Entertainment comes in all sizes, and sometimes with strings attached! 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.
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 tended to be 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.
Land of Confusion (1986)
With the notable exception of the cute yodelling goatherd in The Sound of Music (1965), puppets tend to creep me out. Their stiff features, the inevitable desynchronization between their mouths and their words, and the whole possessed-wood thing from Pinocchio (1940) are just more than my rational mind can handle. Still, the 1986 music video for Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” is worth a look. The Spitting Image puppets do fulfill all the criteria for creepiness, but how else could you pull off a nightmare so well populated with famous faces?
Whether you’re a celebrity-spotter, a political aficionado, or simply a fan of eighties pop culture, “Land of Confusion” has got a few faces for you to recognise. 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.
Borderlands 2 (2012)
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 an abundance of 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 Gearbox Software’s Borderlands 2, in which players try to open a mysterious vault on Pandora and obtain its secrets. As with most first-person shooters, the story isn’t the big draw. The guns are where it’s at, and the sheer amount of pistols, rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers you can find in the game proves nothing short staggering. Which weapon should you use? Well, that all depends on the damage it inflicts, the accuracy, the rate of fire, and, of course, how cool it looks.
I love the disturbing humour in Borderlands 2. Consider the surreal mission in which players have to fight waves upon waves of bad guys to protect a thirteen-year-old girl having a tea party with her pet insect Sir Reginald, her doll Princess Fluffybutt, and the man responsible for her parents’ death tied to a chair. Sure, one could accuse the jokes of being incredibly macabre and politically incorrect, but, honestly, we’re talking about a game wherein the objective consists of mowing down legions with your sweet-looking arsenal. Oh, and, since there’s no friendly fire, your friends can partake in the carnage no matter how bad a shot you are. As the game’s iconic Psychos might say, “Time to pound some meat puppets!”
Puppet Master (1989)
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.