Judge Erich Asperschlager needs six people to work his body.
"He seems to have his hand in a lot of things around here."
Thanks to Lionsgate, Jim Henson fans have had a lot to watch this year, including a Fraggle Rock: The Animated Series complete series set and the long-awaited (at least by me) release of The Jim Henson Hour canine cop special Dog City. They keep the streak alive with Henson's Place: The Man Behind the Muppets, a British-made 1984 documentary that tells the Jim Henson history up through The Dark Crystal era.
Henson's love affair with puppets began in his early years, morphing into a legitimate career path in college, around the time he met his wife-to-be, Jane Nebel. Their collaboration led to the successful puppet TV show Sam and Friends. Henson's reputation as the best in the business, and his commitment to education, made him a natural choice for the creators of Sesame Street. Henson returned to his all-ages roots with The Muppet Show, made in England after the big U.S. networks passed on it. Smart and gregarious, Henson built an empire of imagination by collaborating people like Frank Oz and entertainment magnate Lord Lew Grade. Henson's creations made their leap to the big screen with monster hits like The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper, and the ambitious fantasy The Dark Crystal. As of 1984, Henson was still on top of the puppet world—a household name and a favorite of kids and adults alike. The future seemed full of limitless possibilities.
Of course, we all know what happened to both Henson and his Muppets in the more than 25 years since the making of Henson's Place. Henson's tragic death in 1990; a string of new, not quite as good, Muppet movies; the continuing dominance of Sesame Street; and Walt Disney purchasing the Muppet license in 2004. In many ways, the world Henson created in the 1960s is as alive and relevant as ever. Children are still discovering the joy of Muppets to the delight of their nostalgic parents. As one of those parents, this documentary is a reminder of why I was, and am, such a huge fan of all things Muppet.
Clocking in at 52 minutes, Henson's Place plays like a highlight reel of Jim Henson's life and career. It starts with his childhood and runs up until the year the special was finished. It never goes into much detail about any single thing, giving all the major players, characters, and projects a brief glance before moving on to the next. With the exception of the first two Muppet movies, which seem to have the least screen time, the overview approach works well. Henson was a busy man, and there's a lot of ground to cover. I don't envy the filmmakers having to squeeze it all into less than an hour.
Henson's Place: The Man Behind the Muppets was made in the early '80s, and it looks like it. The image quality falls somewhere between passable and terrible, and the sound is about the same. Still, as a time capsule of Muppet history, the release has merit as is. I wasn't expecting much in the way of bonus features, but Henson's Place's lone extra is a cool one. A 1985/86 company yearbook called "The Amphibian" was created by Henson as a way to bring his far-flung employee family together. The book featured everyone from the mailroom to the art department, effectively introducing people to co-workers they may have never met. The often-hilarious yearbook is presented here as a slideshow backed with generic music, zooming and panning across each page. The show runs about twenty minutes, and is prefaced by a seven-minute overview narrated by former Henson Associates Art Director Michael Frith—listed in the book's credits as a "Faculty Advisor." I would have preferred flipping through the pages at my own pace, but even as a slideshow, it's a cool bit of Henson memorabilia.
I wish someone would give Jim Henson the feature-length documentary treatment his story deserves. Until that happens, we'll have to settle for Henson's Place: The Man Behind the Muppets. Despite its brevity, the special is an engaging, good-humored look at Henson's career. The DVD is more of a mixed bag. The visuals and sound show their age, but the addition of "The Amphibian" yearbook bonus feature should satisfy even the grouchiest Muppet fan.
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