Short Rounds is a bi-weekly column dedicated to spreading the love of short film. Every other Wednesday we'll curate a number of flicks around a theme, from current Film Festivals to whatever is in the air. You know you've got the time
I am so excited for The Muppets. I know that’s not the most creative way to open a column, but I can no longer contain myself. Like most of America, I’ve loved Jim Henson’s iconic characters for as long as I can remember and the prospect of new Muppet material is reason enough to be giddy. Yet there’s so much more to puppets on film than Kermit, Fozzie, and Dr. Teeth. Henson himself was responsible for Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, and puppetry has been around in one form or another for millennia.
Almost as long as there’s been cinema puppets have been popping in and out of the big screen. The oldest known animated feature, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, used silhouette techniques drawn from shadow puppetry (watch a clip here). From the Golden Age of Hollywood Animation to East Central European stop-motion, puppets have been an endlessly versatile tool for countless filmmakers. In celebration of the return of Henson’s crew to the big screen here are five shorts that showcase some of the best in cinematic puppetry. The Muppets themselves may even make an appearance.
Denmark, by Daniel Fickle
The longest journey begins with a single step, or in this case a single squirm. The Portland Cello Project teamed up with director Daniel Fickle to create this marvelous tale of a crustacean dreaming of bigger things. Our puppet, a determined sea creature, builds a small rocket and flies up out of the ocean and into the sky. The odd intersection of this shrimp’s determination and the whimsical visual style sets Denmark apart. We can even see the puppeteer’s strings, deliberately included to complicate and enhance the film. Holding it all together, the cellos make the entire experience hypnotic, convincing us to fall into the seas ourselves and follow this little creature up into space.
The Puppeteer and the Inventor, by Donal O’Mahoney and Mischa Langemeijer
The best puppeteers fade away behind their creations, in ways that never cease to amaze. Unfortunately, that means we often forget these artists just as we watch them work. Here’s a little documentary that takes a look behind the scenes, shedding a little light on the complex relationship between two Dutch puppet masters and the strange characters they’ve brought to life. This includes a tall, bearded gentleman so realistic that without his puppet monkey at his side it’s easy to look past his grand moustache and imagine a real human face.
Tubby the Tuba, by George Pal
Back in the so-called Golden Age of Animation, the big Hollywood studios put their weight behind short films. It’s hard to imagine now, when it seems only Pixar films are ever attached to shorts, but back in the 1930s and 40s everyone from Disney to Warner Bros. used short animation as a way to test out new techniques. George Pal was one of the best, producing dozens of “Puppetoons” for Paramount Pictures. He used “replacement” animation, creating a different puppet for each frame instead of manipulating a single figure. 1947’s Tubby the Tuba is one of his best, the Oscar-nominated uplifting story about an anxious instrument who learns to buck up and be himself.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, or This Unnameable Little Broom, by The Brothers Quay
The Brothers Quay, when compared to Pal’s Puppetoon method, are more typical stop-motion animators. Yet that’s the only context in which they can be considered even close to typical. Heirs to the long tradition of Central European animation (Jan Švankmajer, Jirí Trnka, Terry Gilliam and others), these identical twins from Pennsylvania produce peculiar and metaphysical works of puppetry. This is one of their better-known works, a barebones adaptation of The Epic of Gilgamesh for the BBC. The legendary characters are represented by elaborate puppets, in a world dripping with evil and deceit. The psychosexual themes are at times disturbing, while the overall aesthetic is unforgettably eerie.
Bohemian Rhapsody, by The Muppets Studio
And finally, Muppets! On the one hand, this clip is awesome on the most basic level. The song is fantastic, the Muppets are hilarious, and of course the outcome is tons of fun. Yet there’s more to say. With twenty-three million views on YouTube, the video is practically a symbol of how our culture functions these days. By slamming together two ever-present media icons, the Muppets and Bohemian Rhapsody, The Muppets Studio created a viral video that shows how self-referential our media has become in the internet age. I dare you not to love it, even as you watch it for the second (or twelfth) time.