Modern Puppet Movies

Puppets have been around as long as people have, and while I have no proof to back up that claim, I think it’s safe to say that our ancestors were playing with puppets from the very first time one of them shoved their hand into a mammoth’s recently slurped duodenum. Even Neanderthals enjoyed a good night out with dinner and a show. The obvious fun of talking with your hands continued through the years and cultures, and when cinema reared its newborn head in the early 20th century, it came complete with hands working everything from traditional puppets to marionettes controlled via strings.

They showed up as creatures and non-human characters alike, but the shift towards “walking” and talking puppet characters saw the move from the big screen to the small with popular shows like Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds and Jim Henson’s The Muppets revealing creativity and ingenuity in bringing them to life as characters in their own right. Both of those series eventually found their way back to the big screen, but while Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) featured an all-puppet cast of characters, 1979’s The Muppet Movie imagined a world where both puppets and people co-exist as full-fledged characters engaging in conversation and shared lives. Sesame Street had already been doing it on TV for a decade by that point, but movie-wise, this was one of the first big examples of puppets as full characters alongside human counterparts.

That’s the somewhat-dormant niche that this week’s The Happytime Murders is looking to fill – it’s even directed by Henson’s son Brian – as an R-rated buddy cop (human/puppet) movie about a killer targeting a Muppets-like troupe of puppet performers. It looks, in theory at least, like a blend of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Robert Rankin’s The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse (which if you haven’t read you really, really should). We’ll find out soon enough if it’s even worth mentioning alongside those two classics, but for now let’s get our hands dirty with a look at the relatively few movies featuring the co-mingling of people and puppets in an unholy union of flesh and felt.

Speaking of an unholy union, we’ll start by shaking our heads in unison over the existence of 1976’s Let My Puppets Come which is exactly what you’re probably fearing it to be – a porno featuring puppet on puppet action that grows to include humans. It’s mostly puppets with names like Clark Gobble and Clitoris Leachman talking, cracking jokes, and exploring each other’s fabric resiliency, but in addition to Screw Magazine publisher Al Goldstein getting oral from a puppet (which I guess makes it a hand job?) we’re also treated to a few more interactions between the species. Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano helmed this overly long excursion into inappropriate “humor” which admittedly delivers a couple snickers in between musical numbers, fake commercials, and mob-related plot, but if you can only watch one movie featuring puppet sex scenes, I’d still recommend all 200 minutes of a human-free Meet the Feebles (1989) and Team America: World Police (2004) double feature instead.

The ’80s saw puppet characters with dialogue and depth go mainstream, but while E.T. could mutter a few words and the Gremlins were hooked on phonics, the decade’s biggest and most talkative puppet success has to be Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Not only did his words of wisdom become eminently quotable throughout pop culture, but Frank Oz’s masterful puppetry (along with his voice work) helped make the 900-year-old Jedi master a living, breathing character whose vitality, humor, and eventual death (in Return of the Jedi, 1983) affected millions. The Star Wars prequels saw him rendered via CG, but he returned triumphantly in puppet form in last year’s not-at-all divisive The Last Jedi.

1982’s The Dark Crystal is an all-time favorite of mine, but as there are no humans in it we’ll jump ahead to 1984’s The NeverEnding Story which saw a fantasy book come to life with a pair of human heroes fighting alongside a beautifully realized collection of puppet characters as both friends and foes. From the legitimately terrifying Gmork to the dorky luck dragon Falkor, the creatures become every bit a part of the character fabric as young Bastian and Atreyu. Sure it’s the horse Artex whose descent into literal depression hits us hardest, but all of these characters, whether flesh or fur, become equally real in our eyes.

1986, meanwhile, saw a pretty diverse double shot of puppet wonder. Little Shop of Horrors had previously hit the screen back in 1960, but while Roger Corman’s film featured the most basic of puppets to bring its carnivorous alien plant to life, this new version upped the effects ante in every way. Frank Oz stepped behind the camera to direct the film, but Audrey II was in great hands as a team of talented puppeteers do some stunning work with its motions, expressions, and lips synched to dialogue. It’s especially complicated by both its size and the requirement that Audrey II sing a few songs, but the result is brilliantly realized and something CG could never replicate. Animation has its place, but its yet to match the tangible nature of practical effects and puppetry.

Jim Henson himself helmed 1986’s Labyrinth, and while it was a bust at the box office and pushed him away from feature films (he died four years later), it’s become a definitive cult classic for girls and young women everywhere. Credit David Bowie’s Goblin King for that, but you can’t discount the puppet work as young Jennifer Connelly enters a magical world in search of her baby brother. From a small worm to a large, hairy beast named Ludo, the magicians at Henson’s puppetorium created numerous characters to accost, challenge, and befriend our teenaged heroine, and they succeed in building a world teeming with life both unfamiliar and strange. The Fireys are also fairly memorable for the nightmare fuel of their song and dance number, complete with detachable limbs, eyeballs, and heads.

While most of the films here were aimed at a family audience – I did say most – 1988’s Child’s Play took a different tact and began a 30-year franchise in the process. Horror movies often feature human killers or monsters, but Chucky is a perfect hybrid of the two both in character and in practice. He talks a lot (via Brad Dourif’s voice), usually to people he’s about to kill, and his doll-like size means no human can play him (outside of a couple wide shots). Instead, he’s a series of puppets, some used for walking scenes, others for closeups, and still others for stunts. I’ve never found him scary (he’s too small to be frightening and yet too big to really hide from you), but I’ve always marveled at the effects work and puppetry used to make him feel so damn real.

Sesame Street has shipped their characters to the big screen a couple of times too starting with Follow That Bird (1985). Big Bird (a performer in a suit with a puppet head) is assigned to a new family from which he promptly runs away, and as he tries making his way across the country, his friends from Sesame Street, both human and puppet, hit the road to find him before he lands in a sleazy carnival freak show. Part comedy, part road movie, part heartwarming singalong, the film translated the show’s personality and cast to theaters in comfortable fashion. The fun tried to continue a long 14 years later with The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999) which saw the little red guy square off against Mandy Patinkin in the lowest-grossing Muppet-related movie to date. It was a pretty steep fall for Elmo who, just three years prior, was laughing all the way to the bank as the most sought-after toy of the 1996 holiday season.

Through the years, the Muppets are the rare constant in the relatively small world of movies starring both human and puppet characters. Kermit and friends saw seven more films ranging from the highs of The Great Muppet Caper (1981) to forgettably harmless Muppets Most Wanted (2014), and while their recent resurgence has already faded away, the knowledge that they’re a Disney property means they’ll be back again at some point down the road. Disney won’t let any of the cash cows die when they can instead just wait in the shadows for the opportunity to target the next generation of media-obsessed child consumers. (No, you’re cynical about Disney owning every pop culture property under the sun.)

That brings us back full circle to Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders. Todd Berger’s script has been floating around for a decade now after landing a coveted spot on The Blacklist back in 2008, but here’s hoping the delay speaks more to the difficulty of executing the concept than to the resulting quality of the laughs. Regardless, there may not be a lot of movies where humans and puppets interact like equals, but there are still some great ones that impress as much today as they did when they first hit theaters. The films above aren’t a complete list, of course, but they’re hopefully enough to renew your excitement in the fading art form of movie puppetry.

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