Jim Henson was an undeniable wizard, who left a sheer magical legacy in his wake. He always had children in mind, probably because he never resigned his childish sense of wonderment. He brought out the child in us all and sought, more than anything, to ensure children never completely grew up. Without Henson, the world would be a much colder place, but even in his absence, the fact that his body of work is so great and far-reaching makes sure that, every time we see one of his instantly-recognizable creations, be it Kermit or Big Bird, our hearts melt with a universally-felt warmth. Here are ten places Jim Henson’s most lovable Muppets and Creatures have appeared.
10. Dark Crystal
Like some kind of mythical travel brochure, the trailer beckons us to “travel to another world, another time in the age of wonder.” Any viewer of this movie does just that, as Jim Henson once again breathes life into a tangibly murky nether-topia. Imagine Labyrinth, but with no humans: just fantastical products of Henson’s Creature Shop. The result is nothing short of marvelous. At the helm is Henson and Frank Oz (veteran Muppeteer and voice of Yoda, among any others) sharing directing duties, with a production credit from Star Wars thrown in for good measure. Like most of Henson’s visions, this movie is an example of cinematic escapism at its best.
9. Fraggle Rock
Jim Henson can be best described as the TV equivalent of Dr. Seuss. While creating stimulus with a direct child-friendliness, Henson buries in his rampantly imaginative work nuggets of deeper meaning, and even allegories to pressing social issues. Fraggle Rock did just that. Through the squawky voices of floppy, feather-haired Muppets (called Fraggles on the show), and in a setting fit for the Grinch, hints of mature subject matter adults can readily understand, and relate to, are tossed out. And the innocent humor and sweet tunes are designed exclusively for everyone.
8. The Storyteller
This show, from the late eighties, featured some of the darkest Muppetry to ever come from Henson’s fertile thought-space. Based on Brothers Grimm-esque European folk tales, the likes of which provided inspiration for many of your favorite Disney films–sans the grisly imagery and cannibalism, that is–each episode was replete with morals and nightmarish creatures similar to those which appeared in Labyrinth, only much creepier. A definitive example of frame narrative, the central narrative featured an old raconteur who recounted stories to his snarky dog, whereupon his imagination would often get the best of him. Which sounds a lot like Henson himself (interesting note: Henson’s son, Brian, voiced the Muppeteered dog).
Two ingredients which guarantee unequivocal awesomeness: Muppets and David Bowie. This movie has them both in portions fit for a king. Or even a Goblin King. More than just being a depiction of a surrealistic fantasy world, this movie gives that world such tangibility in landscapes and artfully sculpted puppet characters and prosthetic-work, the likes of which CGI could never pull you into so readily, or with any invested emotion. This was a movie which truly offered an otherworldly escape, the likes of which few directors these days are capable of (or have the selfsame imaginative wherewithal for). It also doesn’t hurt that a heavily made-up and spandexed Bowie sings and dances throughout (all original songs, including the unforgettable “Magic Dance”).
6. Muppet Babies
This Muppets spin-off cartoon essentially took the character traits of the original Muppet Show, and added diapers. Adorability ensued. Just listen to the theme song which, in the form of a 50’s doo-wop ballad, introduces the characters via a spot-on Frankie Valli impersonation. The show had the little oblong tykes getting into all sorts of shenanigans, in spite of a very leggy Nanny’s disapproving candy-striped leg-warmers. The show aired from 1984 to 1991, so anyone who maintains vague, yet fond memories of this show likely was learning to potty train at the same time as these human speech-endowed animals and space creatures.
5. Muppet Films
Most recently, in 2011, the Muppets were given a fresh take in a new film starring Jason Segel (as well as myriad topical cameos for relevance’s sake). But, ever since the original Muppet Movie in 1979, they’ve appeared in countless titles including, but not limited to, 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island, and 2005’s The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. It seems anything is fit for a Muppet-erpretation, in a similar vein to all those classic Steve Oedekerk remakes featuring talking thumbs.
4. The Muppet Show
This show was the birthplace of the classic, and iconic, Muppet characters we know and love today: Kermit, Gonzo, Miss Piggy, Bunsen and Beaker, Fozzy, Animal, among many others. The show was a variety show, full of sketch comedy and pop-culture parody, and was otherwise like every other 70’s comedy format, only the cast was all felt and fur. In that way, the Muppets would come to be beloved in a manner ordinarily reserved for a human. That’s what you get when you endow puppets with personality.
3. National Public Radio
The Muppets have been personified so effectively, that they even plug their products on the radio like real humans. It would be no surprise if they each had Twitter accounts (most of all Fozzy, as any good comic knows the merits of the hashtag). Having starred in so many movies, TV shows, commercials, and Got Milk ads, they are virtually indistinguishable from any other ubiquitous celebrity. While various humans like Jason Segel (star), Nick Stoller (writer/director) and Bret McKenzie (Oscar-winning songwriter) have appeared on various NPR programs in support of the 2011 movie, other notable NPR veterans include guests like Cookie Monster, Elmo, and Kermit the Frog. About which you wonder: did they actually show up in puppet form to a medium for which eyesight is completely unnecessary?
2. Saturday Night Live
In its very first season, Muppets appeared regularly on Saturday Night Live (in a regular segment called “Land of Gorch”–long before Robert Smigel’s TV Funhouse and Andy Samberg’s Digital Shorts). Ever since, Muppets have made occasional appearances, mostly to sing Christmas songs; Kermit with Robert DeNiro, Cookie Monster with Jeff Bridges, etc. But of course, when Jason Segel hosted while promoting the new Muppet Movie, they all came out and sang with him during the monologue, and Kermit even did a bit during Weekend Update. With how recurrent these characters were in the formative years of the show, it’s no wonder they are treated no differently than when any former cast member comes back to host. And in those moments, you are reminded of what SNL used to be…namely, good.
1. Sesame Street
Believe it or not, this show was created all the way back in 1969, and has lasted straight up to the present day. Few shows can boast that kind of longevity, Saturday Night Live being a close runner-up, so you see why Jim Henson’s brainchildren have often found their way on the show. But, during Sesame Street’s run, all sorts of celebrities and popular Muppets have danced across the screen to the delight of millions of children and their parents. Not only an educational program, the show is genuinely entertaining, and even offers social commentary in a way that was both innocuous and perceptive. In addition to Spanish, and spelling, and counting, the most important thing this show has ever taught, was to embrace that child borne sense of imagination.