Nobody should throw a baby into the air — but then again, you probably knew that right? As it turns out, the trials and tribulations of baby Toby in Labyrinth are not meant to be advice for parents, even if the movie is kind of a cautionary tale for vetting your babysitter. And yet, back in 1986, some critics and viewers were shocked that Jim Henson could make such a rowdy kids movie. “I was shocked that there was a huge response to how irresponsible it was for us to be throwing a baby around,” Brian Henson recalls with a laugh. “Of course, that’s not the way you treat a baby. There was a sense of humor to it.”
On Feb. 6, 2024, two Henson cult classics — The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth — are enjoying a digital re-release, and both have never looked better. And for ’80s and ’90s babies who remember watching these in the theater, or on grainy VHS tapes, now is a great time to revisit both cult classics. In Labyrinth, the younger Henson played the voice of Hoggle and also provided the actual puppeteering of that and several other characters, including various goblins. This collaboration with his father cemented Brian Henson’s commitment to the world of puppetry and the continuing legacy of his dad, Jim Henson.
To celebrate the re-release of these Henson underdogs, Fatherly caught up with Brian Henson to chat about the madness of Labyrinth, what it was like to work with his father, why it’s OK for The Dark Crystal to be super scary, and how he took a huge risk with one of the most beloved Muppets movies of all time.
Labyrinth got these vicious reviews when it was released. Now, it’s beloved. Do you think the world was just maybe not ready for it?
I think it was a few things. It was coming off of Dark Crystal. The critics really did rate Dark Crystal, and it did perform well with the audience. But with Dark Crystal, pretty much every critic said, “We miss the music; we miss the celebrities — where’s the Jim Henson irreverence?” So my dad, when he went to make Labyrinth, he sort of set out to pull in all of that. It would have fantasy animatronics like with Dark Crystal, but bringing in celebrities, like David [Bowie], and all of David’s songs. I think my dad felt like “Oh, I’ve really pulled together a lot of elements of my career and brought it into one piece.” So, he felt really good about the movie when he made it and as he finished it.
But the reviewers, for whatever reason — just it was a very intellectual time. They kind of just dismissed it. What I think they missed is that my dad credited Maurice Sendak as one of the main inspirations for the movie. And you know, Sendak is famous for doing little books where there’s a baby or a kid in a dangerous situation. People thought we were throwing a real baby in the air. Obviously, it’s a fake baby. These days, people get the joke.
You were in your early 20s when you worked on Labyrinth. What was it like working with your dad like that?
Yeah, I was 22 or 23, so I was very young, but I had done quite a lot of work with my dad. But, before Labyrinth, it was on school breaks, summer breaks, and stuff like that. This was the first time I was able to work with my dad in the formal capacity as head puppeteer, responsible for all the puppeteer training, and all of the background action. I had real responsibility and was working all the way through pre-production and production with my dad. And for me, that was wonderful. It was the first time that I really just spent a lot of time just working with my father.
It wasn’t a father-son thing. I was working with him as the director of a movie. He was a different person than at home. Both delightful, but delightful in quite different ways. I mean, he’d get silly and hyperproductive at the same time at work, and it was a really wonderful feeling.
Both these movies were cutting-edge at the time. But now, puppets in fantasy movies aren’t as common. What’s changed?
At the time we thought that was cutting-edge fantasy technology. Honestly — with both Dark Crystal and Labyrinth — we actually convinced ourselves that people would believe these are living creatures. Well, of course, people believe the Muppets are living creatures, but it’s not a realistic illusion and deliberately not real. We kinda thought, “Oh, this is a real illusion.”
But, looking at these films now, with Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, you are so aware of hundreds of artists investing a ton of their time skill, and expertise in realizing these beautiful artistic creatures and environments. Whereas if you watch an all-CG movie nowadays, there are hundreds of artists investing themselves as well. But there’s something that happens where you lose that balance. The illusion is almost too perfect now. So, looking back at it, it’s like it’s really cool puppetry, but it is puppetry; it’s not fooling anyone.
You directed The Muppets Christmas Carol, which to me, is the best Christmas Carol.
Christmas Carol was a complete departure from the formula for Muppets because up until then, the Muppet movies were comedies. Every page of the script had at least two jokes! But Jerry Juhl, the head writer for the Muppets, who was doing the adaptation, he was like, “I think we have to do this sincerely.” We set out to make a drama. And we felt that just having the Muppets in this Dickens world, but still retaining the energy and irreverence of the Muppets. You could just play the Dickens very straight, and you would get the comedy — it would come through in the contrast. But Disney was nervous. Every time they read a draft of the script, the first note would always be “could be funnier.”
So then, when we screened the movie for a test audience, the first thing Disney said is “Boy, not hearing a whole lot of laughs from the audience.” And they were a little worried. We had to wait 30 minutes for the [audience comment] cards to come. This was the first test screening. And then when the cards came, 98% of the people rated it at the top rating. And then Disney said, “OK, forget it. It’s not too dark. It’s great.”
OK, so, how dark can kids’ stories go?
I think people shy away from darkness, or it goes through ebbs and flows, in terms of how producers are making things. But, my dad was always a fan of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Those get very dark. But I think that’s also the idea. It’s meant to sort of shock a child into thinking. You shouldn’t be scared of telling a kid that there’s scary stuff out there. The scary stuff in movies can make them strong. That’s the idea: You’re going to get strong as you grow up. You’re going to be able to handle that. That’s what we teach kids.