Contributor Picks: Puppets

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Happy April Fool’s Day! To commemorate the success of the eighth Muppets theatrical feature, The Muppets: Most Wanted (2014), our contributors have thought it a good time to recommend their favourite cinematic oeuvre involving puppets.

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

Frank’s Pick:
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Onscreen human-and-puppet interaction was nothing new, even back in the seventies, but their presence in entertainment was limited to television productions aimed at children and a handful of low-rent entries in the horror genre. Considering their limited range of expression, George Lucas’ decision to “cast” a puppet in The Empire Strikes Back, the very ambitious, very expensive sequel to his hugely successful Star Wars (1977) was a gutsy decision. To use a puppet in a dramatic role, one that moves the story forward through the pivotal relationship between an ancient mystic and his young apprentice? That was almost insane.

Regardless, the gamble paid off. Thanks to the creative genius of makeup artist Stuart Freeborn as well as the wonderful voice talent and puppetry of Frank Oz, Master Yoda came to life in ways few would have believed. Although sci-fi fantasy affords a greater measure of suspension of disbelief, the scenes of Luke training as a young Jedi have always had something special about them, quickly drawing in the viewers until the latter forget they’re watching a puppet. The strings and the rubber vanish when Yoda is revealed as the old Jedi master. This aspect of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back still stands today as a singular achievement when you consider that Yoda displays more intensity and expressiveness in his few scenes than some live actors seem able to muster in whole careers.

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

Nick’s Pick:
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

You’d think it difficult for me, as the site’s gaming correspondent, to come up with a puppet-themed video game to recommend. On the contrary, I found myself with abundant choices, as the Muppet wiki lists over thirty different titles for both consoles and the PC. However, since I’ve played a grand total of none of those, I’ll just go ahead and recommend a movie instead: 1980’s Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. The second entry in the original trilogy, hence the numeral V, the film recounts the struggles of the Rebel Alliance as its fight against the Galactic Empire.

After their secret base is discovered, the aforementioned rebels have to escape the frozen planet Hoth, prompting Luke to head for the Dagobah system in search of a new trainer: the “great Jedi Warrior” Yoda. All he finds is a two-feet-tall, adorably crazy, green puppet who keeps stealing his food. The reveal that this annoying, backwards-talking critter is actually the wise Yoda is one of my favorite moments in the whole Star Wars saga. As the alien is voiced and controlled by Franz Oz, you know the character feels real. Eventually, Luke leaves to save his friends, and a bunch of non-puppet stuff happens that is also really cool.

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

Pamela’s Pick:
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Puppets are more than my rational mind can handle. I guess the 1986 video for Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” is worth a look though. The Spitting Image puppets fulfill all the criteria for creepiness, but how else could you pull off a nightmare so well populated with famous faces? The political commentary is both clever and simple enough to follow; the prehistoric sequence is suitably random; and the tribute to “We Are the World” with the pope on guitar manages to play both as homage and parody. I enjoy watching it for the nostalgia, and perhaps a little history. Plus, at the risk of revealing my age: they don’t make concept music videos quite like that anymore.

But who am I kidding? Puppets just creep me out, with their stiff features, the inevitable lack of synchronization between their mouths and their words, and the whole “Pinocchio possessed wood” thing. There are some notable exceptions, such as the yodelling goatherd piece from The Sound of Music (1965), which I find endearing for some unfathomable reason, and, of course, Yoda from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. As a self-professed Star Wars fanatic, the owner of countless Star Wars memorabilia, and the winner of innumerable games of Star Wars Trivial Pursuit, there was no way I’d forget about him.

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

Dimitri’s Pick:
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Back in the eighties, when low-rent splatter flicks dominated the shelves in every video store, fringe filmmakers like director David Schmoeller and writer-producer Charles Band didn’t have to compete with bloated digital effects and cross-promoted, multi-part super-hero sagas to capture viewers’ imagination. Also, there were such things as video stores, but never mind. Strapped for cash but rich in creativity, the direct-to-video gem Puppet Master (1989) remains to this day Band’s crowning achievement, spawning no less than nine sequels with a combined budget of under four million dollars.

The series has got it all: killer puppets, mutant leeches, deadly premonitions, reanimated corpses, psychics, a witch, Nazis, an Egyptian curse, and that’s just in the first movie! What’s more, Puppet Master mixes these elements with great panache, slowly boiling the pot as four paranormal experts investigate their former colleague’s death and fight off a squadron of diminutive wooden assassins. Brought to life using both stop-motion animation and traditional puppetry, the latter embody everything I admire about B-cinema: the notion that craftsmanship, personality, and just a bit of magic can make even the smallest creations seem larger than life. All that being said (or written), you know what else came out in the eighties? Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

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Category: Contributor Picks | Tags: , , , ,

          
Podcast Hostess: A goddess to some but just strange to everyone else, Pamela has a joint B.A. in English and history. This, along with her children and her Star Wars fetish, informs everything she thinks but mercifully not everything she writes.

          
Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."

          
Video Game Correspondent: Nicolas or, as his friends like to call him, Dr Nick has a PhD in physics as well as an unhealthy obsession with video games. He won the 2006 Nininger Award for his work in astrophysics and hates vegetarians as a general rule.

          
Panelist: Known as the Funky Chicken, Frank has been on the Internet since 1996. When he isn't rambling on our podcast, the cyber-librarian tames electrons for his municipal book repository. He is brought to you by the letter Q and the number three.