Muppets keep ‘felt’ in heartfelt

"Muppets Most Wanted" is a new release.
March 23, 2014

It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights. It’s time to get things started ...for a “Muppets” flick tonight.

For my entire life, the Muppets have been there for me. Whether it was teaching me Spanish and manners from a street called Sesame, introducing me to famous celebrities on their vaudevillian prime-time show, or taking me to fantastical worlds they have created on film, the Muppets have been a mainstay.

This weekend will mark their 12th cinematic release with “Muppets Most Wanted,” but I thought it would be a great opportunity to widen the lens and look at Jim Henson’s contributions not just with Kermit and company, but through other endeavors that have been staples through so many of our lives.

The best aspect of the Muppets is that they played just as well to the parents who towed their children to the theaters and weren’t afraid to land zingers that would sail far over the heads of the younger audience. And while they weren’t always successful, the creative minds at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop were never afraid to let their imaginations run wild.

Examples of this include their darker turns in films such as “The Dark Crystal” and “The Witches,” which, at the time, were deemed frightening for toddlers whose exposure to darkness was essentially the inside of Oscar the Grouch’s trash can.

Released in 1982, “Crystal,” was directed by chief puppeteers Henson and Frank Oz, and introduced us to the mystical world of the Gelflings, the Mystics and the Skekses. Though it is often recalled fondly now, at the time, it kicked up dust with parents, concerned that its “darker nature” would petrify their precious children, and was even branded as “blasphemous” for some of its more ritualistic imagery.

Four years later, (and after releasing the more family-friendly “Muppets Take Manhattan” and “Follow That Bird,” Henson returned to the world of fantasy with “Labyrinth,” starring David Bowie and a young Jennifer Connelly. Produced with the help of George Lucas and written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, the musical bombed at the box office, and its poor performance was said to have deeply affected Henson. It was the last feature he would direct before his death in 1990.

Henson did, however, still contribute his puppeteering skills to director Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl book “The Witches” in 1990. Despite being adored by critics, it, too, suffered from negative backlash for delving into the dark arts, even though it tacked on a happier ending than the book (which Dahl famously deemed “utterly appalling”).

The Henson company essentially stuck to what it knew best over the next few years, taking on classics such as “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island,” as well as a slew of children’s television shows.

The brand saw significant sustained life after Disney acquired the rights in the early '90s, and even though the last Muppets film, titled simply “The Muppets,” was not officially a Jim Henson Creature Shop release, it was obvious that writer/human star Jason Segel and Nick Stoller were true fans, going to great lengths to restore the brand to its “Muppet Movie” roots from decades ago.

Whether or not this latest release - which carries the same director as the previous flick but is without Segel - will further the Muppet big-screen legacy remains to be seen. It’s no matter, really, as we have decades of imagination-fueling fantasy and funny business thanks to these colorful creations.

Because for generations, Jim Henson and his Muppet creations have been putting the “felt” in heartfelt.

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