This post was inspired by Matthew Ponsford’s CNN article at http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/08/showbiz/10-greatest-movie-puppets/index.html. The first ten puppet writeups below are from him. I have added my own commentary and five additional classic movie puppets. Enjoy.
Kermit the Frog
Originally fashioned from a green ladies coat that Jim Henson found in a bin (plus a pair of ping pong balls for eyes), Kermit the Frog has gone on to be one of the world’s few internationally recognized puppets — or, rather, Muppets. He can already count seven hit films, a recording contract, a bestselling autobiography and countless TV appearances among his achievements –and he’s set to appear on the big screen again next year in “Muppets Most Wanted.”
Henry: Superb choice. Kermit and the Muppets are quintessential puppets.
Despite being a three foot green alien puppet, Jedi Master Yoda manages to give off a convincing impression of wisdom and deliver some of the “Star Wars” saga’s most crucial lines. George Lucas drafted in legendary Jim Henson-collaborator Frank Oz to bring the elderly Jedi to life, a choice which ensured Yoda had a sense of humor to match his worldly knowledge.
Henry: “Judge me by my size, do you?” Excellent choice.
When Steven Spielberg chose to create a heart-warming alien story for children, the easy option would have been to cast a cute and cuddly puppet. Instead audiences got waddling, faintly frightening E.T. But Spielberg’s instincts were proven correct again, as the film went on to become the highest-grossing film ever released (at that time).
Henry: “Phone home.” Excellent choice. Plus, he likes Reese’s Pieces.
Audiences loved “Gremlins” adorable mogwai Gizmo — but the puppeteers did not. The tiny rubber puppet was prone to malfunctioning and so frustrated the crew that they added a scene in which the creature gets strapped to a dartboard and pelted with darts.
Henry: Dry clean only. Excellent choice.
Cinema’s most famous puppet — no strings attached. Animation, rather than puppetry, brought “real boy” Pinocchio to the world — famously in the Walt Disney classic, and later to a new generation (this time CGI) in an oddball turn in Shrek. Live-action adaptations of the classic novel by Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro are rumored to be in the pipeline.
Henry: Not a movie puppet per se, but a character that’s a puppet. Well played, sir.
Puppets can be terrifying too. Case in point: Chucky, the “Good Guy” doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer in the movie “Child’s Play.” The mixture of childlike puppets and murderous violence provoked controversy — with protesters claiming Chucky made children violent — but the film’s popularity was not damaged. It has since spawned five sequels.
Henry: Arguably the most bad-ass of all movie puppets. Excellent choice.
When teenage babysitter Sarah is transported to Labyrinth’s strange maze-world (populated by Jim Henson’s puppet creations), she is helped by kind-hearted hairy beast Ludo, who sees her through the quest to recover her baby brother. The cumbersome puppet was operated by puppeteers underneath the monster suit, who could watch events unfolding on a TV screen inside Ludo’s stomach.
Henry: “Rocks friends.” One of the best characters in this movie, along with the young but already lovely Jennifer Connelly. Excellent choice.
The Red Balloon
Not all of cinema’s finest puppetry makes use of such complex animatronics. Albert LamorisseIt managed to turn a helium balloon (with a mind of its own) into the joint-protagonist of his classic short film “The Red Balloon.”
Henry: A classic movie from my childhood. A bit of a stretch calling a balloon a puppet, though.
It’s just a few seconds of cameo, but makes a big impression and turns the film on its head. Not even the cast members (who were left in the dark about what was about to take place) were expecting the titular “Alien” to burst out of John Hurt’s chest. The shock of the creature’s arrival disguises the fact that what we’re looking at is actually a relatively simple puppet — and a whole load of blood from a butcher’s shop.
Henry: I hate when that happens. They made Alien vs. Predator, so how about Alien vs. Chucky: Battle of the Puppets?
Kim Jong Il
Even after the advent of photorealistic CGI, puppetry isn’t dead — in part thanks to South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose clumsy marionettes in “Team America: World Police” satirized Hollywood’s slick action blockbusters. But it’s the film’s villain — then Korean leader Kim Jong Il — who steals the show.
Henry: How can you not love a marionette version of one-third of the Axis of Evil? Excellent choice.
I’d like to add the following honorable mentions that failed to make Mr. Ponsford’s list:
Per Wikipedia: Thunderbirds is a 1960s British science-fiction television series, created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Filmed between 1964 and 1966, it was produced using marionette puppetry interwoven with scale-model special effects sequences, in the form of a mixed technique dubbed “Supermarionation”.
Henry: I suspect Parker & Stone got some inspiration from The Thunderbirds. Either way, I can tell you is that this was one of my favorite TV shows growing up. The vehicle designs still look fresh after 40 years. THAT is good design work.
Per Wikipedia: The Dark Crystal is a 1982 American–British fantasy film directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. The plot revolves around Jen, an elflike ‘Gelfling’ on a quest to restore balance to his alien world by returning a lost shard to a powerful but broken gem. Although marketed as a family film, it was notably darker than the creators’ previous material. The animatronics used in the film were considered groundbreaking. The primary concept artist was the fantasy illustrator Brian Froud, famous for his distinctive faerie and dwarf designs.
Henry: The image above is of an evil Skeksis, but the movie is filled with other delightful creatures, including: Mystics, Landstriders, Podlings, Gelfings, Garthim, and Aughra, the lovable ogre-witch with one removable eye.
Per Wikipedia: Critters is a 1986 cult comedy horror science fiction film. The film begins on a prison asteroid in outer space. A group of unseen creatures known as Crites are set to be transported to another station. When the seemingly intelligent creatures cause an explosion that kills two guards and injures three, hijack a ship away from the station, and escape, the leader of the station hires two transforming bounty hunters to hunt the “Critters” down.
Henry: The seemingly contradictory description “cult comedy horror science fiction” aptly summarizes this movie. Definitely worth a rent by any self-respecting horror or sci-fi fan.
Henry: Do I really need to explain this one? Bert, Ernie, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird, and the Cookie Monster belong in the top ten! We were robbed!
Meet the Feebles
Per Wikipedia: Meet the Feebles is a 1989 New Zealand black comedy film directed by Peter Jackson. It features Jim Henson-esque puppets in a perverse comic satire. Like Henson’s Muppets, the Feebles are animal-figured puppets (plus some people in suits) who are members of a stage troupe. However, whereas Henson’s Muppets characterize positivity, naïve folly, and innocence, the Feebles present negativity, vice, and other misanthropic characteristics.
Henry: This movie makes the list as a nod to the great Peter Jackson making films before he had 9-digit movie budgets.