Tag Archives: Jim Henson

DREAMCHILD (1985)

Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild (1985) received critical accolades upon its release. It was written by one of the most impressive of television writers, Dennis Potter, and features some of ‘s most impressive work in his renditions of ‘s Wonderland creatures. The film received scant distribution upon its release and, additionally, sat unreleased on DVD until 2011. Far from jettisoning of the darker, surreal elements of “Alice in Wonderland” (as happens in Tim Burton’s neutered version), Dreamchild does not flinch from the nightmarish qualities in this famous tale. Like its source inspiration, Dreamchild remarkably manages to evoke a darker milieu, while retaining warmth and wit.

That is not to say this is a perfect film. It dwells upon the contrast between English sophistication and American crassness a bit too much (even if it is spot on), and a romance between a reporter (Peter Gallagher) and Alice’s ward, Lucy (the quite good Nicola Cowper) is an intrusive misstep. Yet, along with Henson’s vividly designed vision of life below the rabbit hole are two stunning star performances. Most critics rightly singled out the performance of Coral Brown as Alice Hargreaves (formerly Alice Liddell). But, equally impressive is ‘s eye-of-the-hurricane performance as Lewis Carroll.

Carroll (whose real name was Charles Dodgson) was a latent pedophile. Although it seems likely that he never acted upon his desire for underage girls, he did photograph many of them in nude poses. Those photographs have come to light since Carroll’s passing. Alice Liddell, his inspiration for the Wonderland Alice, was not among Carroll’s models. Apparently, Alice’s mother quashed the relationship between Rev. Dodgson and her daughter, deeming it potentially improper.

Still from Dreamchild (1985)Potter’s depiction of that relationship stops short of lewdness, and that was a wise choice. The film opens with a view of a surreal and dark ocean. Atop a rock the aged Alice discourses with two spectral characters: a self-pitying Mock Turtle and the Gryphon. This is hardly the Muppets!

Later, in another world, the 80-year old Alice is sailing to America to receive an honorary doctorate on the centennial of Lewis Carrol’s birth. She is aghast at American commercialism and constantly berates her young ward. Initially, Alice is not altogether sympathetic. But, through flashbacks, we discover that her role as the inspirational source of Carrol’s famous tale has left her, in her advanced age, caught in a flood of nightmarish memories.

Caught in the recesses of her past, the characters of Wonderland imbue terror in her, and at the seedy center is the shy, awkward Lewis Carroll. For the young Alice, Carroll is a source of ridicule, curiosity, and devotion. Holm invests into Carroll such an introverted intensity that this performance calls to mind some of the great character acting from the likes of Montgomery Clift and James Mason.

Although Carroll’s attraction to the young Alice is outwardly platonic, his twitching giddiness from her mere embrace reveals a disheartening adoration. Yet in spite of  that salaciousness, Holm makes us care for this literary misfit.

Alice’s ominous visions of the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, and Dormouse prove to be minuscule compared to her memories of the man who made her famous. This is an instance in which a very brief exposure in life proved to have a long-lasting impact.

The aged celebrity treats her ward and the American paparazzi with the same Victorian contempt in which she once treated Lewis Carroll. Yet, she is better than her worst moments. In the eventual realization of her life’s arc, Alice again becomes the girl who inspired a great writer. Brown’s performance is admirably intelligent and touching. It borders on criminal that the late actress did not receive a single award for her role.

A small, but perhaps apt trivia note: Jane Asher here plays the mother of Alice Liddell. Although Asher has no scenes with the grown Alice of Coral Brown, she did previously act with Brown’s husband, Vincent Price, in Masque of the Red Death (1964).

CAPSULE: LABYRINTH (1986)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A dreamy teenage girl must rescue her kidnapped baby brother by journeying to the Goblin City at the center of a bizarre labyrinth.

Still from Labyrinth (1986)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the MC Escher-inspired set-design, the unexpected sexual tension between teenaged Connelly and fruitily-dressed goblin king Bowie, and a devout cult following, Labryinth is ultimately just too close to a mainstream Muppet fantasy to place on a List of the 366 Weirdest movies. We’ve passed over slightly stranger movies in this genre—the visually similar Henson-directed The Dark Crystal and the thematically similar Henson-produced MirrorMask—and, although I think Labyrinth is a better film than either of those, it’s difficult to justify certifying this one when its companion films don’t even get to sniff the List.

COMMENTS: In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s breasts were famously flattened out with tape so the 16-year old could play a pre-pubescent girl. Labyrinth takes a different strategy: 14-old Jennifer Connelly plays exactly her age, portraying a hormonally testy girl-woman caught at the stage where her attention starts to shift from stuffed animals to the well-stuffed pants of strutting rock stars. That shot of rising estrogen distinguishes Labyrinth from other Oz/Alice in Wonderland fairy tale variations, giving it a subtext that goes over the heads of the tots in the audience but leaves adults with additional nuggets to ponder (and no, that’s not another reference to Bowie’s stretch pants).

There’s an impressive amount of imagination on display here, starting with Henson’s puppets, who reveal an almost limitless variety (each individual goblin looks like a representative of its own species) and a nearly human expressiveness (to be honest, the puppets out-act both Connelly and Bowie). The girl’s three companions—the cowardly dwarf Hoggle, the bestial Ludo, and Sir Didymus, the comic relief knight/terrier—are all worthy additions to Henson’s Muppet menagerie, and there is a zoo full of eccentric Wonderland-esque supporting creatures, including walking playing cards, Continue reading CAPSULE: LABYRINTH (1986)

CAPSULE: THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982)

DIRECTED BY: , Frank Oz

FEATURING: , Frank Oz (puppeteering); Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, Billie Whitelaw (voice acting)

PLOT: A meek Gelfling sets out on a journey to fulfill the prophecy that he will heal the Dark

Still from The Dark Crystal (1982)

Crystal.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With its advanced puppetry and dazzling color, The Dark Crystal is a visually spectacular movie.  The standard-issue quest story, however, is nothing unusual; just recycled Tolkien, watered down for kids.

COMMENTSThe Dark Crystal may be the most elaborate puppet show ever staged.  There are no human actors in the film, and the sets—from the spiny castle rising from a bleak landscape to the twisted interior corridors of the Skeksis’ lair to the forests of walking plants—are all fairy tale artifice, storybook illustrations adapted into three-dimensional scenery.  A menagerie of imaginatively designed creatures parade in front of these beautifully textured backdrops.  Most impressive are the evil Skeksis, hunched bipeds who simultaneously resemble reptiles, dinosaurs and birds of prey.  They are opposed by the gentle Mystics, four armed, droning sloths with kind wizardly faces, and Gelflings, the “human” characters, who look like an experiment in breeding J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves with chimpanzees from The Planet of the Apes.  The meticulously molded puppets–each turkey-faced Skeksis’ beak is individually gnarled—have expressive eyes, and their jaws move when they speak.  The rest of the puppet faces, however, are immobile; so despite the minute detailing, the mix of animatronics with static features makes the creatures overall appearance unreal and somewhat uncanny—maybe even “weird.”  (The fact that the puppets move at about three-quarters the speed of a human actor, while seriously hampering the action sequences, also adds to the movie’s artificial reality).  The simplistic, muted emotions conveyed by the creatures’ features aren’t terribly jarring, however, because their puppet shells are inhabited by one-dimensional characters.  Lack of character depth isn’t a problem for the villainous Continue reading CAPSULE: THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982)