Advertisement

Lisa Henson: 'Dark Crystal,' 'Labyrinth' puppets inspired Yoda, 'Five Nights'

Jen (L) and Kira are the Gelfling heroes of "The Dark Crystal." Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company
Jen (L) and Kira are the Gelfling heroes of "The Dark Crystal." Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Lisa Henson said the puppetry work by her father, Jim Henson, on films like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth paved the way for film creatures from Yoda in Star Wars sequels to last year's Five Nights at Freddy's film.

The Henson films are available digitally in 4K UHD on Tuesday from Shout! Studios.

Lisa Henson said that while her father was developing animatronics for The Dark Crystal, he shared them with George Lucas, who was developing his Star Wars sequel, in which Yoda first appeared in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back.

Those animatronics were operated by Henson veteran Frank Oz, before The Dark Crystal was completed in 1982. Animatronics combine electronic controls with handheld puppetry.

"The Yoda technology is synchronous with Dark Crystal technology," Lisa Henson told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. "Every bit of animatronics in the '80s and '90s derives from what was developed by the artists and engineers of Dark Crystal."

Jareth (David Bowie) holds Toby (Toby Froud) in his goblin kingdom. Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company
Jareth (David Bowie) holds Toby (Toby Froud) in his goblin kingdom. Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company

The Dark Crystal was Jim Henson's first attempt to create a fantasy world entirely of puppetry. Heroic Gelflings try to recover a piece of a magic crystal to save their planet from evil Skeksis.

Though computer-generated creatures have become more common in newer films, Lisa Henson said the Henson Company still applied Jim Henson's classic techniques for the characters in Five Nights at Freddy's. The creatures in that film are possessed animatronic characters of an old pizza parlor.

Hoggle (L) helps Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) through the labyrinth. Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company
Hoggle (L) helps Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) through the labyrinth. Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company

"That's a real retro thing harkening back to that period," Lisa Henson said. "There's nothing quite like the puppets that are really really built and shot versus. a CG character."

Jim Henson continued to experiment with new puppeteering techniques for 1986's Labyrinth. However, for Labyrinth, he cast human actors -- David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King and Jennifer Connelly as teenager Sarah.

Brian Henson (L) served as his father, Jim Henson's (R) puppet captain on "Labyrinth." Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company
Brian Henson (L) served as his father, Jim Henson's (R) puppet captain on "Labyrinth." Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company

The story follows Sarah, who must solve Jareth's labyrinth in 13 hours to rescue her infant brother. Along the way, goblin puppets and other creatures try to steer her off-course.

Bowie was one of three popular musicians considered. Jim Henson ultimately chose Bowie over Michael Jackson and Sting, and Bowie wrote five songs for the movie.

The worm is the first "Labyrinth" resident to steer Sarah in the wrong direction. Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company
The worm is the first "Labyrinth" resident to steer Sarah in the wrong direction. Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company

Jim Henson also auditioned many young actors for Sarah, his son Brian Henson said. Brian Henson worked for his father as Labyrinth's puppeteer captain, overseeing a team of 40 puppeteers.

Brian Henson's work began during auditions, during which he operated the Sir Didymus puppet, a yorkshire terrier knight riding a sheepdog, for those Sarah auditions.

Jen locates "The Dark Crystal." Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company
Jen locates "The Dark Crystal." Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios and The Jim Henson Company

"I did Didymus opposite them while my father directed the screen test," Brian Henson said.

Lisa Henson said the lack of humans in The Dark Crystal may have made it a tougher sell in 1982. That is why Jim Henson incorporated humans in Labyrinth, she said.

"It was a little more alienating for the audience than if there had been people in it," Lisa Henson said. "That became an interesting debate. Would the Gelflings in Dark Crystal have been better if they were played by humans?"

When Netflix produced the prequel series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance in 2019, producers again debated between Gelfling puppets and humans. By that time, The Dark Crystal had become beloved enough to justify sticking with puppets.

"We were like no, we love the Gelflings," Lisa Henson said. "Humans wouldn't be better. So we embarked on more humanoid puppets and made more Gelflings."

Some of Labyrinth's puppets were nothing more than human hands. Sarah falls into a pit full of disembodied arms, the Helping Hands, which combine to make faces and speak to her.

Brian Henson recalled his father trying to direct a pile of people reaching through the black void to perform the Helping Hands.

"My dad would be like, 'OK, hands on the left, can you just wave. No, not those hands. The hands next to the hands that just waved,'" Brian Henson said. "We had all these diagrams of which hands were which people so that my dad could communicate with us."

While Dark Crystal invented an entirely new fantasy realm, the Labyrinth reflects Sarah's world. Viewers who look closely even can see that Jareth resembles the new boyfriend of Sarah's mother, leaving Sarah to live with and babysit for her father and stepmother.

"At the time, it was probably just to not make it a 'dealing with death' movie," Brian Henson said. "If Sarah's mother had died, you really do have to deal with that loss as part of this journey that she's on."

Neither The Dark Crystal nor Labyrinth were as successful as Jim Henson's Muppet projects. Labyrinth was taken out of theaters after three weeks in 1986 to Jim Henson's disappointment.

"The critics didn't like it, and therefore it was pulled from the theater very quickly," Brian Henson said. "The critics, of course, had it wrong because then it was a huge hit in rentals, but those were VHS rentals."

Audiences for both films grew from VHS to DVD and Blu-ray releases. Lisa Henson said the latest digital release is the next step in allowing new audiences to discover films that were important to her father.

"We love Shout!'s approach and the idea of meeting today's viewers where they want to see movies," Lisa Henson said. "We're really excited about this new release and just a chance also to capture people who are younger who haven't seen the films yet."