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A Tour of Jim Henson

August was a good month for fans of Jim Henson. If you're not a fan, then this is the time to become one, because right now on DVD you can trace the evolution of a brilliant creative mind, savor its output and perhaps regret the loss of it on our cultural landscape.

Oh, Henson's most famous creations are still in the public eye, as the majority of the characters known as Muppets belong to Disney Studios. The House of Mouse is doing what they can to get Kermit and company out into the marketplace. At the beginning of August, the company released the second season of the fondly remembered Muppet Show, shot in the U.K. and syndicated to American homes in the seventies.

Following the idea that Kermit hosted an old Music Hall-style revue, the show featured guests that wavered between the truly popular at the time and the truly admired by the Henson crew. How else to explain Edgar Bergen making an appearance, if not because Henson owed him a debt of style?

Also guesting in this set include people like Steve Martin and Elton John, but be wary when showing this to kids today. The singer fits right in with the strange creatures that made up the house band, the Electric Mayhem, but Martin's seventies shtick has lost a lot over the decades.

On the first season set, Buena Vista dug up the original pilot for The Muppet Show. This set unearths "The Muppet Valentine's Day Special," an even older piece that sets a lot of the tone for the series. In this, Mia Farrow guests as a next-door neighbor to a houseful of Muppets, only a few of which would appear again as regulars on the series. Though definitely a product of its time, some of it still feels sharp, in particular Kermit's rendition of "Froggy Went a-Courtin'" (This must be before he met Miss Piggy.)

The material that works best today is those segments that pushed the boundaries of imagination. Alien mating rituals, monstrous singing groups (come on, we're all still humming "menamena") and beings that defied taxonomy have as much loopy power as they ever did.

Once the series ended, Henson indulged that imagination to its fullest, teaming up with artist Brian Froud (and many others) to bring two singular fantasy visions to life. The first, The Dark Crystal, Froud admits in his commentary, "…most people didn't get the concept behind the film."

Creating its own mythology, the film takes place on an alien world in its last throes. Through The Dark Crystal and Froud's imagery, Henson gave us such creatures as gelflings and skekses, particularly disturbing creatures because I once had an employer who spent an entire day in the office pretending to be one.

Truly an original concept even as it delves into archetypes, The Dark Crystal may have been off-putting to mainstream audiences, but it certainly inspired a generation of creative types, including a fledgling puppeteer on the project named Kevin Clash. He would later become the man behind Elmo, a character some consider to be as frightening as a skeksis. Henson followed up with Labryinth, also receiving an "anniversary edition" DVD release. (Technically, it's only 21, but it's swept up in the hype for Crystal's 25th.)

Slightly more mainstream, Labyrinth involves actual human beings, unless you discount Jennifer Connelly for being a goddess and David Bowie for being a rock star. While borrowing a bit from The Wizard of Oz, Labyrinth stakes its own territory thanks to a twisted script by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame and the sheer bizarreness of Bowie's Goblin King.

This film, too, features commentary from Froud, whose infant son Toby played the endangered baby brother to Sara (Connelly), helpfully named Toby. Among those artists influenced by this film is Toby himself, off camera delighted by the goblins and inspired to become a puppeteer. The best film secret revealed by Froud here is that they had two methods of making Toby cry - putting him in the crib so he thought he was being forced to take a nap, and cranking up the volume on Bowie's music before putting Toby in the shot. Admittedly, it's not some of Bowie's best stuff, but it's nothing to cry about.

Both DVD releases also have great behind the scenes documentaries that get only a little bit repetitive. But if you're watching these things, it's because you can't get enough of Henson's magic.

To round out the Henson evolution, you can end with an older release, The Storyteller, a television series that collected fairy tales and myths to retell them through Henson's creature shop. That one's been out for a couple of years, but it really does make for the capper, as it's one of the genius' last projects before his too untimely death in 1990.

Indulge yourself in these. Younger kids might not be ready for The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth yet, but any that have gotten through fantasy films like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban deserve the exposure. Jim Henson was definitely a rare and wonderfully warped mind, and we need all we can get of that.

Muppet Show - Season Two

The Dark Crystal (25th Anniversary Edition)

Labyrinth (Anniversary Edition)

Jim Henson's the Storyteller - The Definitive Collection

Derek McCaw

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