Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Jim Henson Hour and "Monster Maker"

One of my unstated goals here at the Obligatory Art Blog is to write a bit about things that I recall from childhood that I have seen mentioned almost nowhere else online. And recently I mentioned that it usually turns out to be very hard to write about such remembered things when there is so little information about them online. I may luck out and find a book or video on the subject (and you may have noticed that the book/video often is the subject), but this happens very rarely.

Fortunately, there are a wide variety of Jim Henson fan-websites out there in this vast digital sea, so it isn't too hard to find information about "The Jim Henson Hour". This was a truly ambitious series that, back in the late 1980's, looked and felt like something that had popped right out of the Aether in spite of everything just to make me happy. Just watch the introduction here, which is basically Jim Henson Productions saying, "Look at what we can do NOW!" over a very awesome late 80's pop-rock instrumental. You knew you were in for something special when you saw this.

The series has never been released on DVD largely thanks to the number of hoops whoever has the rights to the show would have to leap through in order to settle things with whomever owns the rights to the shows' various segments and characters. See, "Jim Henson Hour" was an anthology show. It was very similar in format to "Walt Disney Presents"/"Wonderful World of Color"/"Magical World of Disney"/etc. A few - a very, very few- of the individual features on the show have been released on DVD. One or two more are on Netflix Instant, and we'll get to one of these in a bit. And of course, a few full episodes are available on that great repository of barely-remembered 80's television, YouTube.

Now, it's funny how your memory works when you are eleven. I remember watching this show for an entire summer, loving it to death and so happy to finally have a "Muppet Show" equivalent to call my generation's own. This is just the kind of show that, had it appeared ten years later, would have gained a rabid cult following online. Chiefly, I remember the show going on for far longer than it did (this in spite of the fact that I only recalled a handful of episodes) and being way, way popular.

You can imagine my surprise to learn that the show lasted for a grand total of under four months. Poor thing was relegated to the dreaded Friday night death slot and was, well, WAY geeky. Save for maybe three of them, the new Muppet characters didn't click with people and most of the rest of the show was dedicated to the Creature Shop strutting their stuff in obscure story adaptations and other, stranger things.

And that brings us to "Monster Maker". One of the better-remembered episodes, this was based upon a novel by Nicholas Fisk, who, I was happy to learn, is responsible for one of my very favorite science fiction short stories ever. I'm not sure what the book is like, but the short film adaptation is essentially the Creature Shop's love letter to... itself. I say that because they were proud enough of their creature puppets in the episode to showcase them in many different later compilations.

And the puppets are amazing. "Monster Maker" is a very poignant viewing experience in the year 2011. In an age of CGI whatever you want, there it is, it's kind of mind-blowing to watch this film about a special effects house that has to actually stop and think about such questions as, "How do we get these little monsters to walk"? "Can we build a dragon puppet that's large enough to convincingly interact with human characters?" When facing the Ultragorgon dragon, Harry Dean Stanton (in full-on Harry Dean Stanton mode) has a wonderful monologue about believable creature design and animation. Heck, the Ultragorgon himself is fantastic; he's the one thing I recalled very clearly from "Monster Maker".

I hadn't seen "Monster Maker" in full since the episode of "The Jim Henson Hour" in which it was featured way back in 1989. So it is with a very heavy heart that I have to note that everything in it aside from the monsters isn't very good. It is worth watching, especially at a scant 45 minutes, but I will warn you that the story makes not one lick of sense. Also, the lead kid gets a Jake Lloyd Award.

Since most of the show's problems have to do with the story, it's Spoilertext time!
So, what was the moral of "Monster Maker"? I guess it was, "Children, give up your lifelong dream. Even if your dream is to work in a very, very specialized creative field that is hard to enter, and the greatest person in the business has already taken you in as an apprentice which is basically a million to one lucky chance. Or, you know, don't give up on your dream. Follow it right into the sun, even if the guy who took you in as his apprentice turns out to have been playing mind games with you all this time and is kind of a terrible person. Also, after either giving up on your dream or not giving up on it, go back with your father. Even if your father is kind of a worse person who has always openly discouraged your dream and wanted you to stay in the family's boring-ass auto repair business, and who deals with incredibly shady people for... some reason they never elaborated on."
I did learn this: if I am ever lucky enough to lead my own nominal studio, I am totally going to build a giant robot dragon puppet to use as a secret test of character on new interns.


By the way, you'll notice that I am speaking about a barely remembered and way, WAY geeky late 80's television show while everyone else seems to be doing their Harry Potter retrospective. I, of course, did my Harry Potter retrospective posts two years ago. Derp.


Sketch of the Day!

448. Old Connery, The Guff-talking Dragon

Of course, this show reminded me that it's been a while since I drew any dragons...

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