He's the Muppetry Man. He Made Things All Right

The Tale of the Bunny Picnic
Jim Henson/Buena Vista Video, 1993

Sesame Street Kids' Favorite Songs
Sony Wonder, 1999

Videos for kids appear with almost boring regularity--cartoons, theatrical releases, TV series spin-offs, low-budget/how-to/special-interest efforts. The frequency and sameness of this "product" can blind us to the simple fact that a), it's perfectly okay if some things are the same, especially if they're classics that have long guaranteed a kid's enjoyment; and b) it's also okay to have frequent reminders that there's a genuine art to making a movie or video for kids.

Two releases this month bring me to these thoughts--and both of them derive from the genius of Jim Henson, who, sadly, left us almost nine years ago, but manages to leave his spirit around through the "boring regularity" of the kid-oriented entertainment machine. In themselves, these two tapes--The Tale of the Bunny Picnic, and Sesame Street Kids' Favorite Songs--are reliably energetic and funny, and seem like just about everything else out there. But they have a more direct link to Henson's magic, and that makes them original object lessons in abiding quality.

Why is Jim Henson so important? The worlds of television and movies are different because he was once a part of them. The "Henson style" is influential, and central to the world of kids' entertainment and learning. This is all because Henson knew how to bring the magic back to puppetry; how to use television's unique properties; and how to tell jokes that made all ages laugh.

For example, puppets (and marionettes) were pretty boring until Henson came along. This is in America only, of course; many other cultures have longstanding puppetry traditions that were never "out of style." But unless you count Shari Lewis, some old vaudevillians (such as Señor Wences with his "hand" puppet), and baby boomers' lingering melodies of Howdy Doody, there wasn't much in the early 1960s that was funny or interesting when it came to puppets.

Henson changed that--he introduced his own little gimmicks, which were the various controlling devices (like sticks to move the arms, or great size to make the puppet a wearable costume) that turned a puppet into a "Muppet." He made the figures more expressive, and because they had furry textures and enormous Ping-Pong eyes they appealed to kids, too--since the youngest kids are drawn to eyes first, on anyone's face. In The Bunny Picnic, each floppy bunny-Muppet has a different color, texture, ear length, and energy level. The story is a variation of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, in that Bean Bunny keeps boasting he's a monster or a dragon, and then gets a chance to impersonate one for real when the farmer's henpecked dog comes to catch some bunnies. The fact that the dog (with Henson's voice) is as much a loveable sap as the bunnies is a testament to Henson's eye for puppet design as it is to his all-embracing humanity, if such a term can be applied to cloth rabbits.

Television itself also comes alive when a Muppet is on screen. The bright, lighter electronic colors of TV (as compared to film's deeper ones) suit the energy of the puppets. TV's shallow depth, always in need of exaggeration, is overcome by the Muppet-based environment, which puts puppets and people on an equal level in a usually crowded setting. Sesame Street Kids' Favorite Songs has nothing to do with Henson, technically, since it's a recent production. But as Elmo and Snuffy and the gang chat about their "top ten" favorite songs, they interact on a comfortably colored street, with a nearly spontaneous interaction that clearly came from Henson. Give due credit to the founders of Sesame Street, but realize that the show is nothing without those monsters that are Muppets.

Seeing little Elmo grunt as he "climbs" up Snuffy the Snuffleupagus's leg, and noticing how funny and cute it was without being cloying, I realized also that the Henson touch comes as much from attitude as it does from puppet design or art direction. The Muppets were made to be flawed; they are basically big-hearted, wacky, only part-talented creatures who get great lines, and who keep trying. Even though The Muppet Show has been gone for years, that same loony backstage silliness--of not always being completely ready for something big--is still with the characters. The added fact that many Muppet jokes are bad puns means that they're perfect for apprentice language-learners.

Later this year we can look forward to Muppets in Space, a new movie with hopefully the same goofiness we've grown to love in the TV shows, records, software, and previous videos. For the moment, we and our kids can just admit that Jim Henson equals Beverly Cleary equals Chris Van Allsburg equals Dr. Seuss--or any other classic, trustworthy producer of wise-and-funny entertainment for kids and their parents.


Phil Anderson is a regular reviewer of movies, software, and technology for Minnesota Parent.

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