Jim Henson’s kids explain why Dark Crystal and Labyrinth would never get made today

“They don’t make ’em like they used to” is a phrase you’ve heard a thousand times. But for famously puppet-forward, dark fantasy films like Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, the reasons seem apparent, from the Game of Thrones-ification of fantasy to the decline of the musical.

Still, Lisa Henson, producer and CEO of The Jim Henson Company and daughter of Jim Henson, says there’s one reason she encounters the company may never replicate the cult success of Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal. “Technique-wise, these movies would be very hard to get made [today], because there’s so much pressure to do things with CG.”

Polygon sat down with Lisa and director, performer, Jim Henson company chairman (and her brother) Brian Henson, on the occasion of this month’s rerelease of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth on digital platforms like iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube. The films are available separately, or in a bundle with an impressive collection of material usually left out of digital purchases, including commentary tracks and behind-the-scenes features.

To Lisa, the rerelease, in partnership with Shout! Studios, in part reflects the changing ways that people are watching movies — but also that the special features were just as important as the movies themselves.

“We never want these movies not to be available, or not to be explored in the full depth of getting to see the behind the scenes,” she told Polygon. “The more you know about these movies, the more you appreciate them. […] For years we have had those box sets or those Blu-ray releases that have so many ways to interact with the movie — you watch the movie, then you watch the extras and you see the interviews, and you see how things are done, and you go back and watch the movie again. And if you don’t have the supplemental materials, you might be missing a whole layer to it.”

The making of The Dark Crystal in 1981 was an inflection point for Hollywood special effects, as a group of prop makers, puppeteers, artists, and designers came together to build the world of Thra and all its characters and creatures. Later organized under the name “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop,” the group moved on to the production of Labyrinth, and from there to working on a swath of Henson and third-party productions, on the forefront of a revolution in physical special effects.

“In the height of the animatronics era, and visual effects known as animatronics, which was the late ’80s and ’90s — almost all those techniques were pioneered in The Dark Crystal. I remember actually being in a meeting,” Lisa recalled, “where they were trying to figure out what titles to put in the credits for people that did that kind of work for The Dark Crystal, and they found a union category of animatronics and they were like, Oh, all right, well, we’ll just call it animatronics. I was actually in that room [laughs]. The whole idea of feature film animatronics — prior to that, animatronics was what happened at Disney World.”

“That was what was fun about being in London in those days,” said Brian. “I was so young, I was in my early 20s when I got to London, I think I was 20 when I did Return to Oz, and it was so fun because we were in an industry where teams of people could move from one movie to the next doing these incredible creature effects. And each one was a little bit different. The reason why we kept making [odd fantasy films] is because that’s where everybody was — in London. You want to make a fantasy, you go to London to make it. Nowhere else in the world are you going to find the people who could do it.”

Among those “people who could do it” were artist Brian Froud and puppet designer Wendy Froud, whose son Toby made his film debut as Labyrinth’s baby Toby. Froud has made a career in all aspects of puppeteering and creature design, and told Polygon that he’s still optimistic about bringing his parents’ famed folklore-inspired designs to screen again in some way. “Something to do with trolls would be wonderful, and quite frankly, fairies — to actually bring fairies to the screen. Which we are constantly trying to do. That is where our hearts lie, in bringing those sorts of creatures and characters to the world.”

Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah talks with Hoggle, a wrinkled sort of goblin/dwarf puppet character in Labyrinth. Image: The Jim Henson Company

In the years since the 1980s, animatronics and physical creature effects have given way to computer-generated imagery as Hollywood’s first option. With the pressure to use CG, says Lisa, comes temptation. Both Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal had fully realized fantasy worlds, but the limitations of their technology encouraged a smaller focus. “You can do anything in CG. Now every movie has a third act that is so jam-packed with action, and the world coming to an end, and cataclysmic occurrences every five minutes. We just couldn’t do that in the ’80s. So [those films] have a little more intimacy to them.”

But the Henson Company’s modern techniques are far from Luddite ones. The shop’s most recent credits include Five Nights at Freddy’s and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, and it has its own ways of working with computer animation without sacrificing intimacy or spontaneity — and not just augmenting puppets with digital effects, like Skeksis tongues in Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

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“Our 3D animation system allows all of the interaction of live performers working together to find a tone and energy that is virtually impossible with keyframe animation,” said Brian. “There’s one performer doing the body and another performer puppeteering the face, but it’s all realized in real time, with monitors on stage so that everybody can see. So it’s different from most people talking about motion capture — usually with motion capture, you motion capture an actor, you take that data, you turn it into a character later. But while the actor is doing it, they’re not seeing what it is in real time. […] When we do it, everybody can see exactly what it looks like, because we’re rendering it in real time.”

Muppets fans might be shocked to hear Jim Henson’s kids advocating for puppets made in Unreal Engine rather than out of felt and foam, but Lisa points out that digital puppetry has a long history at The Jim Henson Company.

“From the time of Tron, [my father] started working with John Whitney on CG animation. So he was very pro-CG animation. So when the fans think, Well, he wouldn’t have done CG, they are not correct. But what drives our CG — whether it’s a full animated show, or if it’s just an effect — we always have the puppeteer in there. […] The puppeteer is bringing the CG character to life, that was something my father created. That first CG puppeteered character appeared on The Jim Henson Hour and then also in Muppet Vision 3D, which was in the parks. He was already manipulating CG using a puppeteer controller.”

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When Polygon asked Brian if he could articulate the Henson Company’s creative throughline, he cited a lot of creative themes — fantasy, the celebration of each other’s differences, the importance of curiosity and creativity — and finally settled on centering the performer.

“We’re a performanced-based company,” he said, noting that the company began with a bunch of puppet performers, rather than, say, writers, directors, or designers. “And when we do that, that’s where I feel like we’re most on target.”