REVIEW – Fraggle Rock: The Ultimate Visual History

Published: November 1, 2021
Categories: Feature, Reviews

Many thanks to longtime ToughPigs friend and collaborator Beth Cook for guest-writing this review! (We are paying her in Doozer sticks.)

Those of us who slammed the pre-order button for Fraggle Rock: The Ultimate Visual History as soon as we could were disappointed by multiple delays and an ever-changing release date: first 2020, then August 17th, 2021, then September 28th, then October 19th. But delays indicate struggles—for manufacturers, warehouse workers, delivery drivers, and probably everyone involved from start to finish. There’s nothing like a Global Panini to remind us of Fraggle Rock’s biggest takeaway: to have compassion for each other, because we’re all connected.

But, somehow? Magically?? My copy arrived this week! So here is an increasingly unhinged attempt to remain objective and not go full kermitflail.gif a first look inside this glossy compendium.

The foreward by my celebrity husband established Muppet fan Neil Patrick Harris is written with a tender honesty and a clear understanding of the show’s depth. You can tell that NPH is one of those Muppet fans who Really Gets It.

The 220-page book is arranged into five roughly chronological sections, and every page has beautiful behind-the-scenes photos or conceptual sketches. One thing to note: the print of the main text is tiny. Bring your reading glasses, fellow Elder Millennials.

A particularly interesting feature is a series of inserts, glued to the book in the upper left corner, all recreations of historical documents: research on their target audience, handwritten notes, sketches, internal memos, etc. One of my favorites illustrates how a puppeteer would operate Wander McMooch’s vehicle, and the page underneath shows what the completed structure would look like to the audience. These inserts are a very cool concept, but makes turning the page they’re glued to and reading what’s underneath rather awkward. It also has the bizarre effect of making these pages seem both more valuable (because it tricks your brain into thinking they’re real) and less valuable (because they’re printed on cheap letter-size paper). I would’ve preferred either one large combined insert or just printing them on the glossy pages with the rest of the book. I’m also worried about them getting damaged because I’m a klutz. I can make every attempt to treat this book like a sacred relic and I WILL eventually spill pizza sauce on it, sneeze on it, and drop the whole thing down a flight of stairs. It is an inevitability of the universe.

Part One: A Show to End War” covers a brief history of Jim’s career; how the main idea came about; assembling the right team; developing the characters, the species, and the world; pitching the show and beginning production; and enough Michael K. Frith conceptual sketches to make me want to cry with their perfect whimsical beauty and then triple check my house for Fraggle holes because you never know.

Favorite bits: Jim’s concept pitch for The Woozle Show, a diagram of Travelling Matt’s backpack (the book has chosen the double L “Travelling” spelling but autocorrect keeps thwarting me), and Frith’s plans for a Doozer hydroelectric power plant.

Part Two: A Show of Hands” takes the reader through designing and building the Fraggle puppets; the Balsam-Lee-Gillis musical dream team; building and operating the Gorgs, Doozers, and Trash Heap; casting the puppeteers and how they developed their characters; and designing and building the sets. They even explain rod puppets versus “live hands” puppets—you really could come to this book having never learned anything about the Muppets before!

Favorite bits: delightful photos of full-size Fraggles with their Gorg-garden miniature counterparts, Caroly Wilcox’s illustration for the “ideal Muppeteer” with a third arm where a head should be and a head below the waist (to see the monitor on the floor), how puppeteers operate Fraggle tails, a subsection on Fraggle wardrobes, and a subsection on Doozer constructions. Stay tuned for more on my attempts to make real life edible Doozer sticks! Although the book infuriatingly doesn’t lay out exactly HOW the Doozers turn radishes into Doozer constructions but only says they’re made with “a radish derivative” and how the HECK is that supposed to help me when I’ve spent weeks trying to dry out radishes in the toaster oven and then the actual oven and then googling how to make freeze-dried radishes and radish extract.

Least favorite bit that cannot be unseen: what is essentially Marjory’s skeleton and looks like an unholy union of a Dalek and a hoop skirt.

Part Three: Beginnings and Endings” is a look at each season, how the show was filmed, Jim’s involvement, puppeteers further developing their characters, filming the Travelling Matt segments, day to day life on set, the international segments and expanding global markets, and how to bring the show to an end—there wasn’t consensus on if the show should just stop as is or have a real finale, and how to focus that finale on interconnectedness.

Favorite bits: “Gaggles” (those radio-operated background Fraggles moving in unison), Jim as Cantus and Convincing John, getting deeper into the world of the Doozers, and finally learning that those ubiquitous lil background guys are called Inkspots. Now I just need to develop an Encyclopedia Fragglia of all the background non-Fraggle species including which ones have official names and which ones don’t (so I can name them).

Part Four: The Magic Continues” takes us through the extended Fraggledom during and after the show: the Down at Fraggle Rock documentary, the animated series, picture books, ‘80s Marvel comics, merchandise, 2010s Archaia comics, Doozers animated series, and Ben Folds music video, then wraps up with Fraggle Rock’s lasting impact and message.

What is baffling and frustrating is that Fraggle Rock: Rock On! gets only one paragraph, the in-the-works reboot gets one sentence, and so far I haven’t been able to find a single mention of the multiple failed attempts at a film. I think ToughPigs has done a better job of writing about those projects than this book did, which ended too abruptly. Here I would goes off on a rant about all the things I want to see in the new series but I’m paranoid that they’ll just steal my ideas instead of hiring me to write them.

In conclusion, Fraggle Rock: The Ultimate Visual History is not for most casual fans who think “Oh yeah, I remember that show, that was cool.”

This book is for:

  • Any Muppet fan who thinks $65 is a totally reasonable price for a thorough, beautiful coffee table book.
  • Any layperson who’s mildly curious and thinks $65 is chump change.
  • The kids who searched their basement for Fraggle holes, ate radishes with zeal, wrote a high school research paper on Jim Henson (half as an excuse to buy Jim Henson: The Works), thought emailing Joe H. about writing for ToughPigs felt like auditioning in front of Lorne Michaels for SNL, and may or may not have other Fraggle Rock projects in the works.

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by Beth Cook

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