Thursday, August 27, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Best Puppet Movies

While most of the response to my top ten lists has been good, there have been comments by others that at times they are ridiculous. To that I say, you have not seen ridiculous yet, so I set about making a list of the best puppet movies ever. Take that! I liken it to when South Park got criticized for being the worst animated show ever, with nothing but fart jokes, so they created Terrance and Phillip to show people just what that show would look like. Having said that, I was surprised by just how good this list is. There is not a film here I would not gladly watch again, even if only the top two films are legitimately great movies. Now if only someone had the guts to turn Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater into a movie, we could have our puppet masterpiece!

10. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (Jim Mallon, 1996)
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a cult TV show made especially with people like me in mind. For reasons that I will not explain, poor Joel has been shot into outer space and is forced to watch the worst movies of all time by his boss. To cope with it, he has created wisecracking robots, and most of the episodes were made up of the Joel, his robots – Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot – sitting in silhouette in the bottom corner of the screen making fun of the movie they were watching. The movie was simply an extension of the TV show, where they are forced to watch the sci-fi This Island Earth. While this is not the best the show was every at (my personal favorites were Manos the Hands of Fate, Eegah and Mitchell), it is still hilarious. Yes, the puppetry on the robots is rudimentary, but still, the movie is hilarious, and you cannot say that the robots were not memorable.

9. A Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Hensen, 1992)
How can I do a list about movie puppets and not include one of the Muppet movies? Sure, none of them are what you would call great films, but A Muppet Christmas Carol is obviously the best one. I am sure I will catch some flak for saying this, but out of all the versions of A Christmas Carol I have seen over the years, this one is my favorite. Michael Caine is wonderful as Scrooge, and with the Muppets along for the ride, this is easily the most fun cinematic version of their tale. I love Kermit the Frog as Bob Crachett, Gonzo and Rizzo as our narrators, and Statler and Waldorf (always favorites of mine) as the Marley Brothers. The songs are catchy and fun, and the whole movie is enjoyable from beginning to end. My wife makes me watch this every Christmas, and I have to admit, I enjoy it every damn time.

8. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller, 2008)
Okay, so the puppet part of the movie comes very late in the proceedings, so we can hardly call this a puppet movie. But everything leading up to the puppets is downright hilarious, with Jason Segal trying to get away from his ex, and ending up in the same resort as her and her crazed new boyfriend. The film is much more honest about relationships than most films of this kind, and while some (including, once again my wife, getting her second shoot out in this list) complained that there was too much Jason Segal penis in the film, I thought it was used in a clever and hilarious way. Now, onto the puppets. Segal’s character is a composer, who has been slumming it writing the theme music for a crappy CSI like TV show, all the while thinking about his opus – a puppet musical about Dracula. We catch a glimpse of this musical at the end of the film, with Segal hilariously singing the Dracula part as he slowly dies (I was really hoping the song Dracula’s Lament would be nominated for an Oscar last year so that we could see Segal perform the song live with a puppet, but alas it was not to be). I love Segal’s comment after the show, which was well received by the audience who couldn’t stop laughing. “Well, it wasn’t meant to be a comedy, but whatever”. Dude, pretty much whenever you put a puppet in the show, it’s a comedy.

7. The Dark Crystal (Jim Hensen & Frank Oz, 1982)
The Dark Crystal is another one of those freaky puppet movies from the 1980s that scared the crap out of me as a child. For a movie about puppets, this is one dark family film. I will not delve into the plot here, because honestly, I’m not sure I understood the damn thing at the time, and I’m still not sure I do. But the film is a freaky little film about Jen (who is a dude by the way) who believes that he is the last of the Gelfings, and that his destiny is to restore harmony to the universe, by “healing” the crystal that has been damaged, and cast the world into darkness. Jen has one freaky encounter after another during the course of the movie, and the film goes to some rather dark places (after all, there is a Gelfing genocide referred to in the film). The puppetry in the movie is quite literally amazing, and broke new ground in the field (which unfortunately is all but non-existent since CGI is deemed to be better than puppets these days). But The Dark Crystal remains a classic family film – just don’t show it to your kids too young.

6. Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)
As a kid, Gremlins scared the crap out of me. Unlike the much more lighthearted sequel (released in 1990, and also, I dare say, wonderful), Gremlins is a comedy, but a black comedy. Gizmo, the little “mogwai” in the film is one of the most adorable, and lovable puppets in film history. Howie Mandel is perhaps the only one who could have done his voice correctly. The puppetry here is wonderful, as Gizmo is an expressive little guy. The other puppets in the movie, of course, are the gremlins themselves – mogwais who have either been exposed to water or fed after midnight. These creatures are much scarier than the adorable Gizmo. When the Gremlins escape, all hell breaks loose. Watching the film again today would probably not scare me very much at all, but the movie retains a special place in my childhood memories – especially Gizmo.

5. Meet the Feebles (Peter Jackson, 1989)
Before Peter Jackson became a respected filmmaker and Oscar winner, he directed this movie. Inspired by the Muppet Show, Jackson’s film is about the sordid lives of showbiz puppets. During the course of the film scenes of graphic violence, graphic puppet sex, drug dealing, back stabbing, date rape, porno movies (where one poor guy killed when a cow sits on him, and is replaced by Dennis the Anteater, who is hired to perform nasal sex on the cow, because of course, his nose looks like a penis) and even a snuff film come across the screen. The rabbit MC thinks he has contracted AIDS, and is later relived to discover it is only bunny pox, but his triumph is short-lived, as Heidi the Hippo on a rampage blows his head off with her machine gun (giving rise to the film’s tag line “Hell hath no fury like a Hippo with a Machine Gun”). Jackson’s film is sick, twisted, disgusting and absolutely hilarious. If you decide to track this film down even after this write-up, you cannot say that you were not warned.

4. Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, 2004)
From the creators of South Park comes this elaborate marionette action film, full of violence and weird sex and lots and lots of vomit. The film takes aim at pretty much everyone – actors who believe in a social cause, America’s military that goes in and destroys everything in the name of doing good, terrorists who like to blow shit up, and of course poor Kim Jong Il, who is just so utterly lonely. By using puppets, the whole movie looks utterly ridiculous, even when the puppets are trying to “act serious”. Apparently, they had a miserable time making this making, so we may never see another marionette movie. That’s a pity, because this one was great.

3. Labyrinth (Jim Hensen, 1986)
Out of all the freaky puppet movies of the 1980s, Labyrinth is clearly the best. Starting with the genius casting of David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King, who is twisted and creepy, to the puppets and the maze itself, Labyrinth is a marvel of weirdness. Jennifer Connelly gets her first big role as Sarah, the fed up teenager who wishes the goblins to take her baby brother away, but regrets it when they actually do show up and take him. Now, with only 13 hours to solve the elaborate labyrinth, before he brother is forever lost, she has to rely upon a grumpy dwarf, a gallant fox, and his trusty sheep dog to figure out the immense maze. The climax, in Jareth’s vast castle is wonderful, and actually quite touching. Even if Labyrinth is ultimately about how you have to put childish things away if you are ever going to grow up, it is still a treasured part of my childhood memories. All the puppetry work by Hensen, on Sarah’s companions and her tormenters, is top notch. A wonderful little movie.

2. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
I thought of putting the entire Star Wars original trilogy here, because there is great puppetry on display in all three films, but decided I’d stick with Empire – as it is the best of the three movies, and introduces us to the best puppet in movie history – Yoda. Yoda has always been one of my favorite characters in the Star Wars films, and even though I loved seeing him kick ass in the prequel trilogy, something about him in those movies always seemed off – he wasn’t a puppet! Performed by the great Frank Oz, both as a puppet and with his voice, Yoda is the most expressive puppet I have ever seen on film. It’s a shame that CGI has replaced him.

1. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)
Really, was there another choice I could possibly make for the best puppet movie of all time? Here is a movie that essentially turns the crazy John Malkovich into a giant puppet himself, as marionette “artist” John Cusack inhabits his body, and uses his celebrity to bring puppetry to the masses. The scenes in the movie with puppets in them are quite interesting and well done. Being John Malkovich is twisted and funny, but when you get right down to it, it addresses some rather serious issues about identity. Being John Malkovich is more than just a puppet movie. It is a legitimately great film, written by the great Charlie Kaufman, and directed by Spike Jonze, it is one of the most original modern films.

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