unconventional storytelling. Despite one of these movies, Time Piece, earning an Academy Award nomination, Henson would eventually abandon “live-action” films for his puppetry works. The most ambitious of Henson’s experimental film scripts was Tale of Sand, a circular story about a young man racing through the desert while chased by a dangerous eyepatched man. Due to Henson’s ambitious plans for Tale of Sand, the movie never came to fruition. However, in 2012, Archaia Publishing announced they would release Tale of Sand as a graphic novel, illustrated by Ramon Perez. Archaia’s Tale of Sand captured both Henson’s imaginative storytelling and quirky humor, creating the closest thing we’ll ever have to a Jim Henson written comic book. Archaia even developed a new font for Tale of Sand’s lettering based on Henson’s handwriting. Tale of Sand graphic novel won three Eisner Awards, including “Best Publication Design” and “Best Graphic Album”.
The Storyteller was one of Henson’s last projects, an award winning television series that reenacted obscure folktales from different cultures using a mix of puppets and live actors. John Hurt (the War Doctor from Doctor Who) played the “half-puppet” narrator during the first season, while Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the last six Harry Potter films) narrated a second shorter second season. Other actors that guest starred in The Storyteller include Sean Bean and David Morrisey (the Governor from The Walking Dead). Like most of Henson’s work, The Storyteller won several awards, including an Emmy for “Best Children’s Programming. Archaia released several comics based on unproduced Storyteller scripts and folk tales inspired by the original TV series.