The Rainbow Connection: Remembering Jim Henson (24th September 1936 – 16th May 1990)

May 15, 2012 5:29 pm

It’s been 22 years since Jim Henson forever disappeared from beneath Kermit’s fuzzy green torso, but with his Muppet creations enjoying renewed box office success, it’s clear his legacy is as strong as ever. Now, then, would be a good time to remind ourselves just how much of an impact Henson has had on modern family entertainment and why we should continue to mourn the loss of such a creative visionary. Here are five of Henson’s greatest contributions and, therefore, five good reasons why the world should never stop missing him.

1. Sesame Street – Henson’s first big break into mainstream television came in 1969 in the form of an experimental children’s show set on the eponymous New York street. Henson was hired to create and perform a small cast of colourful puppets to appear in their own isolated segment, separate from the main narrative. However, during test screenings the puppet creations proved so popular that they were integrated into the live action sequences, thus creating a revolutionary show that engaged and educated children in a distinctly informal and positive manner. Henson’s characters soon became household names and the likes of Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch and the Cookie Monster continue to enthral children to this day. The show itself has earned over 100 Emmy Awards and remains a landmark in children’s entertainment. Whilst being Henson’s first major foray into television puppetry and his launching pad to other projects, Sesame Street is also notable for teaming Henson with lifelong friend and collaborator Frank Oz, who performed Bert to Henson’s Ernie, and later Miss Piggy to his Kermit.

2. The Muppets – Easily his most famous creation, the Muppets carry the heart and soul of Jim Henson and remain among the most popular and instantly-recognisable characters in television history. Initially rejected from every major network in America, the Muppets finally found a home in the UK, where The Muppet Show was broadcast on ITV to worldwide applause. In the show’s host, Kermit the Frog, Henson truly found his voice –figuratively and literally – and, with the help of Fozzie Bear, The Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy and Swedish Chef, achieved a hysterically surreal and universally endearing show that had celebrities clamouring for guest spots and audiences pleading for more. Henson responded with a hugely ambitious cinematic feature, The Muppet Movie and followed it up with The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan. With unending popularity and limitless opportunities for on-screen adventures, the sudden death of Henson in 1990 left Kermit and co. sadly suspended, their future somewhat uncertain. Indeed, since the demise of their creator, the Muppets have experienced mixed fortunes. Though their version of A Christmas Carol has proved to be a festive classic to rival Dickens’ original creation, Muppets From Space in 1999 was met with public disinterest and the colourful crew were quickly shelved by Disney. However, over a decade later, the Muppets appear to have found salvation in the unlikely shape of comic actor Jason Segel. A lifelong fan, Segel managed to create a script that gained the approval of studio executives and, with a strong viral marketing campaign and support from major Hollywood players, the Muppets have now found themselves back in the public embrace. Segel’s film acts as a loveletter to Henson’s original creation – with Kermit and the gang reuniting for one last variety show – and has become a major critical and commercial success. With a sequel already in the works and cuddly toy Kermits flying off the shelves, the Muppets have truly reclaimed the spotlight, ensuring Henson’s most personal creation will transcend many generations to come.

3. Yoda (Star Wars) – While Kermit the Frog may be Jim Henson’s most famous character, he is not the only little green man with a debt to Henson. Jedi Master Yoda remains one of the Star Wars franchise’s most popular characters and also one of cinema’s most iconic creations. While Henson himself was not responsible for the character’s initial conception, he may very much be accredited with Yoda’s onscreen appearance and distinctive voice. During the production of The Empire Strikes Back, Henson was approached by George Lucas to act as a consultant to the puppet-builders at LucasArts and during this time he made the landmark decision to recommend Frank Oz to perform and voice the character. Oz’s talent as a puppeteer resulted in an extremely life-like onscreen creature, while his unique vocals added a surrealism and humour to the Star Wars films. So impressed was George Lucas with Oz’s performance as Yoda, that he endeavoured to achieve an Oscar nomination for the puppeteer in the best supporting actor category. While this may have proved unattainable, the character of Yoda enjoys continued adoration; his performance stretching from a dramatic death scene in Return of the Jedi, to exhilarating battle scenes in the prequel saga and more recently a career in advertising as the new face of Vodafone. And while the powers that be may have taken the decision to replace the realistic puppet Yoda with a bundle of computer pixels, the iconic character and his garbled messages of peace and wisdom have proved as timeless as any of Henson’s creations. As Yoda might say to Jim, “a lot to thank you for, we have.”

4. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop – While Henson may not have personally built any of the creature puppets from Star Wars, his puppet workshop has provided visually-stunning creations for many a Hollywood movie. The Creature Shop has won Academy Awards for its work on Babe, and has also provided costumes and puppets for Where The Wild Things Are, Harry Potter and cult TV shows Farscape and The Storyteller. Proving that intricate puppetry looks better onscreen than any amount of CGI, the Creature Shop serves as Henson’s enduring legacy and its crew have long proved themselves as pioneers in the medium of visual effects.

5. Henson’s later projects, and the ones that could have been – As Henson grew older, he began to leave his Muppet characters behind and to push towards bigger, more cinematic projects involving less-huggable characters. The most notable of these is The Dark Crystal, an epic fantasy with an all-puppet cast, which demonstrated the full scope of Henson’s imagination and creative brilliance. The film is set in a vividly-realised fantasy realm and contains some of the most intricately-designed and visually impressive puppets ever created. It proved that Henson was capable of producing adult narratives that effectively explored the darker realms of the imagination. Henson followed The Dark Crystal with Labyrinth, a commercial flop which is more often remembered for David Bowie’s revealing tights than it is for Henson’s inimitable craftsmanship. Though the initial reception was so poor as to send Henson into a state of depression, Labyrinth has since developed a cult following. After winning back critics with a string of small-screen successes, Henson finally found inspiration for his third non-Muppet feature, a dinosaur-focussed film entitled The Natural History Project. The movie promised to showcase some of Henson’s most advanced puppets and was backed with a $25million budget. Sadly, however, Henson passed away suddenly on May 16th 1990, after a short but severe illness. The Natural History Project never came to be, though if it had it would almost certainly have been a cinematic epic to rival Jurassic Park. Also doomed to the cinematic archives is Henson’s feature-length screenplay Tale Of Sand, a surreal adventure story that Henson penned in the late sixties and that was released earlier this year as a graphic novel.

So limitless is the possible catalogue of work Henson could have created had he conquered his illness, that his death seems all the more tragic. However, with the Muppets enjoying a new lease on life, he is far from forgotten and he would surely be pleased to know that his cherished creations could continue to entertain and enthral audiences so many years on. As the ultimate dreamer, Henson will forever be remembered fondly for his immeasurable contribution to the entertainment industry, while his Muppet characters will continue to be cherished by new generations. With any luck, Kermit and the gang will go on to provide five more reasons to never forget Jim Henson.

“Life’s like a movie. Write your own ending. Keep Believing. Keep pretending.” Jim Henson, 24th September 1936 – 16th May 1990

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