That’s right! Time for some pandering people! This weekend a raunchy new comedy movie comes out called “The Happytime Murders” focusing on a world where puppets are actual living things coexisting with humans. This isn’t exactly a new concept. We’ve seen several movies where puppets are used to portray living things and other movies where they are actually aware they are puppets within the context of the in-movie world. “The Muppets” along has built an entire franchise off of this idea. It got me thinking, as I tend to do, what the best films to depend on puppets for their main characters are. We’ve seen puppetry used in smaller forms like with “E.T.” and “Ghostbusters”, but what about movies where this artform is used to a larger extent? So naturally I took a look and found the ones I think are the best of the best. These are my picks for the Top 10 Puppet Movies.
For this list I took a look at any film that utilized puppetry to literally bring to life more than half of the cast of characters whether they be the main characters or smaller roles and background creatures. That means movies that simply use puppetry as a special effect on a small selection of characters weren’t considered. I looked at films where puppetry was actually blatantly used to create characters that are treated as living things in the film’s universe and are meant to look puppet-like either because they really are puppets in the movie or because that’s the aesthetic the director wanted to bring about.
That said no stop motion or anything like that. That’s a different kind of filmmaking style altogether I’ve already covered in a list which you can read here.
So now that we’ve set the ground rules lets look at one of the most primitive forms of modern entertainment and how it has evolved into a truly unique way of presenting characters on the big screen. Let me know your favorite puppet movie in the comments and look for my review of “The Happytime Murders” coming soon.
10. “Thunderbirds Are Go”
One of, if not THE earliest example of a main stream puppet movie, “Thunderbirds Are Go” is, in fact, the oldest film on this list so it’s a good place to start. Released in 1966, this British pop culture classic is based on the 1960s television show “Thunderbirds” which utilized marionette puppets to portray the characters and scale model effects during filming which birthed the term Supermarionation. This film adaptation of the television program focuses on the titular pilots of flying machines as they try to rescue space explorers who experience problems on their return from Mars. Originally panned by critics, especially due to its infamously out of place and horrible dream sequence, “Thunderbirds Are Go” has since become much more respected and is seen by many as a prime source of nostalgia hearkening back to one of the earlier forms on animation. While the puppetry is of course very outdated and not necessarily fitting of the production quality expected from even a 60s film “Thunderbirds Are Go” has its charm and even helped inspire another project on this list, which I’ll get to later.
9. “The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland”
Yes, I’ve seen this movie and yes, it’s a pretty good film. Released in 1999 the second theatrical release based on the “Sesame Street” property focuses on one of the franchises most popular characters for kids and adult fans alike, Elmo once again portrayed by the famous or to some infamous puppeteer Kevin Clash. The film focuses on Elmo as he tries to track down his favorite blanket which has been sucked into the dull and gross world of Grouchland, the home world of Elmo’s fellow “Sesame Street” regular Oscar the Grouch. Even for adults there’s a certain charm about Elmo’s adventure and considering it’s the final Muppet-themed feature film to include the legendary Frank Oz before his retirement from puppeteering it also holds significant value as the end of an era for the artform as well. “Elmo in Grouchland” obviously panders to its young audience heavily, but it comes around to a neat message about sharing and friendship that resonates to the child in all of us as corny as that is to say. If you have a little one at home and you get the chance to look into this one I’d give it a watch. The puppetry is great and the story is unique especially to the usually bright and upbeat world of “Sesame Street”.
8. “Muppets Most Wanted”
Alright so full disclosure, get used to these characters because “The Muppets” are going to make up A LOT of this list. The sequel to the 2011 cinematic reboot of the “Muppet” franchise, “Muppets Most Wanted” has sort of been relegated to redheaded stepchild status but it has its own merits that deserve to be acknowledged. The film sees many classic Muppet characters return from the first adventure as they team up with new human characters and become involved in a crime caper during a tour in Europe. “Muppets Most Wanted” plays on the classic feel and expectations of the property showcasing countless celebrity cameos while also utilizing the fourth wall breaking and self-referential humor the franchise does so well. It’s derivative of its predicessors but it’s still a neat little film that doesn’t take itself too seriously while never losing touch with its story despite fitting in random celebrities, catchy songs, and enough goofy gags to amuse fans of all ages. It may be an often overlooked and underappreciated follow-up but it’s a worthy watch all the same if for no other reason than the fact that it at least matches the quality and charm of its predecessors even if it doesn’t necessarily build on it in any way.
7. “The Muppets Take Manhattan”
From one “Muppet” sequel to another. “The Muppets Take Manhattan” is the third movie in the cinematic series of the “Muppets” property. Release in 1984 this pseudo-sequel to “The Muppet Movie” and “The Great Muppet Caper” was actually directed by Frank Oz and it has his charm and experience plastered all over it. The film sees Kermit the Frog and his pals put together a stage act and take the show to Broadway but find trouble financing it which forces everyone to go their separate ways. Kermit finds a way to get the show going but finds himself with amnesia after an accident and his friends have to get him back and help him recover. Putting these characters in the crowded city of New York, where they have no celebrity in the context of the film, makes the Muppets feel small and insignificant which makes for some interesting character development for a cast of creatures and animals we thought we already knew so well. It builds heavily on the emotional and personal story of Kermit the Frog specifically. Containing a bit of old-fashion charm and flair, “The Muppets Take Manhattan” is one of the finest examples of why these characters still remain so lovable today that not only followed the formula set by its predecessors but perfected it for an 80s demographic.
6. “Muppet Treasure Island”
I promise this list is not all “Muppet” movies, but let’s face it Jim Henson and company perfected the art of old fashioned puppetry on the big screen. They did it so well in fact that the “Muppets” have become so timeless and iconic you can adapt them to pretty much any story or backdrop successfully without them feeling out of place. “Muppet Treasure Island” is by far the best example of this concept taking the characters we know and love and a story that remains just as timeless and putting the two together for a near flawless product. Released in 1996, “Muppet Treasure Island” is exactly what its title promises, the legendary story of “Treasure Island” but with the Muppets making up many of the characters. There are still human beings though like Kevin Bishop as Jim Hawkins and the always awesome Tim Curry as Long John Silver and to their credit they meld perfectly with the puppet characters convincing the audience that there’s absolutely nothing odd at all about a frog captaining a major sea vessel. Like “The Muppet Christmas Carol” before it, which barely missed this list I’m sad to say, “Muppet Treasure Island” flawlessly blends both of its source materials together creating an engaging and memorable adventure that remains one of the best cinematic tellings of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s classic novel to this day.
5. “The Muppets”
Another entry in this countdown, another “Muppet” movie this time the 2011 reboot version that proved this franchise still has legs to stand out. Released in 2011 “The Muppets” was meant to revitalize its titular characters for a new generation and thus embraced the self-referential tone and personality of the original “Muppet” television show to the letter. The film focuses on a “Muppets” obsessed fan who helps Kermit the Frog bring the Muppets back together in order to save the Muppet Theater, which was the actual setting for “The Muppet Show”. Like it’s successor the film is filled with celebrity cameos, in jokes and fourth wall breaking moments but it set the bar that “Muppets Most Wanted” only attempted to match rather than succeed. “The Muppets” became one of the highest rated “Muppet” films with critics and took the Muppets into modern day without losing touch with what made each character unique and special in the first place. It’s absurd, chaotic, hilarious and a reminder that these characters may have originated decades ago, but they can still be relevant with modern audiences if given the chance even if its success didn’t translate to its sequel to the attempted small screen reboot of “The Muppet Show” years later.
4. “Team America: World Police”
Let’s take a break from “The Muppets” and revisit “Thunderbirds” shall we because this is the movie I mentioned earlier that was inspired in part by the 60s television show. “Team America: World Police”, released in 2004, is one of my personal favorite comedies and uses the same cheap puppetry as “Thunderbirds” with the full intent of looking phoned in and poorly produced as part of its comedic flair. “Team America” was created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker of “South Park” fame along with Scott Rudin and was directed by Parker. Like “South Park”, “Team America” is designed to be satirical and ridiculously over the top touching mostly on America’s ego and the country’s willingness to butt into pretty much anything they want to on the world stage. From over the top violence to a pretty odd sex scene, parody songs and many jabs at numerous celebrities “Team America” is not a movie for the feint of heart of those who can’t take a joke. It’s especially not for those who think America is all that because it’s quite a comedic eye opener. While “The Happytime Murders” might be taking puppetry into some pretty grotesque and odd territory this weekend, “Team America” did it first and if you haven’t seen this excellent project I highly recommend it. With an open mind it’s one of the most humorous and ridiculously fun movies you’ll ever experience.
3. “The Muppet Movie”
Believe it or not this IS the last “Muppet” movie on this list. While it may not necessarily be the BEST “Muppet” film, at least in terms of critical scores, it’s hard to put any of its successors above it. The 1979 original theatrical appearance of Kermit, Ms. Piggy and the gang remains a quintessential classic. The film sees Kermit and his friends travel cross-country on a trip to Hollywood, meeting intriguing characters along the way while also trying to outrun a restaurateur who seeks Kermit as the spokesperson for his frog legs meals. One of the most meta “Muppets” movies in the collection, once again we find a film that utilizes celebrity cameos, in-jokes and fourth wall breaks to get the laughs but compared to this movie all others are basically imitators. The puppetry is also incredibly fluid as some of the best work seen in any “Muppet” property. “The Muppet Movie” is also earned a few Oscar nods with nominations for its musical score and theme song “The Rainbow Connection”. In 2009 is was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress which is more than enough to earn it a spot high on this list and the right to be considered the best and most iconic “Muppets” movie to date.
We’ve seen a lot of works from Jim Henson on this list, but we’ve finally come to one of his crown jewels the undeniable classic that is 1986’s “Labyrinth”. Telling the story of a young teenager who ventures into a fantasy world to save her baby brother from Jareth, the Goblin King, “Labyrinth” has managed to stand the test of time as an undeniable icon within its genre. While it sports memorable performances by Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie in live action roles, it’s the puppetry that has always stood out about this film. “Labyrinth” is filled to the brim with creative creatures all brought to life by classic masters of the art including Frank Oz, Kevin Clash, David Goelz, Steven Whitmire, Anthony Asbury and more. It’s hard to believe that despite positive reviews and its current legacy “Labyrinth” was actually a cinematic flop. In the years since though merchandise and a respect for the art form has helped “Labyrinth” become nothing short of a must-see with an astounding cult fanbase that has kept it relevant well beyond its time. This has led it to be considered among the best and most iconic works of nostalgia from the 1980s and a film that helped re-legitimize puppetry in a time when the art form was being pushed out by more modern visual effects and aesthetics. For everything “Labyrinth” accomplished over the years however it’s another Jim Henson classic that takes the top spot today.
1. “The Dark Crystal”
The granddaddy of them all. “The Dark Crystal” is a 1982 high fantasy that set the stage for “Labyrinth” and allowed its creator, Jim Henson, to move beyond his family friendly environment to a darker setting. Directed by Henson and Frank Oz and featuring the works of numerous puppet masters “The Dark Crystal” takes audiences into the world of the Gelflings and depicts a quest to balance that world by returning the lost shard of a powerful crystal. A box office success and a critical darling both at the time of its release and in hindsight, “The Dark Crystal” was notable for being presented as a family picture in previews but it ended up incorporating much darker themes and imagery that parents and children didn’t quite expect with Frank Oz noting that part of their intention was to teach children that it was still alright to be afraid after he and Henson had spent years producing more colorful and joyful puppet magic. From an artistic perspective “The Dark Crystal” allowed Henson and his crew to put all of their talents and creativity on display. With absolutely no human characters involved in the film “The Dark Crystal” is an immersive and incredibly directed masterpiece of puppetry that has rightfully earned a place at the top of many must see lists for those who remain interested and intrigued by the art used to bring all of its characters to life. It’s a certified and unquestionable classic whose legacy speaks for itself even over 35 years later.