Brian Henson: From ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ to ‘The Happytime Murders’

We track the career of the guy who went from continuing Jim Henson’s legacy to supposedly ruining it. 
Brian Henson Happytime Murders
By  · Published on August 20th, 2018

We track the career of the guy who went from continuing Jim Henson’s legacy to supposedly ruining it.

May 16th, 1990. Jim Henson, beloved creator of The Muppets passes away, leaving behind a tremendous legacy. Fans are left wondering if the puppet-based franchise would go on and if Henson’s many roles, including Kermit the Frog, could ever be recast.

In comes Jim’s first son and long-time Muppets collaborator Brian Henson. Stepping up to direct his first feature film, 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol, Brian delivers a thoughtful tribute to his late father, which many consider the definitive film version of the Charles Dickens novella.

Twenty-six years on, Brian Henson may be best known today for his controversial movie The Happytime Murders, the trailer for which left everyone with one question: “What?!?!?!”

While some saw it as a silly but fun take on the puppet detective genre (an admittedly small subgenre), die-hard Muppets fans took it as an affront to everything they hold dear. And while the film doesn’t actually feature any of their favorite characters, it’s not difficult to see why they’d be annoyed.

But to put that argument aside for a moment, there’s plenty more to celebrate from the Brian Henson’s long career.

Growing up as the son of Jim and Jane Henson was no normal childhood experience, and Brian got an early start, making appearances on Sesame Street at a young age. Both he and his younger brother John appeared in the Numerosity series of educational shorts in the show’s first season, giving Brian his first taste of what was to come.

His next contribution to the Muppets world came while he was a teenager, creating the first penguin puppet. The penguins have since become a staple of The Muppets, always popping up in some form across various shows and movies. Their first appearance was in The Muppet Show‘s third season episode starring original Saturday Night Live cast member Gilda Radner. Brian’s penguin, later named Winky Pinkerton, was puppeteered by Frank Oz in the episode.

A few years later, Brian had become a skilled puppeteer, and it only made sense that he would assist with the famous bicycle scene from The Great Muppet Caper. The sequence is one of the classic “How did they film that?” moments that we all love to talk about, with Kermit and Miss Piggy riding bikes around London’s Battersea Park for a musical number.

Brian’s skill with marionettes allowed him to help with the creation and operation of a special rigging system that would help to achieve this impressive feat, again while still only a teenager. This talent would also come in handy when a similar opportunity came up in The Muppets Take Manhatten, where he worked on another bicycle sequence.

Seizing every opportunity that came to him, Brian has always been willing to get involved. And soon this would push him into even greater roles.

In the mid-1980s, Brian Henson looked to come out from under his father’s shadow. He began to take roles in a number of movies, ranging from acting in Disney’s Return to Oz (as Jack Pumpkinhead) to puppeteering in the Franz Oz-directed Little Shop of Horrors. His biggest challenge around that time, however, came from his work on his father’s film Labyrinth.

Brian not only voiced the role of Hoggle in the movie but also served as a puppet coordinator. Assisting in the film’s impressive arrangement of practical effects. Of course, this also involved working with David Bowie, an experience he initially found to be “terrifying.”

He spent the next few years acting in TV shows such as Jim Henson’s The Storyteller and Dinosaurs and getting his first directing job on an episode of Mother Goose Stories. His biggest role in this period was in the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

In addition to serving as chief puppeteer, he was also the film’s second unit director, giving him a taste of directing for the big screen. This would also be one of the last projects he would work on with his father before his untimely death.

Following that tragedy, Brian stepped up to direct The Muppet Christmas Carol. The film was well-received, although it didn’t have quite the impact at the box office that Disney hoped for.  Time has been kind to the movie, though, with many viewing it as essential Christmas viewing and others (myself included) considering it the best of the Muppet movies.

With the Muppets next set to take on another piece of classic literature, “Treasure Island,” Brian was the obvious choice to direct again. The film ended up grossing more at the domestic box office, and despite not being as fondly remembered as Christmas Carol, the film is certainly not without charm and fun. And it is elevated significantly by an unforgettably strange performance by Tim Curry.

After Jim’s death, Brian also took over The Jim Henson Company, producing everything from The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz to Animal Show. He also became a core Muppet performer with Muppets Tonight, the mock-variety show that lasted two seasons. And he took to directing television, helming episodes of Farscape and Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King, the King-based anthology series.

In 2006, Brian started the Puppet Up! live show, in which much of the DNA of The Happytime Murders can be found. Brian found freedom with the improvised, R-rated show, describing it as having “found a new voice for puppets.” Giving him a desire to push what could be done with the medium.

The first iteration of The Happytime Murders was announced back in 2008 and was even set up at The Jim Henson Company where Brian was first attached as director. But the project fell into development limbo for many years. Time went by and, eventually, STX Entertainment acquired the rights with Brian still on board. After going through a number of cast members, the project settled on Melissa McCarthy as the lead, with supporting roles from Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks, and Joel McHale.

Speaking about why he was attracted to the project, Brian said the following:

“Why did we do it? I feel like we’ve always been a little bit naughty. And the Henson Company is considered a very family friendly brand. At the same time, people go yeah, but they’re cool, they’re a little bit naughty. We’re not Disney. We’re not wholesome.”

His intentions behind this project seem to be, simply, that he thinks it’s fun. Despite accusations that he’s damaging his father’s legacy, he is just enjoying the ride here. Personally, there is something I find a little unsettling about seeing these Muppet-esque characters acting out these particularly crass jokes. The film also looks dated to the era of the Scary Movie-influenced parody films, in a way that I can’t imagine playing well in 2018.

However, it is difficult to read anything sinister into the film, in terms of Brian intentionally sabotaging what his father built. And considering his work on projects like Puppet Up!, the film isn’t quite as out of left field as some may think.

If the film is a success, then all power to those involved. Personally, I find it difficult to imagine the film having much staying power beyond the much-discussed trailer, but who knows? Maybe puppets swearing, having sex, and doing drugs is exactly what audiences are looking for in a late summer comedy.

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