Deep in the heart of the Hollywood District in Portland, Oregon a very magical film premiered this past weekend. Filmmaker Toby Froud, best known as the baby stolen by Goblin King (David Bowie) in Jim Henson’s ’80s fantasy film Labyrinth, resurrected the Hensonian tradition of live-action puppetry on the big-screen. Froud’s film, Lessons Learned opened to a sold-out audience of all ages at the Hollywood Theatre on Saturday. The wondrous movie was the closest thing to a magical experience I ever hoped to encounter.
As a long-time fan of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, I first learned about the film last year via its Kickstarter campaign. After receiving a grant from Jim Henson’ youngest daughter Heather, who is Creative Director of IBEX Puppetry and founded the Handmade Puppet Dreams (HMPD) film series, Toby set out on a mission. The son of fantasy artists Brian and Wendy Froud hoped to raise money to build Froudian-style fantasy puppets like the designs that originally inspired Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. After completing the characters, Froud would then feature them in a short film and by doing so try to help revive puppetry as an art form.
After Henson’s death, full-length films highlighting puppets fell far enough by the wayside that some saw puppetry as a dying art. Couple that with the rise of CGI over the past twenty years and it’s easy to see why puppetry suffered neglect.
However, the reception of Toby’s film has made one thing very clear in the hearts and minds of many: People still want to see live-action puppet films and Froud is the perfect front-runner to usher in a Henson-Froud puppet renaissance.
After staring in Labyrinth, Toby grew up to be a sculptor, fabricator, and puppeteer working in the stop-motion industry. His credits include such films as ParaNorman, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (WETA), and the upcoming Boxtrolls. Currently he works for LAIKA Entertainment (Coraline, ParaNorman) in Hillsboro, Oregon.
Toby comes from a rich background of artistic influence. His parents, Brian and Wendy Froud are considered royalty in the fantasy world, both having worked with Jim Henson as designers and puppet builders on The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Wendy is also credited with building and sculpting Yoda for Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back and Brian is one of the premiere fantasy illustrators in the arts community, having collaborated with artists such as Alan Lee.
The ever-so-humble Frouds were present at the Lessons Learned premiere, and I was thrilled to meet some of my childhood heroes. In fact, it was all I could do to not blurt out that I had just touched the hands who’d made Yoda after shaking Wendy Froud’s hand. Luckily, I was able to keep my fan-girling to a minimum.
I wasn’t the only star-struck fan at the premiere. Wendy and Brian signed books and Dark Crystal and Labyrinth paraphernalia faster than humanly possible while having their pictures snapped by fantasy fans galore.
The Hollywood Theatre was so overrun by fans that a second screening room upstairs was opened for eager movie-goers. Many Froudians showed their love for the family by wearing fairy-esque garb. Cosplayers with elfin ears, gossamer wings, candy-colored hair dos, faux-fur pelts, vibrant skirts, colored scarves, and glitter-decorated outfits festooned the premiere. Performers from GuildWorks dressed as the characters from Lessons Learned and flew kites out front of the theatre in celebration of the movie. The event was truly a feast for the eyes and a tribute to the love of all things Froud.
Inside the theater’s lobby the puppets from Lessons Learned displayed all their “Froudian” glory as well. The attention to detail was truly exceptional. Puppets were constructed from mattress foam, foam latex, leather, and silks. Bicycle gearshift levers with cable wires gave the puppets movement and brought them to life. Crafting the ordinary into the extraordinary is a true artistic gift in itself, one that has definitely been bestowed on Toby.
After ogling the puppets, the audience was treated to two heart-warming shorts prior to Lesson’s Learned. Melvin the Birder and Colosse, produced by Heather Henson’s Handmade Puppet Dreams production company, gave the audience a wonderful taste of other films being made in Jim Henson’s legacy.
Cheers and applause broke out across the theater when the Lessons Learned title lit up the screen. The film follows a “Froudian” creature-boy who visits his grandfather on his birthday. The boy receives a ‘lessons learned box’ from his grandfather as a birthday gift. His grandfather tells him that this is the box where all the important lessons in life will be collected.
Grandfather falls asleep while waiting for birthday cake and tea, and the boy wanders through the house and finds his grandfather’s ‘lessons learned’ box. Grandfather’s box is actually a large trunk and while looking inside, the boy accidentally falls into the trunk. This Narnia-style slip causes him to be transported into a magical, yet dangerous world filled with a strange king and menacing spider.
At its heart, the film is a cautionary tale touching on the deep themes of learning lessons at life’s appropriate times and not wishing for anything to happen out of sequential order.
The fifteen-minute short was stunning. The visual details, cinematography, and score were truly beautiful and viewing the film was like stepping into a time machine back to the beloved ’80s Henson era.
After the film wrapped, Toby was welcomed on stage with a standing ovation for an intimate question and answer session. Toby recounted his rich experiences growing up as a Froud in the quaint county of Devon, England and shared some of the process behind making the film. Many expressed thanks for Froud bringing their childhood back to the screen.
As the Q & A wrapped, Toby answered the audience’s most burning question: were there going to be more films like this? Toby said that he hopes that this is just the beginning of something bigger and alluded to a desire to make feature-length films.
My fingers are crossed. But based on the reception of the film, I’d say that his dream is going to become a reality. Lessons Learned is already en route to get some red carpet treatment. The short is being submitted to film festivals all over the world and is going to be featured at the Portland International Film Festival this summer.
If you get the chance to see it in your town, go buy your tickets! Fans hovered after the film, not wanting the magical experience to end. They realized they all had witnessed something special, something that the arts strives to do: to engage, inspire, and inject a little bit of magic into this wonderful existence called life.
If you liked this post, have a look at my recent interview with one of the top five finalists in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal Author Quest contest. Also, stay tuned for my upcoming interview with Tim Clarke who sculpted and designed the Mystics in The Dark Crystal.
Thanks for stopping by and stay magical!