“That’s what I like! Little people hitting each other!”, well so says Napoleon Bonaparte, as played by Ian Holms in the film Time Bandits. He’s watching a puppet show as a battle is raging all around him. It’s my dad’s favourite line, and one of his favourite films too. I agree, it’s wonderfully imaginative but I’m not here to talk about that, I’m here to talk about something else that both Ian Holm’s Napoleon and I are very fond of – puppets!
I have already mentioned in this blog how much I love the film Labyrinth. However my love for puppets goes far beyond that. Recently I have entertained my adorable niece and nephew with this little chap called Biggles.
He’s a very naughty bear, and one who works with me regularly as part of Froggle Parties. Kids are enchanted by him. I quite proud how easily I can get my 6 month nephew to giggle with delight at Biggles, while my niece always seems to ask for him to come and say hello; after which she proceeds to stuff his face with pretend food and tickle him. Even though she can clearly see my arm inserted up his backside she is still enthralled by the magic of puppetry. I’m no expert either.
I just love puppets. I guess I turn into some kind of overgrown child when I see them. I was utterly delighted by the tiny alien mechanic in the most recent Star Wars movie. You know the peculiar looking one who tinkers with C-3PO’s memory. Babu Frik? No? Maybe that’s just me then. I guess most people tend to get more distracted by all the lightsabers and X-wings in these sorts of films.
I don’t really know where it all stems from either. From as early as I can remember I’ve loved the things – whether it was Sooty and Sweep, the Muppets, or Button Moon. They have always been charming entities that bring a little bit of magic to our own world. Whenever you see Kermit or Elmo on TV you don’t think of the performer controlling them but rather the character itself, as if they’re real celebrities. The whole world brightens around them and, much like Santa Claus, you don’t mention to kids their secrets, instead you let them thrive in delight with them. Puppets are a magical part of childhood. Maybe that’s why I enjoy them so much, because I’m still very much a child at heart. But are puppets just for kids and those that share their charm and silliness?
I can’t talk too much about this subject without talking about the Jim Henson company. Of course there are many great puppeteers out there who are not affiliated with this company, but seen as most of my experience is with their products it’s going to be about them that I talk the most. Their company has mastered this art. They have so many different types of puppets and so many different techniques and tricks they use to achieve things, most of which are still a mystery to me. Part of watching muppet’s films nowadays is staring in wonder at how they managed to achieve some of the things they do. For example in Muppet’s Treasure Island (the best cinematic Treasure Island) Mr Arrow (aka Sam the Eagle) sits in a lifeboat surrounded by water. He’s moved in real-time and there is very real water around him. In fact it surrounds the whole boat. That means that there is actually a puppeteer positioned underneath or within the boat with their hand raised up through it and into Sam the Eagle. Not a comfortable position. I expect they aren’t in full scuba gear either, not for such a passing shot anyway surely? Of course you can’t think of the mastery of puppets without thinking of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. Many people seem to forget it but this was revolutionary for the time. A whole purposely built set was made for him. Not only that but he is a very early example of a realistic looking/non muppet looking puppet. Of course we might look back at him and how he moves and chortle, but that truly was ground breaking at the time. There’s a reason people seem to prefer puppet Yoda to CGI Yoda. It has more life maybe? Or maybe people deep down just really like a good puppet?
That leads us nicely onto my new favourite puppet production – Dark Crystal. If it wasn’t for Yoda and the work they did on Dagobah there would have been none of it. I have only recently gotten into it and it's magical lore with the Age of Resistance series. I think I’m lucky not to have been introduced to the film when I was little. It’s meant to be a kids film, but those Skeksis are truly terrifying. A little Jon would have run out the room, I could barely handle Marley and Marley in Muppet’s Christmas Carol. The ghost of Christmas yet to come was fine. My wife doesn't like them, and though she doesn’t mind the series being on in the background, she’ll completely ignore it whenever a Skeksis turns up and does something horrible. I first properly watched the original film after I finished the series, and though I do love it I must admit it’s not a great film. The pacing is slow and plodding, the heroes rather dull, the dialogue somewhat stilted and fragmented. It sort of feels like the War and Peace or the Silmarillion– there’s great stuff there and plenty of depth, but at times it feels like you have to wade through treacle trying to get to the best bits. I spend most of the time watching just waiting for the Skeksis to turn up on screen again. As you can probably guess they are my favourite part of the Dark Crystal World, in fact I spent most of the series worrying about their well-being. Don’t worry my favourite Skeksis is the nice one - I’m not that evil! What makes the film enchanting though is the wonderfully imaginative and unique lore and world they create, as well as the fantastic puppetry. You just have to look at how the mystics were controlled or the amount of training they had to do just to get them to walk to understand how much artistry it required. The Skeksis are incredibly heavy and require two people to properly operate. To explain how they work well, they basically function like evil Big Birds! If you want to know more I really recommend you check out the Making of documentary on Netflix – it’s brilliant. With the Skeksis the main puppeteer is covered in thick fabric and heavy machinery. Inside they are essentially blind save for a monitor strapped to their chest , that’s even more weight, and one arm is stretched upwards so a hand can operate the mouth too. Imagine how tiring that must get? It’s something I would love to do. I may half boil to death but it would be a dream come true to operate a Skeksis for a day. Have I mentioned I like the Skeksis? In fact they’re the only type of Pop Vinyls I want to own. At the moment I only have one and he is kept company by my Max Rebo and my wife’s Unicorn Pusheen.
Anyway as I was saying, it is the series that I think is the best part of the Dark Crystal creative universe. There is a lot of reading material, both books and graphic novels, that is out there. I haven’t read any of it yet, but I probably will venture in that direction someday soon. The majority is YA so I will probably find some inspiration within them. The Netflix series brings all of the great puppetry work, the lore, and world building that were great in the film, but ties it in with some brilliant storytelling, character work, and directing. I even found myself loving the Gelflings too, who in the film sometimes seemed to have the emotional range of C-3PO on low power mode. Hup the Podling and the Heretic are my favourite characters, where before my favourites were all Skeksis (I know, blasphemy!). As you can probably guess, I would really recommend it, especially if you’re a big puppetry and fantasy fan. Go on! Boot up Netflix and put it on. When you need a little break you can always read a bit of my book. (Such a subtle plug – link found below of course)
The thing with this series is that it is not necessarily aimed at kids. Rather it’s aimed at that those who love fantasy and who maybe want to find something different from the almost endless Game of Thrones style dark, low magic, fantasy media you’re finding at the moment. Who knows, maybe puppets and fantasy will go back in vogue. But what it does show is that puppets aren’t just a thing for kids. You can love them whatever age you are. So come on, don’t spend all your time grumpy trying to be an adult, be more Ian Holmes’ Napoleon in Time Bandits. Sometimes it’s these silly little things that can do the world of good.
With that it’s bye for now. I’ll be back soon.