Total Recall

Jim Henson's 11 Best Movies

With Muppets Most Wanted hitting theaters, we take a look at the films of The Jim Henson Company, the folks behind The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock.

by | March 20, 2014 | Comments

Jim Henson MoviesMuppets Most Wanted isn’t the only movie opening this week — but it might as well be, at least for a generation of filmgoers who grew up watching Kermit and his pals on The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and at the movies. In honor of all this Muppet love, we decided to spend this week’s Total Recall paying tribute to the guy who brought them to life way back in the 1950s — writer, director, performer, and puppeteer Jim Henson — and, in particular, the studio he founded. Although his role fluctuated from film to film, Henson’s presence can be solidly felt in every Muppet-related movie — even the ones made after his untimely death in 1990 — and together, they form an enduring tribute to the power of imagination. Let’s play the music, let’s light the lights… it’s time for Total Recall!


11. Muppets from Space

Kermit is a frog, Fozzie is a bear, Rowlf is a dog, and Gonzo is a… well, for a long time, nobody seemed to know what he was, really. The mystery was solved with 1999’s Muppets from Space, in which it’s revealed that he’s actually an alien from a distant planet — one whose residents all look like him. Happily, after a suitably madcap plot involving a government agency led by Jeffrey Tambor, Gonzo ended up deciding to stay here on Earth — and although Muppets from Space never took flight at the box office, grossing a disappointing $16.6 million, it enjoyed support from critics like Philip Booth of the Orlando Weekly, who called it “a silly romp that may be just as fun for the younger set as it is for anyone with a nostalgic craving for the antics of the sophisticated puppets.”


10. Labyrinth

After the relative failure of his first non-Muppets feature, 1982’s The Dark Crystal, Henson went all in for his follow-up, enlisting a crew of screenwriting pros (including Elaine May and Monty Python’s Terry Jones), casting David Bowie as the main antagonist, and crafting a sprawling mythology filled with danger, mystery, and fantastical creatures. Unfortunately, all that effort didn’t translate into box office results for Labyrinth, which was lost in a sea of blockbusters and rather lukewarm reviews during its theatrical run; sadly, it ended up being the last film Henson would direct before his untimely death four years later. Still, like so many of Henson’s other works, Labyrinth has acquired a cult following since its release, inspiring everything from a manga trilogy to an annual two-day masquerade ball in its honor — all richly deserved, according to Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who called it “An innovative mix of sophisticated puppetry and special effects” and wrote, “Labyrinth has all the components of classic myth.”


9. The Muppet Christmas Carol

The early 1990s were not kind to the Muppet kingdom, claiming puppeteer Richard Hunt (who played Scooter and Beaker, among others, and died in 1992) and Jim Henson, whose shocking pneumonia-related death in 1990 cast a shadow over the company that bears his name — one that, in many ways, still remains. Henson’s daughter Lisa and son Brian assumed the burden of their father’s legacy, and it’s to their immense credit that The Muppet Christmas Carol, released only two years after Jim Henson’s funeral, managed to retain so much of his spirit. Though the Muppets took a back seat to a human cast led by Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge, Muppet Christmas offered plenty of vintage franchise humor to liven up what was, at its base, a fairly faithful adaptation of the classic story. “There’s no great show of wit or tunefulness here, and the ingenious cross-generational touches are fairly rare,” admitted Janet Maslin of the New York Times. “But there is a lively kiddie version of the Dickens tale, one that very young viewers ought to understand.”


8. Muppet Treasure Island

Four years after adapting Dickens with The Muppet Christmas Carol, the gang gave Robert Louis Stevenson the same treatment with Muppet Treasure Island, in which a crew of familiar human faces (led by Tim Curry, Jennifer Saunders, and Billy Connolly) sets sail for high adventure on the Muppet seas. Though far less Muppet-centric than the original trilogy, Treasure Island still made room for plenty of fan favorites, including Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Sweetums, Lew Zealand, the Swedish Chef, Dr. Teeth, and — of course — Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Rowlf, and Gonzo. A modest success at the box office, Treasure Island built on the Muppet comeback started with Christmas Carol while earning positive notices from critics like Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today, who wrote, “Geena Davis and Renny Harlin couldn’t cut it with Cutthroat Island. Steven Spielberg nearly got the hook for Hook. But leave it to Miss Piggy and Kermit to discover uncharted gold in the shipwrecked-pirate genre.”


7. The Dark Crystal

Despite often being thought of as kids’ stuff, Henson envisioned the Muppets as entertainment for everybody, and his interests were always more varied — and far less mainstream — than many people realized. With 1982’s The Dark Crystal, Henson started pushing the boundaries of puppetry harder than ever, both thematically and technically; it’s a grim, sometimes legitimately frightening fantasy that required a seamless blend of new technology and grueling old-school techniques. Though it ended up being a bit of a confusing turn-off for a large portion of Henson’s Muppet-loving fanbase, and its performance at the box office was stunted by the runaway success of E.T., it’s acquired a devoted cult following over the years; as Gregory Weinkauf argued for the New Times, it “Immerses us in a familiar yet utterly unique world that’s deeper, wider and more vibrantly alive than any mere puppetry.”


6. The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland

It took the Sesame Street gang nearly 15 years to make their way back to the big screen after Follow That Bird, but when they finally ended their theatrical drought, they did it in style: The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland unites the considerable talents of its adorable furry red star with one of the most over the top performances of Mandy Patinkin’s entire career. Starring as Huxley, the selfish scourge of Grouchland, Patinkin was given free rein to ham it up to his heart’s content — not to mention deliver a few show-stopping musical numbers. “Gary Halvorson’s interactive film strikes a pleasing balance of self-reflexive irreverence and inspired whimsy that’s shown to best advantage in the lesson-laced musical numbers,” wrote Alicia Potter for the Boston Phoenix. “Elmo and his trusty blanket, it seems, have everything covered.”


5. The Great Muppet Caper

By the early 1980s, Jim Henson found himself steering a budding media empire: between the massive success of The Muppet Movie, the high-rated The Muppet Show, and continuing praise for Sesame Street, demand for his creations was at an all-time high. The next step, naturally, was a Muppet Movie sequel, which found Henson directing a feature film for the first time — a suitably madcap comedy involving a pair of twin reporters (Kermit and, uh, Fozzie), a jewel thief (Charles Grodin), and the innocent pig framed for his crimes (Miss Piggy, of course). Though The Great Muppet Caper didn’t come anywhere near its predecessor’s $273 million gross, it passed muster with critics like Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who wrote, “The movie contains several more cheery, Disneyesque songs than are necessary, but they are made tolerable by the presence of Kermit and Miss Piggy.”


4. The Muppets Take Manhattan

The Muppets’ third big-screen adventure was a film of milestones, both happy (it introduced the Muppet Babies, and marked the solo directorial debut of Frank Oz) and sad (it ended up being the final Muppet movie before Jim Henson’s untimely death in 1990). But in many respects, it held to the formula established by the first two movies — a madcap adventure (in this case, a last-ditch effort to pull off a variety show) assisted by a huge group of human stars (including Dabney Coleman, Elliott Gould, Brooke Shields, Joan Rivers, and Gregory Hines). In other words, The Muppets Take Manhattan gave Muppets fans exactly what they were looking for: as the Chicago Reader’s Reece Pendleton wrote, “The movie is breezily fun and every bit as entertaining as its predecessors.”


3. The Muppet Movie

The Muppets made their first journey to the big screen in style, telling their origin story (or, in Kermit’s words, “sort of approximately how it happened”) with a classic Paul Williams soundtrack and an all-star cast that included Charles Durning, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, 1970s movie mainstay Dom DeLuise, and Orson Welles. That’s a lot of star wattage for a movie unquestionably toplined by puppets, but The Muppet Movie wasn’t kid stuff; it presented a family-friendly blend of sweet-natured drama and sharp, often surprisingly sophisticated humor. Observed Jeffrey M. Anderson for Combustible Celluloid, “Not only was The Muppet Movie a great children’s movie in 1979, one that viewers of all ages could enjoy, but it’s still a great children’s movie today.”


2. Follow That Bird

To his immense credit, Henson was never shy about using his creations to explore sensitive themes — even on Sesame Street, which broke television barriers with the way it handled the death of Mr. Hooper in 1983. That tradition was upheld with the first Sesame Street movie, Follow That Bird, in which Big Bird is sent to live with a family of dodos after a social worker decides he needs to be with his own kind — and then he runs away from his new home, inspiring his old friends to mount a cross-country road trip in search of the big yellow fella. Part broad comedy, part heartfelt examination of what it means to be a family, Bird was a surprising disappointment at the box office, where it grossed a mere $13.9 million, but it’s become something of a cult favorite on DVD — and it was always a hit with critics like Walter Goodman of the New York Times, who wrote, “By and large, the script by Tony Geiss and Judy Freudberg and the direction by Ken Kwapis don’t strain for yuks; what they seek, and more often than not attain, is a tone of kindly kidding.”


1. The Muppets

With a tidal wave of nostalgia and years of pent-up Muppet demand hanging over it, 2011’s Jason Segel-led The Muppets had a lot to live up to; fortunately, Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller knew exactly how to draw from the characters’ history while bringing them fully into the present — and giving grown-up Muppets fans a handful of sweet new memories in the bargain. Full of all the songs, celebrity cameos, and wacky humor we’ve come to expect from Kermit and the gang, The Muppets was the Muppet movie many filmgoers had given up hope of seeing — it may even have gotten a little dusty in the theater for critics like the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, who applauded, “The chorus of one of the songs declares, ‘I’ve got everything that I need, right in front of me.’ For 120 minutes, that’s precisely how I felt.”

In case you were wondering, here are Brolin’s top 10 movies according to RT users’ scores:

1. The Muppet Movie — 88%
2. Labyrinth — 86%
3. The Muppet Christmas Carol — 86%
4. The Dark Crystal — 81%
5. The Muppets — 80%
6. The Great Muppet Caper — 79%
7. Muppet Treasure Island — 77%
8. The Muppets Take Manhattan — 76%
9. Follow that Bird — 71%
10. The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland — 64%
11. Muppets From Space — 60%

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Muppets Most Wanted.

Finally, here’s one of Kermit the Frog’s earliest appearences, on Henson’s TV show Sam and Friends in 1959:

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