Jim Henson and the Muppet Legacy He Left Behind

By  · Published on November 22nd, 2011

by Robin Ruinsky

Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending”. ~ Jim Henson

When Jim Henson died in 1990 there was speculation about the fate of Kermit the Frog. Had Kermit died with his creator? Could Kermit, Henson’s alter ego, survive the sudden loss of the man who had lent him his voice? The answer was Kermit and his Muppet family would carry on, even without the brilliant creative force that was Jim Henson.

The art of puppetry goes back thousands of years, but it’s an ancient art that Jim Henson revolutionized. What makes the Muppet world so believable even when we know we’re looking at fabric creatures? For starters Henson’s use of fabric made his puppets malleable and expressive; the faces of his puppets aren’t static. Henson also understood the power of television. On stage the puppeteer is hidden behind a curtain in a puppet theater environment. That carried over to television with, for example, the classic Kukla and Ollie puppets of Kukla, Fran and Ollie fame. Henson was inspired by them, but he didn’t use the static traditional puppet theater. He opened it up by having the cameras focus on the puppets. By keeping the puppeteers out of the frame, Henson liberated the puppets and their puppeteers, allowing them to move more freely and take on a life of their own.

The Diva of Diva’s, Miss Piggy is a great example of a liberated Muppet. She’s fiercely independent, perhaps the most independent of all the Muppets. Even if a puppeteer is moving her lips, no one yanks her chain. She’s no ones puppet, she’s a movie star. Miss Piggy recently appeared on The Late Show promoting the new Muppet movie with her long time romantic interest Kermit the Frog. She, Kermit and Jimmy Fallon bantered like any other celebrity guest. Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog have weathered the years and this Hollywood power couple is destined to stay together forever.

The Muppets are as alive a group of puppets as ever existed. They’ve entertained and educated millions of children who accept these denizens of Sesame Street as real beings. Sesame Street’s generations of children can thank Jim Henson for Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie and Cookie Monster among many other Muppets who have populated the Street.

Henson began his work in the early days of television, impacting advertising by using humor to sell products. Rowlf the Dog sold dog food, of course. A pre-Sesame Street Cookie Monster sold IBM computers by devouring one. I think he was relieved to switch to cookies. Henson’s first show “Sam and Friends” launched the long career of Kermit who wasn’t yet a frog but still recognizable as Miss Piggy’s future significant other.

The Muppet Movie in 1979 was a major transition for Henson. He defied conventional wisdom that a movie couldn’t be carried by puppets, moved his cast of television Muppets to the big screen and scored a hit. The humor that had always been part of Henson’s work helped the Muppets shine on the big screen and they became movie stars.

Henson didn’t rest on his Muppet laurels though, and The Dark Crystal in 1982 was a stark contrast to the Muppets. Its dark fantasy world is very different from the colorful, humorous universe of the Muppets. Henson won numerous Emmy Awards, CableAce and BAFTA awards for The Muppet Show, Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock, The Jim Henson Hour, The Storyteller (co-written by Oscar winner Anthony Minghella) and Sesame Street.

Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop pioneered special effects and creature effects for productions from Henson’s The Storyteller, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth, and has continued to create effects and creatures for films as varied as Lara Croft Tomb Raider, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, The Hangover and Where the Wild Things Are. Founded in 1985 with Frank Oz, The Creature Workshop has won numerous Emmy awards and an Oscar for Best visual effects for Babe in 1992.

Jim Henson died in 1990 at the age of fifty three, but Henson’s work didn’t die with him. Just as Kermit survives, The Muppets, the most beloved Henson legacy, continue to entertain and educate children of all ages.

When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here. It’s a wonderful life and I love it. ~Jim Henson

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