After the “First Show/Miss Piggy’s Hollywood” episode aired, The Jim Henson Hour was in limbo for almost two months, before returning to NBC in the middle of the summer, when no one is watching TV. I considered saying that this installment is the beginning of the end. But you could argue pretty effectively that the end had already started way back when Jim Henson threw America a dinner party with Louie Anderson and a fish-monster and nobody showed up.
That previous episode seemed to indicate that the show was figuring out how to balance its various elements to produce television that really was fun for the whole family. There was a highly entertaining first half complete with some show-offy video tricks, and a brisk, funny second half starring familiar Muppet characters. And now we come to this episode, which gives us… a melancholy, hour-long British drama in which no Muppets appear.* Could it provide the ratings miracle that could save the show from brink of oblivion? In a word: That doesn’t seem very likely.
“Monster Maker” is about a moody teenage boy who has a strained relationship with his parents, but there’s really only one thing everyone remembers about it, and that’s the Ultragorgon. Which makes a lot of sense, because giant animatronic dragons tend to stick out like giant animatronic thumbs.
There have been Labyrinth dolls, and a Skeksis action figure, and a Storyteller book, and those are neat collectibles for Henson fans. But you know what would make for a really cool piece of Creature Shop merchandise? The Ultragorgon. Just look at this guy!
Can’t you imagine a scale model of that on top of your refrigerator, staring down at you every time you go to get some string cheese? Oh, or they could incorporate his fire-breathing capabilities and make him a lighter or a Sterno candle. Why, I’ll bet at least twelve people would buy one.
I don’t know why they called him the Ultragorgon. Is he meant to be considerably more gorgon than the gorgons of Greek Myth? Maybe it just sounds cool. The Ultragorgon was the biggest puppet the Creature Shop had built up to that time, and as the story goes, they kept on building it until it was time to start filming. Creative impulses like the Ultragorgon are the reason The Jim Henson Hour existed, really. It would have been nearly impossible to sell “Monster Maker” as an independent TV special, but with a commitment for an anthology TV series, Jim had an excuse to commission stuff like this. They had to fill that episode order somehow, so why not make a monster?
For as awesome and memorable as the Ultragorgon is, he doesn’t have all that much screen time. The actual story is about the aforementioned teenage kid, Matt Banting, who aspires to build creatures for movies. Matt idolizes his favorite movie effects guy, who is played by Harry Dean Stanton and who has the unlikely name of Chancey Bellow. Bellow and his team build creatures for movies like the one in this scene:
(Why didn’t they just shine that crystal thing at it in the first place?)
“Monster Maker” is based on a book, and it must have seemed like a no-brainer for a Henson Productions adaptation. I don’t have anything to verify this, but I can only assume some of the workshop scenes were shot at the Creature Shop in London, and of course the Creature Shop built the Ultragorgon and that critter seen above, along with some dinosaur-looking guys called slurks.
With all this in mind, it’s tempting to compare Chancey Bellow to Jim. They’re both in charge of teams of artists crafting lifelike puppets for movies, they’re both famous enough to be on magazine covers, and they’re both prone to philosophizing about the nature of their works. “To get the essence of life, you have to draw from life itself. You can’t just copy it,” says Chancey, while Jim reminds us in his closing segment that as hard as they try to make puppets look real, it takes the human performers to instill them with the spirit of life.
But Chancey is a pretty tortured guy. In one somber scene, he comes out and tells Matt that he’s unable to let anyone get close to him as a result of conflict with his family years ago. By all accounts, Jim Henson had his insecurities and moments of weakness, but even the in-depth Jim Henson: The Biography didn’t reveal anything that dark.
Matt is suitably amazed when Chancey shows him the Ultragorgon in its warehouse-sized lair. Later, Matt sneaks in to take another look, and to his surprise the Ultragorgon is alive like Johnny Five. It talks to him in an imposing Michael Gambon voice, and even picks him up in its metal skeleton hand. I’ve seen “Monster Maker” several times, but somehow in previous viewings I managed to miss the part where the Ultragorgon is basically Satan in this scene. “I have many names… I have many faces,” he says, just before telling Matt he should abandon his family and friends if he wants to be successful. It’s pretty heavy stuff.
Ultimately, it turns out (SPOILERS FOR A 25-YEAR-OLD TV SHOW!) that Chancey was controlling the Ultragorgon the whole time, in an effort to scare Matt away from turning into a sad misanthrope like himself. Chancey was speaking through the puppet to teach Matt a lesson.
And perhaps you’ve guessed where I’m going with this. You know who else spoke through puppets and taught lessons? Yep, you got it. That Jim Henson guy. Chancey’s message to Matt is simply “Don’t be like me,” but Jim’s messages over the years ranged from how to recognize the letter M, to how to get along with people who are different from us, to why we should never trust Charles Grodin. He may have seen something of himself in Chancey Bellow, but he was as good as ten Chancey Bellows.
Here’s a neat thing: I stumbled upon this behind-the-scenes footage from this episode on YouTube, taken from an old camcorder recording by one of the puppeteers. It’s pretty rough, but it’s cool to see the people who made the Ultragorgon so ultra.
*Okay, wiseguy geek person. Kermit appears onscreen for about eight seconds during Jim’s closing remarks, but that doesn’t really count.
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com