- Craig Graziano
Jim Henson: The Biography approaches the man through his work. This makes sense since, as he was the artist who redefined puppetry, Henson created and entertained almost non-stop for four decades.
Mississipi-born and Maryland-raised, young Jim Henson witnessed the advent of television and was determined to become a part of it. It just so happened that puppetry would be his ticket in.
Starting on a Washington D.C. station, 17-year-old Henson was hired to fill a short-term slot in the afternoon. He knew nothing about puppetry but checked out two books from the library so he could learn how to make them and perform.
From that point, Henson was a sensation. His blend of cute creations and surreal humor—most sketches ended with either an explosion or one creature eating another—had audiences howling and companies lining up for the Muppets to sell their products.
Jones moves through the next several decades of Henson's life thoroughly with a focus on his profession. Obviously Sesame Street, The Muppet Show ,and his Muppet movies were huge successes, but Jones gives equal attention to fascinating lesser-known works, such as his Oscar-nominated short film Time Piece and his Twilight Zone-esque The Cube.
Non-Muppet projects of the seventies and eighties such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were considered failures, either critically or at the box office, but it's interesting how well they have both stood the test of time with their fantastic visuals and focus on creating entire worlds. To the generation who grew up with them, they are considered classics as much as any other Henson creation.
There has been some criticism that the book never really gives us a clear look at the man himself. We get anecdotes from family and associates, as well as entries from Henson's own journal, but the real meat of the book always focuses on the entertainment.
While I agree that there is still a bit of a distance despite the book's 500 pages, I see a man whose life was very much defined by the overwhelming desire to create. Henson had a shyness about him and strategically chose to keep his emotions and opinions, spiritual and political, on a personal level. And you can see what he values most in these works. Fraggle Rock, for example, is a perfect synthesis of Henson's love of New Age spirituality and environmental awareness.
The book opens with a prologue where Henson, as Kermit, tries to recite the alphabet on Sesame Street with a young girl who decides to recite her own unique version. It is a beautiful opening to the book and by both reading just that prologue and watching the specific clip, most will be able to see what sort of person Henson was.