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Henson's Place: The Man Behind the Muppets DVD Review

Henson's Place: The Man Behind the Muppets DVD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Henson's Place: The Man Behind the Muppets (1984)
Special & DVD Details

Director: David A. Goldsmith / Writer/Producer: Joan Thirkettle / Narrator: Julia McKenzie

Interview Subjects: Jim Henson, Jane Henson, Michael Frith, Joan Ganz Cooney, Frank Oz, David Lazer, Lord Lew Grade, Jerry Juhl

Running Time: 52 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio) / Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish; Closed Captioned; Extra Not Subtitled
DVD Release Date: August 3, 2010 / Suggested Retail Price: $14.98
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5) / Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase

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If he was alive today, Jim Henson would be 73 years old. While it's easy to wonder how iconic James Dean and Elvis Presley would be as present-day septuagenarians, one doesn't suspect Henson's premature death factors much into his legend. No, Henson's genius status is strictly the product of his works, specifically those he gave us in the twenty years preceding his 1990 passing.
Once his unique brand of character-driven puppet comedy caught on, Henson took productivity to new heights and the entertainment world clearly hasn't been the same since.

Henson's Place: The Man Behind the Muppets is a documentary produced for British television. Made in 1984, it nearly encompasses Henson's entire career, but instead of his departure casting a pall over this one-hour special, we get to hear at length from the man himself at the height of his success.

Complementing Henson's revealing personal reflections are interviews with seven of his colleagues. His wife, Jane Henson (née Nebel), recalls their shared start on the 1950s 5-minute local Washington, D.C. TV series "Sam and Friends." Joan Ganz Cooney, a creator of "Sesame Street", shares that in the formative discussions of that landmark PBS program, it was decided that they'd either get Henson or not even bother incorporating puppetry. "Sesame Street", introduced at the end of 1969 (and, as you know, still being made to this day), is rightfully given a fair amount of attention. We learn about Big Bird's genesis and how odd couple roommates Ernie and Bert reflect aspects of their original performers, Henson and his right-hand man Frank Oz.

The late, great Jim Henson explains how he ended up in puppetry and children's entertainment, while a younger version of himself looks on from the wall. In this vintage photo, Jim Henson and future wife Jane Nebel have fun with a puppet on the set of "Sam and Friends."

From here, we obviously move to "The Muppet Show", the work that seems to most represent Henson's style and humor. The syndicated five-season variety show is given central focus. Like the earlier creations, this one is succinctly sampled, so that a well-chosen clip or montage conveys plenty for the unfortunate souls who may never have seen them. In addition to Henson and Oz's comments on characters, we get to learn a bit about the series' technical nature from writer Jerry Juhl, producer David Lazer, and Lord Lew Grade, the cigar-smoking British impresario who took a chance on the show after America's three major networks all passed.

Projects that occupied Henson's time after "The Muppet Show" signed off in 1981 are also given notice. The Muppets Take Manhattan, the gang's third and then newest theatrical outing, is touched upon and excerpted, with Kermit and Miss Piggy discussing the movie's rumored wedding ending. The film's two predecessors are also covered, especially the original Muppet Movie (complete with a clip of Kermit and Fozzie's barnyard camera tests that were included on Sony's DVD but not on Disney's subsequent rerelease).

As the cover art above suggests, two other 1980s Henson ventures enter the fray here. Mentions of The Dark Crystal surround its technical innovation (not its mind-numbing boringness). Livelier later production Labyrinth, then in development, is acknowledged in general terms along with some concept art. And the other cover property, the still popular "Fraggle Rock", is addressed for its values and intended global appeal. (Sorry, Elmo fans, despite his cover placement, he is understandably a no-show, being an unnamed extra at the time. Cookie Monster is also absent.)

"Sesame Street" creator Joan Ganz Cooney recalls Henson's contributions in front of a feathery Big Bird rendering. You can't discuss "The Muppet Show" without some clips of Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog.

Henson's Place is more serious and scholarly than the company's other documentary I recently reviewed, 1989's Bill Cosby-hosted Sesame Street: 20 Years...and Still Counting. It is also more informative, as it paints a broader picture of the Henson universe that it's hard to imagine anyone disliking.

A comment in the documentary compares Henson to Walt Disney for the endearing colorful characters created. It's an interesting comparison that bears thought.
(The Peanuts lover in me would also like to throw Charles Schulz's name into that discussion.) While Disney has the advantage in that he has come to stand for one of the world's largest and most beloved media corporations, Henson the man seems more responsible and individually influential for the artistic works bearing his name. Of course, nothing in Walt's forty-plus years of fantastic moguldom reached the public without his approval and input. But he stopped directing films in the 1930s, stopped voicing Mickey Mouse in the 1940s, and relied heavily on his brain trusts for feature film guidance while he turned his attention to the theme parks.

Right up to the end, Henson was there in the middle, directing movies and specials, with his hand in the script and also up the backs of Kermit the Frog, Ernie, Rowlf, The Swedish Chef, Waldorf, et al. His was a brilliant mind and though the many other brilliant minds with whom he collaborated (from Oz and Juhl to composer Paul Williams, Muppeteer Steve Whitmire and son Brian Henson) have kept the characters and spirit fairly alive, it's impossible not to notice that the magic and creative affluence that marked Henson's life work has never quite been recaptured.

We see how the pint-sized Doozers of "Fraggle Rock" are controlled by the lobster claw hands in the rear. Shelves of Muppet Stuff, a Lexington Avenue boutique shop full of exclusive Muppet merchandise open from 1980 to 1993, are seen as Henson describes how commercialism must be carefully tread.

VIDEO and AUDIO

DVD preserves the original design of Henson's Place, presenting it in 1.33:1 "fullscreen". Picture quality seems comparable to a lightly-used VHS (which may be better than what you remember it to be). The older clips employed exhibit some shortcomings (unidentified '60s kinescopes even more so than "Sam and Friends"), but even the 1984 interviews show some wear & tear (namely, scratches and debris) while lacking the sharpness and clarity we might expect of their contemporary TV programs. When you remember that this was a mere one-off documentary, produced on its own for a presumably meager budget, you're likely not to be disappointed with the presentation quality.

The two-channel monaural soundtrack inspires a similar reaction as the picture. There is no reason to wish or expect the audio to be more robust or less dated. It is as passable as the video and with less to specifically lament. And, though speech remains audible and intelligible throughout, the DVD kindly provides English closed captions along with English and Spanish subtitles.

Baby pictures of Muppets and their performers pose an identification challenge in Henson Associates' premiere company yearbook, the 1985-86 Amphibian. Big Bird's sharing of Doritos with creator Jim Henson looks poignant as filtered on the DVD's animated main menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

There is only one real bonus feature, but it's kind of a nifty one. Henson's colleague Michael Frith,
a "Fraggle Rock" designer, Muppet consultant and Henson's Place interview subject, talks over video paging through The Amphibian, Henson Associates' 1985-86 yearbook. After seven minutes of that, we get a complete look at the publication, set to music. While you'll almost certainly choose to fast-forward through the sluggish 22 minutes of zooms and pans, doing so still provides looks at the many people behind beloved and obscure '80s works and the sense of fun they brought to "Henson High."

"Also from Lionsgate" supplies the same two trailers that play at disc insertion, for Alpha and Omega and The Spy Next Door.

The DVD's 16:9 animated main menu coolly plays clips among character stills and concept art.

Thirty years of wearing furry things on his hand hasn't diminished Henson's joy of puppetry. The large group "Rainbow Connection" reprise which closes "The Muppet Movie" makes for a fitting end here as well.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Henson's Place seems like it would be easier to appreciate as a bonus feature on a "Muppet Show" season DVD, but then two years have passed since our last of those and who knows what it would take for the separate studios to agree on leasing terms. As is, the documentary may feel lonely on its own disc and a little pricey when you can get one of Henson's movies for about as much. But this is a wonderful celebration, not only of "The Man Behind the Muppets" but of the various Muppets themselves and some of the other men and women who have helped bring them to life for decades. For any fan of Jim Henson's fare, I recommend seeing this special and Lionsgate's DVD is now clearly the best way to do that.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

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Related Reviews:
New: Sesame Street: 20 Years...and Still Counting! • A Town Called Panic • Jim Henson's Dog City: The Movie • Diary of a Wimpy Kid
The Muppet Movie • The Great Muppet Caper • The Muppet Christmas Carol • Muppet Treasure Island (Kermit's 50th Anniversary Editions)
The Muppet Show: Season One • The Muppet Show: Season Two • The Muppet Show: Season Three
The Dark Crystal • Labyrinth • Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird (Anniversary Editions)
A Muppet Christmas: Letters to Santa • The Muppets' Wizard of Oz • The Chipmunks: Rockin' Through the Decades
Walt: The Man Behind the Myth • Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse • Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures
Dinosaurs: The Complete First and Second Seasons • Dinosaurs: The Complete Third and Fourth Seasons • The Jeff Dunham Show

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Reviewed July 28, 2010.



Text copyright 2010 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1984 Platypus Productions for S4C and 2010 Lionsgate Home Entertainment and The Jim Henson Company.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.