Sunday, November 29, 2009

Children's Television Done Right: The Legacy of Jim Henson

While in Pennsylvania visiting family for the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the opportunity to go to the James A. Michener Art Museum and see a wonderful exhibit on the work and legacy of Jim Henson, called “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World.” Today is the exhibit’s last day at the Michener, but you should check out the museum anyway if you live in the Philadelphia area- they have a fantastic permanent collection, mostly focusing on Bucks County artists. For those of you not close to Philadelphia, the exhibit is scheduled to travel to museums across the country through 2011. Check out the Smithsonian’s schedule to see if it will be at a museum near you.

Henson spent much of his early television career creating short, eight second product ID commercials in the Washington, DC market. The exhibit included video of several of these commercials. There was barely enough time to announce the name of the product and have one character blow the other up for not being familiar with the product (a running theme throughout Henson’s commercial work), but the spots were definitely memorable.

Henson would eventually apply what he learned in commercials to children’s television, ultimately creating Sesame Street. Sesame Street employs a similar philosophy to the short product ID commercials, imparting knowledge to kids in short bursts, such as the iconic counting films. The idea is to have a variety of different, short films in succession to keep kids from getting bored. As a child of the 80’s most definitely raised on Sesame Street, I can say that the technique certainly worked for me. I can probably credit first learning to count to ten (in English and Spanish) and learning the alphabet to Sesame Street.

The way Sesame Street incorporates Spanish language segments seems especially creative to me looking back on it. Segments I was familiar with, since I watched Sesame Street on an almost daily basis, especially the segments about counting, would sometimes be randomly broadcast in Spanish. Because of my familiarity with the segment, I knew what was going on, even if I didn’t completely understand the language. It was immersion in a new language with a thread of familiarity, so it all made sense.

Another one of my childhood loves was “Fraggle Rock.” Fraggle Rock was also represented at the museum exhibit, including two Fraggle puppets. There were three “races” in the world of Fraggle Rock. There were the fun-loving, carefree Fraggles, the hard-working Doozers, and the giant-like Gorgs. The idea behind the show was to teach children to accept and embrace differences between people. I mostly remember enjoying the bright colors, the singing, and the fantastical setting. I’d like to think the lessons the show sought to impart snuck in there somewhere, too!

There was also exhibit space devoted to some of Henson’s lesser known work, such as his short film called “Timepiece,” and the fantasy movie “The Dark Crystal.” One of the most interesting elements of the exhibit was a video where Timepiece was shown side-by-side with Henson’s original storyboard for the film. It was fascinating to see how his original vision translated to film. The film itself shows a very abstract, artistic sensibility, and it reminded me somewhat of Terry Gilliam’s animation work for Monty Python. I found the section of the exhibit about The Dark Crystal most notable for the beautiful visuals and puppet costumes. Several props from the movie and the costume worn by the character Kira are on display.

The exhibit was extensive, but I was left still wanting to learn and see more. That’s really to the exhibit’s credit. The videos, drawings, and puppets all provided for a fascinating look into the mind of someone truly creative. Seeing the Ernie puppet from the 80’s that was most likely in use when I was watching Sesame Street brought on a great deal of nostalgia. I would like to learn more about Henson now, and I definitely plan to try and see Henson’s darker fantasy work, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, just as soon as I can find copies of both. To the Netflix queue!

No comments:

Post a Comment