Archive | December 2015

Book Review: Jim Henson -The Biography (by Brian Jay Jones)

“Watch out for each other. Love everyone and forgive everyone, including yourself. Forgive your anger. Forgive your guilt. Your shame. Your sadness. Embrace and open up your love, your joy, your truth, and most especially your heart” – Jim Henson

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As I’ve mentioned in previous book reviews, biographies regarding creative people, have been hit-or-miss for me on quite a few occasions.

The last decade has brought forth biographies that seemed to delve incredibly deep into several lives moreso than those that I had read when growing up. In the last 9 years, I have managed to read Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, David Michaelis’ Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs.

Of the three, Isaacson’s book was the one I couldn’t stop turning the pages on. His writing method allowed the reader to draw their own conclusions on just who Steve Jobs was.

Gabler and Michaelis’ books on the other hand, had decided to create an archetype around their historical figures. In their hands, Disney and Schulz were made out to be withdrawn geniuses, who seemed to shun the contact of family, and rarely seemed to care for anyone’s opinion beyond their own (these biographies would later be criticized by each family in how these men were portrayed).

These three books were on my mind when I finally picked up Brian Jay Jones’ biography on Jim Henson, a book I had heard about for a few years.

HensonBio1Probably not as high on my inspirational totem pole, Jim Henson is still a name that I could not forget from my youth. My early days were punctuated with viewings of Sesame Street, not to mention a rather tatty-looking Kermit puppet my parents had (see left).

Reruns of The Muppet Show I remember seeing on Nickelodeon, and when our family stayed at The Disneyland Hotel in the Summer of 1990, a complimentary copy of the Disney News magazine was on our bed, featuring both Jim and Kermit on the cover (though Jim had passed away that Spring).

I had always heard little bits and pieces of Jim’s career growing up. In the last 5 years, I was able to view some of his earlier works (courtesy of Youtube uploads), visit a traveling exhibit that brought a number of items of his to town, and even got to meet his son Brian Henson, at a New York performance of Henson Alternative’s over-21 puppet improv show: Stuffed and Unstrung.

Coming from a down-home background in which camaraderie and family were a key ingredient, Jim originally was entranced when television gained popularity in the 50’s (so much so that he bugged his parents to get one of the pricey sets!).

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Jim Henson (left) and Jane Nebel (on right, later to become Jane Henson), perform with puppets from the show “Sam and Friends”

His original intent was to work in the  television medium designing sets, but because he had no experience, noone would hire him. It was during a call for puppeteers, that he would get his foot in the door to television (though he had no prior experience at that time regarding puppets, either!).

Jim kept trying to go beyond puppetry, but he always ended up coming back to it.  Upon further research, what he thought of more as a side-project, ended up soon entrancing him (along with the potential he saw with it, when he traveled over to Europe!).

He gained notoriety for a number of never-before-used techniques using television and his puppets, and he sought to find a way to extend the art form beyond the American thought that puppets (like animation and comic strips) were “just kids stuff.”

Jones’ book comprises over 495 pages about Jim’s life, and much like Neal Gabler’s book on Walt Disney, its early pages exploring Jim’s family tree had me a little wary that it would drag. However, Jones only goes back a few generations, formulating just where Jim got his artistic and curious traits from.

Jones also draws from previous interviews of Jim Henson, while also conducting new interviews with Jane Henson (Jim’s wife), his children (Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather), along with former Muppeteers like Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, and many more.

Also of note, are a number of people in higher places, who would be just as important, given that they believed in (and at times protected) Jim’s vision. They include Bernie Brillstein (Henson’s manager for 30 years), David Lazer (a former IBM executive hired by Henson to be the studio’s main producer), and Lord Lew Grade (a British impresario who took a chance and made The Muppet Show TV series a reality, when all major networks balked at it).

Jones and his interviewees spotlight Jim in a very positive light…so positive, that one might think you’d soon go blind from all the positivity. But from all accounts, it seemed that was Jim’s modus operandi in life.

Many recount him seeming never to tire of work, and some would find him constantly writing, drawing, or plussing various puppetry works.

Jones almost makes this an underlying theme of the book, in that Jim may have been trying to “beat the clock,” in trying to do everything, but never finding enough time to do it all.

Even who Jim was based on his identity, could be tricky to decipher. Though tall in stature, he was often quiet in voice (and it would take some years before he’d even use his voice for some of his characters), and seemed unwilling to dive into conflict (usually preferring to walk away from it).

Though many would claim that Jim seemed to have plenty of wealth (he would refurbish new homes/apartments he purchased, and could often be seen in a fancy car or two), he never liked talking about having a lot of money, and often shirked away when interviews would broach the subject.

Several times, he mentioned that the money he made was usually then put into making other projects…which was a similar philosophy to how Walt Disney made films back in his day (usually the profits from one of Disney’s films, would then be rolled over into production on the next one).

Almost like The Muppets on TV, Henson often thought of the people working for him, as being part of a family, one that soon numbered around 150 employees. In those respects, Jim would often throw elaborate costume parties for his associates, or arrange for special retreats…sometimes, even going above-and-beyond in other ways.

One notable time mentioned in the book, involved Muppet performer Jerry Nelson, and his daughter Christine (who had been diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at an early age). Jerry was not given as much work as the other performers (his main role was as The Count on Sesame Street), so he could also be given time to care for his daughter. However, in the late 1970’s, the company’s insurance provider claimed they would no longer be covering Christine’s medical expenses.

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Christine Nelson (left) and her father Jerry (right) in a cameo from 1981’s “The Great Muppet Caper.”

Jim’s solution? Instead of telling Jerry his family was out-of-luck, he had his company change insurance providers, to one who would cover the expenses! (sadly, Christine passed away in 1982, but during her final year, Jim gave her and her Dad Jerry a small cameo in The Great Muppet Caper, as seen on the right).

If there may be one thing that may make some readers a little disappointed in reading this biography, it’s how Jones doesn’t really give anything super-juicy, like perusing through the skeletons in Henson’s closet.

Jones also has a habit of bringing his inner-fanboy out a bit too often. In the early chapters, as he describes new concepts and ideas that Jim concocts, we find him adding a few words on the end of some sentences, eagerly assisting the reader to know that it would eventually evolve into finished form some years later.

Notable is the grey area the book covers regarding Jane and Jim’s relationship. Though they were married, it never really seemed that it was anything beyond a ‘business relationship’ (she was there with him at the beginning, as well as at the end). They eventually separated (though never divorced), and it was during this time that some noted how Jim tended to try and woo a few women. Jones never gets too far into this area, except in regards to one woman named Mary Ann Cleary, who shares a few remembrances.

Much like how Jim seemed to believe that optimism could be a very powerful thing, Jones seems to adopt that same feeling here.

I have often felt I teeter right at the apex of optimism and pessimism in life, but in this case, much like how the Muppets would largely look through a prism of positivity in dour times, the book seemed to do the same for me. In fact, it was so intriguing, I ended up finishing it in a week’s time!

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The Henson Family (from left to right): Cheryl , Jane, Brian, Jim, Heather, John, Lisa.

The book mentions that Jim was incredibly giving towards his children, and throughout its pages, all five of them share stories about their time with their Dad. A few would go on to work in show business (as well as manage the company after Jim’s passing), but during their years growing up, Jim would guide and learn from them.

A few examples include Jim’s daughter Cheryl, who helped inspire several stories the studio put into production. When Jim was looking for who to play Jareth (the Goblin King) in Labyrinth, his sons Brian and John recommended he cast David Bowie, instead of Sting (who was Jim’s first choice).

Jim Henson – The Biography is definitely a wonderful composition of a man who has inspired and entertained millions in the short time he was with us, but also believed in trying to unite the world through humor, and love. Though he didn’t like to be called “the next Walt Disney,” there are certainly traits of forward-thinking in what he did, let alone his drive to keep pushing technology forward, and find new ways that puppeteering could grow and thrive.

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My Top 5 episodes for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (Season 5)

*Note: This list does contain spoilers regarding various episodes from Season 5. If you have not seen all of the Season’s episodes, you might wish to turn back for now*

With Season 5 of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic having come to an end…the mind-numbing wait for Season 6…begins!

Overall, Season 5 was somewhat of a mixed bag. Now that the dust has settled, I can’t help but feel that Season 4 might have been a little more entertaining at times.

One of the most notable things about Season 5, is it felt like one of the first seasons that really seemed to push towards fan-centric episodes, as well as numerous callbacks to previous seasons.

So, with about a week to think about the season since the finale, here’s my Top 5 episodes…with an honorable mention!

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Honorable Mention – The One Where Pinkie Pie Knows

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Pinkie Pie intercepts a special note regarding Shining Armor and Princess Cadance visiting Ponyille, and soon finds herself having to keep a big secret from her friends.

I toyed with keeping this episode in the #5 slot, but the more I thought about it, it was just hard to accept it as one of the Top 5 episodes…but even still, it was one that I kept being entertained by even after seeing it at least a few dozen times.

G. M. Berrow has written several chapter books around the Friendship is Magic characters, as well as the fictional Daring Do adventure pony book series. This episode marked her first writing credit for the TV series, and she does an admirable job of trying to give everyone a chance to have a moment to shine.

Pinkie Pie has a comic fervor in the episode that feels surprisingly ‘retro,’ as if Berrow had channeled some of the character from the first season (as well as mention of the “Pinkie-Sense” and “Pinkie-Promise”). The storyline about keeping a secret, is something that I could definitely see resonating with younger kids, as oftentimes, they might not be as easily trusted with keeping secrets.

Also of note, is that Berrow weaves together some ‘invisible’ threads to Pinkie’s story, that are interconnected in such a subtle way, it took me a few more views to pick up on them, proving that Berrow could be a show writer to keep an eye out for in the future!

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#5 – Tanks For The Memories

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As Rainbow Dash prepares to celebrate her first winter with her pet tortoise named Tank, she is a little perturbed by his lethargy. Fluttershy tells that Tank is getting ready to hibernate, but Rainbow refuses to believe her, and soon, mounts a daring plan to find a way to stop winter.

In some of my previous Top 5’s, I have noted that Rainbow Dash is a pony that is very hard for me to like. Her brash attitude can often wear thin on my patience, though I think deep down, I’m a little like her in ways I don’t want to admit to myself.

Some have claimed that the episode is one where it deals with the ‘loss’ of a pet, without actually having one die. Episodes like this can be a little emotional for a number of people, as I’ve seen over the years. One of the episodes of The Smurfs in the 80’s, had Smurfette deal with the loss of a mouse she had rescued, and how it affected her. Many (including Smurfette’s voice-actress Lucille Bliss) cite that episode as one of their favorites from that series, but in this day-and-age, to mount something like that, is a little harder to do.

In this case, it’s moreso Rainbow dealing with the loss of Tank during Winter, with the promise that once it’s all over, he’ll return to Rainbow in the spring.

While the episode isn’t perfect, it’s final third is where it really all just comes together, when Rainbow finally comes to accept that Tank has to hibernate for the winter (after some rather blunt words from Fluttershy, showing some nice character growth for her). In fact, Rainbow pretty much goes through the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, fear, bargaining, and acceptance) during the episode.

Where the episode falls short in areas, is in regards to Rainbow basically attempting to sabotage winter, and in the end, gets almost no reprimand/punishment for doing so. Then again, I guess being close to Princess Celestia warrants one diplomatic immunity in cases like this.

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#4 – The Mane Attraction

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For a charity event in Ponyville, Pinkie Pie is able to get pony-pop sensation, Countess Coloratura. However, Applejack is surprised to find that Coloratura is a former childhood friend, who seems to be badly-influenced by her manager.

Much like Sam Jackson was contacted by George Lucas after saying he wanted to be in the Star Wars prequels, Tony-award winning actress Lena Hall’s expression of love for Friendship is Magic, soon led to her being contacted by the show’s staff with an offer to do an episode.

Amy Keating Rogers has been on the show’s writing staff since the beginning of the series, and this season, Mane Attraction became her swan song, as she moves on to write for Disney Television Animation.

For those versed in previous episodes, it isn’t hard to feel that 5 minutes in, Mane Attraction feels very similar to Rogers’ Season 4 episode, Pinkie Pride (which was my favorite episode from that season!). Both deal with a musical theme, and one of the ‘Mane 6’ characters having a connection to a famous pony, and coping with various factors to come to a proper conclusion.

The concept of a demanding manager influencing someone, doesn’t really break new ground, but a little of that concept of trying to let go of the smoke-and-mirrors, and be who you are, may ring true to a lot of people. As well, the push to not just be seen as an idolized star, but also help others (Coloratura’s big push is to help charity, and set aside time to meet with younger ponies, which her manager finds a waste of time), is a nice touch.

The episode also proves to be a winner for Applejack, who gets to shine doing double-duty of helping a friend, and also putting her Element of Honesty on display.

Between The Mane Attraction and Pinkie Pride, it is Pride that is stronger of the two episodes, but still, Attraction’s message about being who you really are outside of the trappings and frivolity of celebrity stardom, is a pretty good message. Lena Hall also performs one of the more memorable pieces of the season near the end, that feels like a wonderful curtain call to the ‘mane’ episodes for the season, as well as Amy Keating Rogers’ final bow as a show writer.

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#3 – The Lost Treasure of Griffonstone

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The map in Twilight’s castle calls for Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, to help out the Griffon’s capital city of Griffonstone. While there, the two encounter Dash’s former friend, Gilda, and find out a little more about the city’s history.

World-building is often something a lot of fans have been eager to encounter, and after only getting little hints of other Griffons outside of Gilda (the largest Griffon gathering was in The Equestria Games in Season 4), to see a little more of what their world is like…which from the looks of it, feels to be inspired by mountain villages in Tibet.

While we don’t really get to know any new Griffon characters, we do get a return of fan-favorite Gilda, as well as get a very interesting backstory about the Griffon Kingdom.

The episode also gives some more backstory on Gilda, with the character-building being  a nice little bonus. Gilda was seen to be quite mean in the Season 1 episode Griffon the Brush Off, but one could also chalk it up to being raised in a rather abrasive culture (Griffons are largely hoarders of gold, and seem to rarely care about others).

She is even willing to put up with Pinkie this time, who even manages to put aside what happened previously, and try to bring a little cheer to the culture that seems to largely shun fun.

While it feels like Rainbow Dash’s role is rather limited in this episode, her backstory with Gilda comes to light, and we see her coming around to possibly remembering what made her friends with Gilda in the first place.

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#2 – Crusaders of the Lost Mark

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Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo are recruited by their classmate Pip(squeak), to help him campaign against the snooty Diamond Tiara for Student Pony President. When their efforts succeed, they then find themselves considering an unfathomable task: helping out Diamond Tiara!

Sometimes, it’s fun when a show can just surprise you when you least expect it (and in this world where people love spilling secrets early, it can be hard to experience). Much of the Brony fandom’s excitement was already spent on Episode #100, and as such, excitement for this episode seemed mild. Sure, it was just the 5th anniversary of Friendship is Magic…what could they possibly have in store after the big fan-centric blowout? It turns out…quite a bit!

Remember how on some of her shows, Oprah Winfrey would just surprise the heck out of her audience? Well, this episode feels like an episode of Oprah! So many things that fans have thought about for years, and wanted to see? We get so many of them, crammed into a 22-minute episode.

Character development for Diamond Tiara? Silver Spoon telling off her supposed ‘best friend?’ The Crusaders FINALLY getting their Cutie Marks?…it’s all these things, and more!

Fan-favorite writer Amy Keating Rogers returned for her second-to-last writing stint on the series, making this one a full-blown musical right from the beginning. Some may find some similarities to the Season 3 finale, Magical Mystery Cure, but Crusaders works in a much more satisfying way, even if it feels like it’s crammed a bit too full at times. Then again, musicals are often the best way of getting across a lot of information, in a short amount of time.

That over-abundance of character, music, and storytelling, is what kept the episode from taking the top spot. Even so, I couldn’t keep it out of the Top 3 for this Season.

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#1 – Amending Fences

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After Spike reminds Twilight of her former “friends” back when she was studying in Canterlot, Twilight returns to put things right with the majority of them…however, she finds one of them named Moondancer, to be a little harder to get through to.

Sometimes, retconning previous events in a series can be a tricky road to wander. With Amending Fences, I doubt anyone expected M.A. Larson to retcon a minor event mentioned in the very first minutes of the very first episode, and make it work out so well!

We get some nice little character development moments for some of the more minor ponies like Minuet and Lemon Heart, though Moondancer is a character that was brought forth from being mentioned in name-only from the first episode.

Another positive of the episode, is that it’s one of the very few that gives Spike both a positive, AND fun role. This is almost like a return to the Season 1 days for Spike, something many have clamored for in the wake of him being little more than a doormat in recent seasons.

Looking at the episode from an ‘older’ point-of-view, it reminded me a little of when I went back for my 10-year high school reunion. Like Twilight, I also wondered what others would think of me (part of me still recalls a little ‘attitude’ I had as a teenager), and was surprised how many of my former classmates had such positive memories, and were eager to talk to me about how things were nowadays.

Kazumi Evans gets to move beyond minor characters and singing roles (not to mention human/pony personas), to bring Moondancer to life. The best moment of her talent, comes during the last 1/3 of the episode, which brings a perfect storm of her voice-acting, the animation staff, and William Anderson’s background music…a moment that helped push this episode easily into the number one slot.

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And there’s my Top 5 for Season 5 of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. In case you were wondering, I don’t include Season opener/closer episodes, because they generally have 2-parts, and are given much more time to tell a story. The regular episodes have the thankless task of trying to balance out their storylines in 22 minutes.

Though given I’m big into Top 5 lists, and we have just finished up 5 seasons of the show, maybe I’ll do a Top 5 Openers, and Top 5 Closers list soon.