Who is the Modern Jim Henson?

Now that ‘The Muppets’ has become a certified hit, Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of the gang have returned to their pop culture pedestal. While older audiences are wrapping themselves in a nostalgia blanket, young viewers are discovering the jokes of Fozzie Bear and the mistimed stunts of Gonzo the Great for the first time. But for these children just now discovering the Muppets, their experience with the characters and movies will be completely different from the children of the 70s and 80s — because of the absence of Jim Henson.

Jim Henson was such a distinct and caring presence for the young audiences that grew up with his projects, that they remain devoted to his work even after this passing. Storytellers like that are rare, and his too-soon departure raises the question: who can we call “the modern Jim Henson”?

If you’re not aware of it, the touring exhibit ‘Jim Henson’s Fantastic World’ offers incredible insight into the work he put into his storytelling (and if you’re visiting New York City this holiday season, it’s worth seeing the show at the Museum of the Moving Image, before it closes on Jan. 16). Henson’s visual style is unmistakable and evident in every production he ever worked on. Even his TV show proposals — that would only be seen by executives for business purposes — are adorned with full-color sketches using a variety of textiles; Henson’s vision was complete, no matter how early into the production process it may have been. His knowledge of world culture, joke telling and folk tales was evident in the music and scripting of his projects. His technical curiosity resulted in a continually-blossoming cast of artificial characters evoking real human connections with viewers. And most significantly, his outlook on the world and how we should all treat one another never wavered; it rooted itself in his upbringing and remained steady no matter the financial, professional or creative obstacle.

It’s these traits that transformed his TV shows and movies into cultural touchstones. And it’s a lot to live up to for anyone who wants to be considered a “modern Jim Henson.”

Perhaps the title can be bestowed upon Hayao Miyazaki, the acclaimed director of anime like ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ and ‘Spirited Away’; like Henson, the Japanese-born filmmaker tells earth-conscious tales involving fantastical characters. Although, to be blunt, Miyazaki — who was producing work simultaneously alongside Henson — has never quite broken down the mainstream cultural borders quite like a ‘Sesame Street.’

So maybe that honor of “modern Jim Henson” belongs to Henry Selick, the stop-motion animator who directed movies like ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ and ‘Coraline.’ Another possible candidate is Nick Park, the claymation wizard from Aardman Studios, who created ‘Wallace & Gromit’ and directed ‘Chicken Run.’ Both men use dazzling special effects and have literally hand-crafted beloved characters. But neither Selick, nor Park (or the entirety of Aardman for that mater) have ever reached as many viewers as Henson, and they remain largely unknown to a casual public.

Could the modern Jim Henson be someone like Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro? The blockbuster pair of directors possess idiosyncratic styles filled with other-worldly creatures; their eye for design is instantly recognizable. However, while Burton is imaginative, it has been a long time since he crafted a movie around an original idea; these days he seems content remaking popular favorites in his distinct, “plenty-of-merchandising-opportunity” style. And Del Toro still seems mostly concerned with the world of horror films; he’s gotten more involved with Dreamworks’ animated family features, but ultimately he’s just not into making all-ages projects. (Slightly off-topic: this does make me wonder what a Jim Henson horror movie would look like.)

If I had to take my best guess at who has the same connection with audiences that Jim Henson had, it does not belong to one person, but an entire studio: Pixar. Beloved movies? Check. Colorful, comedic stories infused with heart and integrity? Check. Have the characters of Buzz Lightyear, Woody and their ‘Toy Story’ co-stars have reached the same pop culture pedestal as Kermit and Miss Piggy? Check. The only reason I wouldn’t give them the nod is because they are a company — a company with a strong commitment to excellent storytelling — but ultimately, I don’t think it’s the right comparison. It’s a different environment than the Muppet workshops of the 70s and 80s that were manned by Henson and a few close partners like Frank Oz or Richard Hunt. You could make the argument that Pixar head John Lasseter steers the ship in the same style as Henson, but Lasseter seems more content to be the businessman that Henson was itching to get away from.

Maybe the “modern Jim Henson” hasn’t broken through yet, or maybe they never will. Perhaps Henson was a once-in-a-lifetime artist, the kind that is simply wired differently, like Mozart or Da Vinci; the reason he was able to create the things he did was because he was a genius in every sense of the word. Still, even if that’s the case, it’s a noble effort to try and create something as monumental as the Muppets.

Which filmmaker do you think is our modern Jim Henson?
Let us know in the comments.


[Photo: Getty Images]

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