Cinemadope: Beyond Sesame Street

To say that Jim Henson had an influence on my childhood is like saying the Beatles had an influence on late 20th-century pop music. The reach of his artistry is so vast that even if it’s not apparent, it’s highly likely that whatever children’s story you pick up today will have been created by someone who at one point or another has fallen under Henson’s spell. To stop and take stock of the man’s legacy is to hop from touchstone to touchstone of a half century of entertainment: The Muppets leads to Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, and on to his involvement with “smaller” things like the creation of the Yoda puppet for the Star Wars franchise.
But as much as I loved that work (and still do—as a new father, I can hardly wait to introduce my children to the rich zaniness of The Muppet Show), it was one of his other projects that has left the most lasting mark: The Dark Crystal was a 1982 fantasy film that was far darker than Henson’s more familiar work, filled with the threat of extinction. For a nine-year-old kid, it was an intoxicating kind of storytelling, with the still-familiar look of Henson’s animatronic puppets made more sinister by the undercurrent of dread his story provided.
A few years later Henson would do it once more with Labyrinth, screening this Friday at Amherst Cinema. A film that mixed live action and puppetry, it found him again teaming with his Dark Crystal crew: Frank Oz manning puppets and English artist Brian Froud laying the groundwork for much of the movie’s arresting visual style. In it, the young, fantasy-obsessed Sarah (a teenaged Jennifer Connelly, long before winning her Oscar for A Beautiful Mind) unwittingly calls up the Goblin King (David Bowie) to kidnap her younger stepbrother. It’s easier than you might think, apparently.
With Toby hauled off to the Goblin world, Sarah must thread her way through the King’s labyrinth in order to save the boy and return for good to their own world. Along the way, she meets a cast of characters who alternately help and hinder her on her journey: grumpy dwarf Hoggle, gentle giant Ludo, and the memorable Sir Didymus, a Quixote-inspired fox who rides atop the sheepdog Ambrosius. But perhaps the most memorable obstacles she faces are Bowie’s musical interludes, in which the Goblin King attempts to woo the young girl into staying by his side. Take a kid to see it today, and they might find the whole affair hopelessly passé—but for any child of the ’80s, it’s a nostalgic delight, and a bittersweet reminder that Henson, who passed away at age 53 just four years after Labyrinth was released, had many stories left to tell us when he was called back.
Also this week: King Corn is a film that seems to pop up once every year or two in the Pioneer Valley, and it’s not hard to see why. A feature-length documentary about our fast-food nation’s reliance on corn, it features two likeable young guys exploring our country’s agricultural system using a great gimmick: after they grow an acre of corn, they try to follow the stuff into the pipeline to see where it all ends up. This Monday it screens at Amherst Cinema; director Aaron Woolf will be on hand for the free screening to help chart the path.
And finally, the ongoing People of the Book series—a periodic gathering to discuss themes in Jewish literature—brings Max Färberböck’s film Aimée and Jaguar to Amherst, also on Monday night. Based on a true story, it charts the relationship of two women in 1943 Germany: one a married mother of four sons, held up as an example of the Nazi ideal; the other a Jewish woman and active member of the resistance. Their story was a secret until Lilly Wust shared it with writer Erica Fischer a half century later; her book about the women became the basis for the film. Anne Ciecko of UMass-Amherst will be on hand to discuss the film and book.•

Jack Brown can be reached at

Author: Jack Brown

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