How Labyrinth Led To Jim Henson Making Animatronic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Puppets and Jim Henson go together like strings and a marionette. It's basically impossible to talk about puppeteering without turning the conversation back to Henson at some point. Though he passed away in 1990, Henson's legacy lives on through his company, as well as his Creature Shop which continues to create fantastic puppetry for television and film to this day. In fact, it is this very Creature Shop that helped create the magnificent costumes and puppets used in Steve Barron's 1990 hit "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." 

But convincing Henson to take on such a specific project wasn't that easy. Producers for "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" were having a hard time getting anyone in Hollywood to take their idea of turning an underground comic book about four teenage mutant ninja turtles (there's really no other way to say it) into a movie, but when they eventually did, they still didn't have a lot of funds in the bank to work with. Hiring Henson would be expensive and near impossible, except for the fact that an unlikely connection existed between the producers for "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," Barron, and the delightful cult classic, "Labyrinth."

The babes with the power

Henson's many projects included the delightful, Emmy winning television show, "The StoryTeller." The show turned famous folk tales into enchanting 20-minute stories, complete with all the Henson puppetry goodness a person could ask for. John Hurt appeared in the series as the man telling the tales to viewers (and to his dog, Pudelpointer) while they sit around a campfire. Steve Barron directed a handful of "The StoryTeller" episodes for Henson, and the two got to know each other because of this. In an oral history with The Hollywood Reporter, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" producer Simon Fields recalls how "Henson loved Steve." 

But Henson and Barron's mutual affections for one another weren't the only reason why the Creature Shop eventually agreed to take on the Turtles. Fields worked for Limelight, which was a UK-based company that had recently done work with Henson and David Bowie for the movie "Labyrinth." Both of these connections led to Henson seriously considering taking on the heroes in a half shell. However, he still had a handful of concerns.

Convincing a master

When discussion began about who the filmmakers could get to make the elaborate costumes for "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," Barron and producer Simon Fields both suggested Jim Henson. Tom Gray who was the head executive of Golden Harvest (the company that initially agreed to take on the Turtles) balked at this idea. He tells The Hollywood Reporter, "I said, "Oh my God, we can't afford Jim Henson, for God's sake!"" However, Barron was pretty convinced that because of his good rapport with Henson, he might be able to figure out a way to make it happen.

Ultimately, he did convince the famous puppet master to take on the project, but he first had to assure Henson that the film was going to be in good taste. "I showed him the comic book, and it was very violent. It had a lot of blood on the page. He wasn't sure whether he'd have the Creature Shop involved," explains Barron. "In the end, he very sweetly agreed to do it, because I'd convinced him that the tone was going to come from a good place, and that it wouldn't damage his legacy."  

Henson unexpectedly passed away only a few months after "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" released in theaters, but the Creature Shop's work in bringing the Turtles and their world to life certainly lives on to this day. "The Creature Shop had never lent their name to an outside project, and I don't think they did again," explains Fields. Thankfully, because of some unlikely connections, Henson allowed for it to happen just this once.