“This place is weird”: Jim Henson’s Liminal Films for Children and Adults

At the height of his fame, Jim Henson delivered two films that deviated from his renowned Muppets and Fraggle Rock franchises. The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) hint at where Henson could have taken puppetry had he lived longer. They represent the best of Henson’s fantasy world-building, beautifully crafted scenery, and, mastery of the puppet arts. More than thirty years later, revisiting these films produces two insights. The self-evident one is that they withstand the test of time; still heavy, haunting, and Homeric in the case of The Dark Crystal, while Labyrinth remains charged, comical, and campy. The lesser realized truth is that both films are hallmarks of a storytelling that sought to strike a balance between adult and child audiences, challenging adult notions about certain forms of entertainment.

The Dark Crystal follows the epic quest of the young elf-like gelfling (a puppet) named Jen and the friends he makes along the way from the Valley of the Mystics to the desolate castle of the Skeksis to heal the Dark Crystal and bring peace to a decaying world. Visually delightful and chock full of puppet special effects, the film seems perfect for the family. Yet, within the first fifteen minutes, viewers encounter a dying planet, Jen’s adopted father fading into starlight as he dies, and the slightly-deranged Skeksis emperor crumbling away. Jen also learns that the Skeksis killed his parents and now are hunting him. In a following scene the Skeksis strip one of their own of his clothes after he loses a bid for the throne and banish him, resembling Cersei’s walk of shame in Game of Thrones.

Inhabited by the Garthim, giant beetle creatures, the zombie-looking Podlings, and the Skeksis who caw and cackle like talking vultures, The Dark Crystal feels much more nightmarish than Labyrinth. While beauty remains in this world, illustrated by the montage of Jen travelling the Valley of the Mystics, much of it is spoiled by the Skeksis machinations. The Dark Crystal is bleak, filled with the trauma of murdered parents for both Jen, the soul-crushing enslavement of the Podlings, and the Skeksis’ ruthless genocide of the gelflings; all told with puppets but no less heart wrenching.

Henson’s work on The Dark Crystal leaves the viewer feeling emotionally spent and contemplating the strife and violence of life while Labyrinth generates such a fantastically queer aesthetic that viewers don’t whether to get up and dance, laugh, or feel uncomfortable. While the story focuses on Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) wishing her baby brother Toby away to the realm of the Goblin King and then going to rescue him, her adventures through the kingdom feature odd moments. Humans and puppets alike break out into song and dance at times. The bird-like Fireys disassemble and reassemble their bodies as they please. Subterranean pits contain talking hands that grab hold of Sarah and speak to her. Sarah must chase the Goblin King (David Bowie) through an Escher-like castle, only to encounter Toby sitting on the ceiling. This bizarre encounters create a disorienting experience for children and adults alike.

Then, there is Jareth, the Goblin King played by the almighty Bowie, with his tight-clinging pants, magical glass balls that he constantly fondles, and odd pursuit of human babies and teenage girls. Simultaneously, he fits in and stands out from this peculiar kingdom. His obsessions with Sarah (“Just fear me, love me, and do as I say, and I will be your slave.”) while simultaneously plotting her demise reads like an abusive relationship and his desire for Toby, as his heir apparent, feels at odds with his willingness to throw the child around like a football. Then, of course, there’s the fact that Toby, the personification of innocence, seems often at ease in and delighted in this chaotic world – more so than at his actual home.

Yet, the scene that never ceases to amaze me in this PG-rated film, is the introduction of Hoggle, the dwarf (For this essay, we’ll put aside how he is depicted: a name that sounds like “haggle”, a large-nosed mercenary character who strikes bargains, obsesses about jewels, and gasses fairies). Shot from Sarah’s point of view, Hoggle stands with his back to her on a well, urinating into it. If nothing else convinces one that there’s more going on this film, this scene should stand out: a teenage girl encountering an adult male taking a leisurely piss before resuming his work of death-spraying fairies. I cannot recall any TV show or movie in the 1980s or prior geared towards children that included a toilet in the bathroom, never mind someone actively using it. In this way, Labyrinth seems obsessed with bodies from Bowie’s singing and dancing to Hoggle’s toilet break to the Fireys to the Bog of Eternal Stench, which can make anyone who touches it, eternally smelly.

If Labyrinth is libidinous and bodily, then The Dark Crystal is the brooding and bitter counterpart. The world of Labyrinth revels in double-meanings and sexual overtures while The Dark Crystal offers shards of hope in a brutal world. While they may be inexorably tied to children’s entertainment, they still remain tales that will leave adults ruminating years later.

Since Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, TV and film alike have sought to create entertainment that balances the interests of children and adults. Shows like The Simpsons and King of the Hill and films like Shrek and The Incredibles appear in what was considered a children’s art form (animation), but make intentional attempts to keep adults engaged. This style appears to be a central theme in Tim Burton’s work with films that display a queer aesthetic (Peewee’s Big Adventure), fixate on death (Frankenweenie) or uncomfortable and surreal children’s stories (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Creators such as Guillermo del Toro, Neil Gaiman, and Hayao Miyazaki also thrive in this space. In this way, it appears that Henson’s work primed entire networks and platforms to reconsider exactly what we children’s and adult-oriented entertainment. Whether it’s adult animation on Cartoon Network or the rise of mature cartoons such as Bojack Horseman and Love, Death and Robots on Netflix, they are part of the tapestry whose threads intersect repeatedly The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

Lance Eaton (@leaton01) is an Instructional Designer at Brandeis University, a doctoral student at UMASS Boston, and a part-time college instructor on subjects such as literature, history, popular culture, comics, and film. He reviews audiobooks and graphic novels for publications such as Audiofile Magazine and Publishers Weekly and his musings can be found at http://www.ByAnyOtherNerd.com.
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