Puppets and Quests: A Lost Genre   4 comments

There was a time when the latest big budget fantasy adventure didn’t mean CGI monsters or 3D glasses that don’t fit over my regular glasses.  There was a time when a good family friendly fantasy film meant just two things: Puppets and Quests.  We called that time the 80’s and it was glorious.

Bowie was there! What more could you need?!

Bowie was there! What more could you need?!

But as special effects technology improves the film making techniques of the past become lost arts.  Computer animation has rendered the art of Puppets and Quest films all but lost in modern cinema.   Unless you are Guillermo del Toro.

*sob* DON'T LOOK AT ME! *sob*

*sob* DON’T LOOK AT ME! *sob*

If someone had handed Jim Henson The Hobbit in 1986 he would have done the whole thing in an hour and a half, added songs and there would have been Muppets! Muppets galore I tell you!

Just because the hay-day of the Puppets and Quest genre has passed that doesn’t mean that those films are forgotten.  I would say that they are anything but forgotten.  I, like many members of my generation, grew up on those movies and even now, long after I left the target age range, I still sometimes get together with my friends to watch them.  Marathoning through a four or five of these still makes a pretty awesome Friday night.  Nostalgia and beer are a winning combo.

The impact that these films had on the fantasy genre is still being seen today, so lets take a look back and appreciate them for the master works (and sometimes master disasters) that they are!

Time Bandits – 1981

Time Bandits follows a boy, Kevin, who’s sleep is interrupted by a group of dwarves entering his bed room through a hole in space and time.  They have a map of the holes in the universe, that they use to travel through time and steal wealth from the past.  Kevin ends up tagging along on their adventure as they are perused by a sorcerer, simply named Evil, who wants the map for himself.

Terry Gilliam has directed some strange movies over the years.  Not surprising, considering he got his start as a member of Monty Python.  He has made cult favorites like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, thrillers like 12 Monkeys, and quirky adventures like The Brothers Grimm and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.  He has a distinct visual style that can be seen throughout his body of work.  A sort of jitteryness that is fascinating and almost uncomfortable.   His next film, The Zero Theorem, about a computer hacker’s search for the meaning of life, is due out at the end of the year.

The Dark Crystal – 1982

Whenever I mention my love for The Dark Crystal someone tells me about how it gave them nightmares as a kid.  It followed Jen, an elf like being on his quest to reunite a divided society by returning a missing shard of a sacred crystal to its proper place.  Along the way he makes new friends and fends off strange monsters.

It is easily the darkest of the films directed by Muppet creator Jim Henson, and represents some of the most monstrous creatures to ever come out of his puppet studio.  This attempt to take the Muppet Workshop in a bold new direction was bit too extreme for the family friendly studio, so their next adventure film (appearing later in this list) lightened things up a lot.  The intense visual style and wild new designs were still an important step the advancement of Jim Henson Studios.

The Ewok Adventure: Caravan of Courage – 1984


Long before the prequels, the Star Wars universe had two made for TV Ewok movies.  The first was Caravan of Courage, which envisioned the forest moon of Endor as a magical land, inhabited by not only the living teddy-bear society of the Ewoks, but also a terrible giant called the Gorax.  A human family becomes stranded there and it is up to the young children to save their parents from the Gorax with help from the Ewoks.  Most of the family is then brutally murdered in the second film.  So that was all worth it…

More than anything I think this film speaks to the ability of George Lucas to squeeze money out of a property where ever  he can.  Did you know there was also an Ewok cartoon?

This film was an early role for Warwick Davis as Wicket the Ewok. Davis has since become a mainstay of fantasy films and will pop up again by the time this list is over!

The NeverEnding Story – 1984

Bastian, a bullied boy, finds an escape from the issues in his life reading what turns out to be a magic book. The book tells the story of an adventure in the land of Fantaisa.  The book allows him to interact with the characters in the story and become part of the adventure.  The film is probably best remembered for Falkor, the dragon that looks like a big dog.

The film inspired two sequels in the ’90s (both of which were generally hated), a forgotten animated series, and at one point was set for a reboot.  It doesn’t look like there has been any traction on the reboot for a while, and I hope it stays that way considering that all of attempts to capitalize on the first film’s popularity weren’t even marginally successful.

Legend – 1985

In an early leading role Tom Cruise starred  in Legend as Jack, who goes on a quest to save the Princess, Lili (Mia Sara), from a demon like being known as The Darkness (who is played by Tim Curry, of course.).

This was not a critical hit for director Ridley Scott, and not his last bomb either, but now has a cult following.  Tim Curry as The Darkness has become a bit of an icon, and his visage is one of the most recognizable elements from the film.  Its also probably the closest we will ever get to a Zelda Movie.

Return to Oz – 1985

Dorthy returns to the Land of Oz to discover things are not like she left it.  The Emerald City is in ruins and her friends have all been captured.  It is up to her to save them.  Clearly.

Oz films can be loosely split into two categories; 1) Films made by MGM and 2) Films NOT made by MGM.  Why is this? Glad you asked.

The 1939 film The Wizard of Oz was produced by MGM, and remains the most iconic version of the story.  MGM still retains the rights to the film, but the original novels fell into public domain in 1956.  Meaning, any studio can produce an Oz film, so long as it does not include any of the elements unique to the ’39 film unless they pay MGM for their use. This film was produced by Disney and had to pay for the use of the Ruby Slippers, which MGM had changed from their sliver version in the book.  This also means that no studio other than MGM can produce a true sequel or adaptation to the ’39 film.  When Disney went on to make another adaptation, Oz the Great and Powerful, they left out all traces of uniquely MGM elements, allowing them to capitalize on a film they don’t own.  Sneaky Disney… real sneaky…

Flight of the Navigator – 1986

As a scifi movie it is a bit outside the norm for the rest of the films on this list, but I think Flight of the Navigator still fits fairly well.  In it, David, a 12 year old living in the year 1978 is taken aboard an alien craft for what seems like only a few moments to him, but is eight years for the rest of the world.  He feels lost and confused in the future, but ends up befriending the computer that runs the ship that abducted him (voiced by Paul “Pee-Wee Herman” Rubens) and the aliens that reside inside it.

Talk of a remake hit the internet at the end of 2012 and a director was announced not long after, but so far there is no new word on it.  Like The NeverEnding Story it may have stagnated.

Labyrinth – 1986

Ahh, we come to the crown jewel of the Puppets and Quest genre. Labyrinth is Jim Henson’s second attempt at a mature film making use of his advancements Muppet technology.  Much lighter in tone than The Dark Crystal it captured much more of the whimsy that the studio was famous for.

In it, if you somehow are unfamiliar with this one, a girl named Sarah accidentally wishes her baby brother away to the land of goblins.  She then must traverse their maze like home and get him back from Jareth, the King of the Goblins, aka David Freaking Bowie.

Years later the studio would try to rekindle the magic by making a film with a similar feel.  The hired Neil Gaiman (Sandman, American Gods) to write and Dave McKean to direct.  The result was 2005’s MirrorMaskMirrorMask was not able to live up to its predecessor and flopped.  The word bland seems to be thrown around a lot. Sadness.

The Princess Bride – 1987

Another film that I hope you have seen, but in case you have not, The Princess Bride is about Columbo reading Kevin Arnold a story while he is home from school on a sick day.  The story he reads him is about Buttercup, a woman who becomes a pawn in her kingdom’s attempt at a political gain, and the man she loves trying to rescue her.  Along the way the encounter screaming eels, giant rats and Billy Crystal.

Although it was not a big hit when it first came out, it gained steam over time.  It has been named to several AFI lists and has had several DVD / Blu-ray releases.  People love this movie and it is looked back on fondly.  In 2011 Entertainment Weekly got the cast back together for a reunion photo shoot.

Willow – 1988

I haven’t seen Willow.

I know.  I’m mad at me too.

George Lucas and Ron Howard teamed up to create this film as a mythological follow up to Star Wars.  Warwick Davis plays Willow, who along with Val Kilmer’s character, Madmartigan, sets off on a quest to save a baby who according to prophecy will cause the down fall of an evil queen.

Like so many films on this list, Willow didn’t see much success until it gained a cult following after its initial release.  It has since been rereleased on DVD and Blu-ray and has had a sequel in the form of a book trilogy.

What other Puppets and Quest films have a place in your heart? What films on this list do you love and why? Tell me below!


4 responses to “Puppets and Quests: A Lost Genre

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  1. Return to Oz has to be the scariest movie on this list.

  2. I was horribly traumatized by the Never Ending Story. Most of these films are freaking scary. I think Game of Thrones would have been less fucked up children’s programming than half of these. Thanks for bringing me back to my childhood… you jerk.

  3. Pingback: Puppets and Quests Revisited – Return to Oz | AtomicSam

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