September 8, 2010


Jim Henson was a genius, as most people now realize.  Therefore, it’s a real treat to see a documentary that has been made about his creations and his company.  Henson’s Place: The Man Behind the Muppets is just that.  However, this piece is a vintage documentary, one produced in England back in 1984.  The most recent project Henson and company are shown to be working on in this piece is Labyrinth (1986), because you can notice them building the film’s creatures in one segment.

Henson’s Place tells the tale of Jim Henson’s beginnings as a college student in a puppeteering class, where he met his future wife Jane.  The two started a televised puppet show that even in its primitive black and white presentation foreshadowed the brilliance that lay ahead.  Henson’s early puppet design and writing was not much different to the look and comedy of The Muppet Show (1976-1981) which years later made Jim Henson an international star, finally allowing him the creative freedom to branch out to feature films and beyond.  More after the jump:

the_muppetsRare glimpses of all of Jim’s early work is peppered throughout this doc, including a look at his first show called Sam and Friends, along with interviews of many of Henson’s associates. The doc visits producers from the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW, the makers of Sesame Street), and Lord Grade, the Englishman who had vision enough to take a chance on producing The Muppet Show after all three major American networks turned it down, even after they heard brilliant personal pitches from Jim Henson and his trusted Muppet collaborators.  It is also great to see Jim’s fellow genius, collaborator Frank Oz, present in the documentary. I suppose that with a magical name like Frank Oz, there is no margin for “average.” Genius was his true best destiny.

There’s an interesting moment where Frank Oz expresses puzzlement over the fact that so many people say that his Muppet character “Miss Piggy” is their favorite. Oz states that while playing Miss Piggy he first must reach into a place within his own experience and emotions that is dark, fraught with anger and disappointment. Then, he says, he must work at turning those feelings into something funny, giving voice Piggy’s character. Only Frank Oz that could have lent such insight on a character that most people see as pure comedy. A fascinating moment in the documentary, to be sure.

jim_henson_muppets_01The documentary Henson’s Place was produced for an hour time slot for television, running 52 minutes total.  So if you are a fan of Muppets, puppets, or men with beards, this is a must-have DVD.  This doc defiantly leaves you wanting more, because obviously one hour is not enough to cover the complex and fascinating career of a one of the most creative Americans in entertainment history.  I can only hope there is a more in-depth documentary produced about Henson and his creations at some time in the future.

The wonderful DVD bonus is an overview of the Henson Company’s 1985-86 yearbook, called “The Amphibian: Yearbook of Henson Associates.”  Jim Henson’s yearbook was inspired by George Lucas’ yearbook, which he had cleverly made for his own employees. Henson heard that Lucas made the yearbook for Lucasfilm while the two worked on Henson’s Labyrinth, where Lucas was one of the Producers. Puppeteer Michael Frith narrates the story of The Amphibian, which was really Henson’s attempt to keep track of all his employees, and to celebrate the company’s yearlong achievements and creativity.

Since Henson had been spending all of his time commuting between Los Angeles, New York and England, The Amphibian became a fun way to create a record of all of the talent he had assembled around the world. This was truly a treat to see as a non-member of the Henson Company in the 80’s.

Henson’s Place: The Man Behind the Muppets is not only a look at Henson, but a touching documentary that manages to convey a little bit of what it must have been like to be in the center of a creative whirlwind. The doc is even more touching today as one realizes that Henson died much too soon (of bacterial pneumonia at age 53 in 1990), at his creative peak. This DVD allows viewers to not only look back at Henson’s work, but to wonder what wonderful things he would have been up to today.


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