The Muppet Monopoly: Why Aren’t There More Movies Starring Puppets?

By  · Published on December 3rd, 2014

3005 Productions

This week we received an email from a filmmaker about his crowdfunding campaign for a feature called The Delicate Art of Puppetry. It’s a high school movie focused on a nerdy kid who is a fledgling puppeteer, and I guess his two hand puppets are sentient and take control of the boy’s life. Yes, once again the puppets are evil, not unlike such cult-classic horror flicks as Magic and the Puppet Master series. That isn’t to say The Delicate Art of Puppetry is a bad idea – in fact, the comedic project shows promise for a low-budget debut – but it got me wondering if a movie could be made featuring puppet characters who are simply characters, not necessarily villains or purposefully bad or edgy, without that movie being a Jim Henson Company production or something involving the late Jim Henson’s creations. In other words, is there a Muppet monopoly?

It should be noted that there are a few distinct categories for puppet-based movies. There are those where the puppets are actually puppets within the movie story, even if they come to life, a la The Delicate Art of Puppetry and The Beaver. There are those where puppets are used as a creature effect, as in the case of Henson-produced or involved works like <strongLabyrinth and Babe or the Star Wars movies and anything featuring the talents of Bob Baker (who just died last week), including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. And then there are those where puppetry is a form of animation and puppets make up all the characters, like Team America: World Police. Finally, there are the Muppet movies, which can also include Sesame Street movies and the upcoming Fraggle Rock movie.

Muppet movies are a whole other special breed where puppets are just characters in the real world, not as puppets and not seen by human characters as anything but animals and aliens and even humans. It’s that last kind that I think needs another player on the field, not to rival Muppets but just to be an alternative. Maybe one day there’ll be an Avenue Q movie, but that’s hardly its own independent entity since it’s a parody of Sesame Street. Another possibility would seem to be the in-development ALF movie, but that’s being made by Sony Animation and is reportedly using a CGI ALF, which makes sense given all the problems involving the puppetry and the character’s creator throughout the ’80s sitcom’s run but which is still disappointing for those of us who liked the alien’s fuzzy presence on screen. Even then, maybe ALF fits more into the creature effect category.

Of course, even creature effects have rarely involved puppetry in decades thanks to CGI. Fans of practical over computer-based techniques are influencing a minor renaissance, however, and after suffering through a CGI Yoda and other characters in the Star Wars prequels it was refreshing to see a puppet alien next to J.J. Abrams in the first real look at the production of Star Wars: The Force Awakens early this year. And if there’s ever really another Gremlins movie, the uproar resulting if the monsters were created on a computer would be enormous. Other recent movies to use some puppetry, usually mixed in with CGI, include Prometheus, Transformers, Hellboy II: The Golden Army and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, the last mostly if we can consider animatronic effects as puppetry.

But I’m getting off topic there. Effects are one thing, puppets as characters is another, whether as part of a live-action movie or as an animation format. Why shouldn’t there be more puppet movies, in the way that various artists and studios are able to do stop-motion animation or claymation or traditional hand-drawn, which still hasn’t gone away thanks to multiple filmmakers still being interested in it? Where are all the puppeteers wanting to keep that art form going through cinema? Are they all depressed and working office jobs because the world doesn’t seem to like puppetry, a la John Cusack’s character in Being John Malkovich?

There’s the issue with the marionette style not allowing for as much escapism as most animation forms, due mainly to their being attached to strings. Outside of a silly thing like Team America, audiences would never buy into that on the big screen. Hand puppets and most full-bodied puppets, on the other hand, are today always going to be associated or mistaken for Muppets. Anything like an Avenue Q or Meet the Feebles (which doesn’t have interaction with people) is either seen as lampooning the Henson creations or infringing on their territory to the point that they’d have to provide a disclaimer of not being associated with The Jim Henson Company or face legal action if too similar.

Yet while there’s not much precedent to be found in the movies, the Muppets were and remain hardly the only puppet-based property of that kind. Since the dawn of television there have been things like Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Pinwheel, The Great Space Coaster, Today’s Special, Blue’s Clues, Lamb Chop’s Play-A-Long, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Eureeka’s Castle, Lazytown and so many more. Why can’t there be a movie of any of these or something similar that’s not based on something already existing?

Is it because it’s more accepted as a children’s television staple and not something we want in the more expensive entertainment format of the movies? The recent box office failure of the sort-of-puppet-based The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure — a somewhat original work only loosely adapted from the TV show My Bedbugs – may have been a bad sign for any other possibilities. It’s not just that the movie is awful, but the characters look kind of creepy. Could that be the case for almost any other puppet characters starring in their own movie in a real-world setting interacting with real people? Would the Muppets themselves be hard to accept by audiences of today were they not already familiar and beloved?

If anyone could make a great movie to exist alongside the Muppet movies, not as a competitor but as another, I’d bet Nina Conti could. She recently was a regular on the (sadly canceled) HBO series Family Tree, in which she had a puppet (her main one, “Monk,” from her performances) that accompanied her everywhere and often felt like another character (but in the story was just a puppet). Before that, the same puppet joined her in Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration. But it’s her documentary, Her Master’s Voice, that makes me most think she could do it, because she used her puppets in the film as occasional collaborators that sometimes seem to have lives of their own. Monk the puppet, for instance, often interviews Conti on camera in a way that makes him as genuine a character as any Muppet in a Muppet movie is.

And if not Conti, then I urge any young puppeteers out there to be the next/other Jim Henson we need. Especially if the actual Muppet movies continue to be of lesser quality than those made when Henson was still alive.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.