Saturday, January 7, 2012

Note: because of the strict no photography policy in the museum and the unavailability of pictures of all the pieces in the museum some pictures in this article are from other museums who hosted the exhibition. The pieces displayed however are those 
currently displayed in the Museum of the Moving Image.

From July 16 2011 to March 4th 2012 the Long Island-based Museum of the Moving Image holds an exhibition dedicated to the life and works of Jim Henson. It advertises with pieces like actual Muppets used by Jim, rare photographs and a host of festivities dedicated. Is it a must see or should you be moving right along to another museum?  

Being a Muppet fan AND being in New York last month I had to see this exhibit and it didn't disappoint. First of all though, as the name implies, it is a exhibition dedicated to Jim Henson and while it divides its space pretty good between the projects he worked on don't expect to see a lot of the other Muppeteer's Muppets or works (although there are a few surprises). Just don't expect to see much of Gonzo, Fozzy or Grover and you'll be fine.

What the exhibition does have is unique material like design sketches of a lot of Muppet characters like Animal, Big Bird and Rowlf along with videos of related commercials, interviews and specials accompanying the different pieces. Some of the pre-Muppet Show Muppets are Wilkins and Wontkins from the famous Wilkins coffee commercials Jim produced during the 60's along with Sir Linit from the Linit fabric finish commercials.

Most importantly for most Muppet fans however are the actual Muppet puppets displayed at the exhibition.If you are planning to go to the museum the following bit can be considered a SPOILER so if you don't want to know in advance what Muppets to expect I'd advice you to stop reading now.

Starting the exhibition is Kermit, sitting on a log, followed shortly by King Rupert and Featherstone from the The Frog prince special. One of my favourite Muppets, Rowlf, is next, tickling the ivories. The museum did an amazing job on displaying Rowlf in such a way that you can almost hear him tickeling the ivories. I especially like the way his hears are positioned, like they are flapping in mid-air as seen during his performances.
Shedding a light on the television commercials Jim worked on, the next part of the exhibit features Wilkins, Wontkins (along with Wilkins' infamous shooting camera) and the somewhat Ernie-like Sir Linit from the lesser known but certainly not less interesting Linit commercials. The related commercials and storyboards are shown next to the characters and really put the puppets into context. Having seen several of the Wilkins commercials on the Internet it was great to see both puppets in color for the first time.
Along with acts like the Beatles, Elvis and the Rolling Stones Jim also performed on the famous Ed Sullivan show. One of his most famous performances on the show (and one of the most popular Muppet sketches ever) was Mahna Mahna and the Snowths performing "Mahna Mahna". A timeless act which has since been repeated on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and The Muppets (2011), the museum displays the Ed Sullivan show versions of both Mahna Mahna and the 2 Snowths. 

The next piece encountered was one of the few Muppets displayed that was not a 'Jim character' but nonetheless one of the most impressive pieces on the show. Deciding that having  Kermit all by himself wasn't the way to go the exhibition proudly presents the Miss Piggy used in Muppets take Manhattan wearing the wedding dress she wore during the final scene of the film. It is truly a sight to behold. 
Shifting gears to a younger audience the most famous street in the world gets it's time to shine when the exhibition focusses on Sesame Street with a lot of sketches and the Muppets of both Ernie as well as his buddy Bert. (They couldn't just have displayed Ernie all alone now, now could they?) Holding his favourite little pal, Rubber Ducky, Ernie looks playfull as ever.
Rounding out the collection are Gobo and 
Cantus from Fraggle Rock as well as a handfull of props from the Dark Crystal. It's nice that museum found a place for these but I felt that these projects may have deserved a little more attention.

One of the most interesting non-Muppet related works shown is the bizarre but entertaining short Time Piece which was nominated for an Oscar in 1996. It's strange, funny and has to be seen to believe it. As with all other works shown in the exhibit there are lots of designs and sketches detailing how the production came to be and they really give a bit of insight at the way Henson and his collaborators approached these projects.

Overall the exhibition is very well done with the Muppets looking lively and the narration largely provided by archival footage of Jim Henson himself. Could the exhibiton use more Henson Muppets? Sure, Jim performed lots of Muppets and I would love to have seen characters like the Swedish Chef, Link Hogtrob and Waldorf. But even if they would be on display die hard Muppet fans would like to see even more.
One project that in my opinion should have given more attention is the Sam and Friends show. It could be that the museum didn't want to 'waste' space to a second Kermit or didn't think people were interested in the show but it's still a vital part of the Henson history and at least one Sam and Friends Muppet would be a appreciated.

Where the exhibition really succeeds is displaying Jim's key Muppet characters like Rowlf, Ernie and Kermit in the vibrant and happy way we remember them and providing a nice narrative of his overall work. The Muppet characters that are on display are positioned extremely well and really look and feel alive, which is a great feat considering they're puppets and don't move. The museum really hits the essence of each and every Muppet on display. Looking Ernie or Mahna Mahna straight in the eyes is an amazing experience and it would be significantly less exciting if they weren't positioned as well as they are.

The focus of the exhibition is put mostly on the Muppet characters from the three main franchises (Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock) so Dark Crystal and Labyrinth fans may be a bit disappointed at the amount of space dedicated to those two Henson classics.Also, as mentioned before, I did think it was too bad the exhibit didn't have ane of the Sam and Friends Muppets.

Fans hoping to buy some great merchandise during the exhibition's run may think twice about visiting the museum's little shop near the entrance. It is selling some interesting Henson goods like books and handpuppets though at the steep prices the museum sells them you're better off buying your Henson products elsewhere.
If you plan to go to the museum it would be wise to check the museum's calender to see when they have special screenings or speakers. During the run of the exhibit Henson collaborators like Frank Oz and Jim's son Brian have appeared and spoken or attended screenings.

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