Who doesn’t love puppets? Throughout the years puppet movies and television shows have enlightened and entertained, featuring memorable characters that offer positive messages through puppetry and storytelling to children. With the prevalence of CGI special effects in television and film production today, the art of puppetry and animatronics is becoming rarer. From Jim Henson’s cute and furry Muppet characters in Sesame Street; to sock puppet, Lamb Chop; and wooden marionette puppet with strings, Pinocchio; to hand puppet, Sooty; here’s some of our favourite puppets throughout pop culture history.
Sesame Street is one of the most popular and longest running educational children’s television shows, featuring live-action, sketch comedy, animation and puppetry. Jim Henson’s Muppet characters are adored by children and instantly recognizable to generations of viewers, some of our favourites are Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, Abby Cadabby, Zoe, Julia, Count von Count, Mr. Snuffleupagus, Bert and Ernie. Behind every memorable character is a human performer, a puppeteer tasked with juggling the technical demands of operating the puppet without losing the humour and heart that makes these furry loveable characters so memorable.
Pinocchio is an animated fantasy film produced by Disney. The story features an old Italian woodcarver named Geppetto who carves a wooden marionette puppet named Pinocchio. The puppet is brought to life by a blue fairy, who informs him that he can become a real boy if he proves himself to be ‘brave, truthful, and unselfish’. Pinocchio is led astray by con-artist fox Honest John and his henchcat Gideon the Cat, who convinces him to join Stromboli’s puppet show, despite Jiminy Cricket’s objections.
The Muppets are an ensemble cast of puppet characters created by Jim Henson in 1955. The Muppet characters feature Kermit the Frog; Miss Piggy; Fozzie Bear; Gonzo; Rowlf the Dog; Scooter; Rizzo the Rat; Pepe the King Prawn; Dr. Bunsen Honeydew; Beaker; Statler and Waldorf; the Swedish Chef; Sam Eagle; Camilla the Chicken; Walter; Dr. Teeth, Animal, Floyd Pepper, Janice, Zoot, and Lips. As well as The Muppet Show, the characters are popular for their appearances on Sesame Street, The Jim Henson Hour, Bear in the Big Blue House and more. Most of the Muppets are designed as hand puppets made from felt-like material and the performer holds the character above their head or in front of their body, with one hand operating the head and mouth and the other manipulating the hands and arms with invisible strings are used to manipulate these puppets.
ALF was a hit family sitcom, whose star of the show was a hand-operated puppet. The show premiered in 1990, following the suburban Tanner family and the extraterrestrial ALF, an ‘alien life form’ that crash landed into their home. ALF is short, brown, big-nosed furry alien that is obnoxious, highly confident, wisecracking couch potato who just wanted to have fun and eat the family’s cat. ALF was performed by puppeteer Paul Fusco.
Sooty is a mute yellow bear puppet with black ears and nose, who is kind-hearted but also cheeky, and performs magic tricks and practical jokes, and infamously squirts people with his iconic water pistol. The star of the children’s television series, The Sooty Show, was created in the 1950’s alongside his glove puppet friends, the dim-witted but good-natured dog, Sweep; and the sweet, shy, and responsible panda bear, Soo. The Sooty Show offered family-friendly entertainment for young children in a sketch-based format featuring comedy, music and stories, and additional sequels followed with Sooty & Co. and an educational series, Learn With Sooty.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is the story of young Elliot’s adventures with a visitor from outer space and is beloved around the world. E.T. is the star of the movie and this animatronic puppet was controlled by a team of puppeteers to create E.T.’s facial expressions with animatronics. The puppet was created in three months at the cost of $1.5 million.
Gizmo is an adorable, very kind Mogwai from the comedy horror film, Gremlins. Back in 1984 when the film was created there was no CGI, and the special effects relied mainly on puppetry. Gizmo and the Gremlin creatures were animatronic puppets, which consisted of small rubber puppets, some of which were mechanical, used to portray Gizmo and the gremlins. A few marionettes were also used. An enlarged Gizmo puppet was also used for the scene where Gizmo multiplies. The new mogwai that popped out of Gizmo’s body as small, furry balls that started to grow, were balloons and expanded.
Lamb Chop’s Play-Along
Lamb Chop is a sock puppet sheep that was created by puppeteer and ventriloquist Shari Lewis and starred in the preschool children’s television series, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along alongside puppet characters, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy. In 1992 Lamb Chop’s Play-Along premiered, hosted by Shari Lewis and thrilled millions of children as they followed the adventures of an enthusiastic singing lady and her puppet animal friends.
Steven Spielberg’s, Jurassic Park used a number of hydraulically controlled animatronics, puppets, and elaborate costuming to create the prehistoric cast of dinosaurs, making them as realistic as possible. The Brachiosaurus was the first dinosaur encountered by the park’s visitors in the film and the dinosaur’s head and upper neck was the largest puppet without hydraulics built for the film, a seven and a half foot tall puppet. The Brachiosaurus was operated by six puppeteers, with someone puppeteering the eyes, someone on the tongue, another on the jaw movement and someone on the lips, another on the neck and another puppeteer working the head.
The Never Ending Story
The NeverEnding Story fantasy film was released in 1984 when puppetry and live models were more popular than CGI special effects. The fantastical characters were brought to life using practical special effects and puppetry. Each of the puppets required a team of puppeteers, who mastered intricate coordination prior to production. A team of about 25 puppeteers brought the magic of Falcor to life, with multiple people assigned to facial expressions alone – one puppeteer responsible for operating Falcor’s nose, another for eyebrows, and another for the upper lip and another for the lower lip.
Mr. Squiggle and Friends
Mr. Squiggle, the main character of the Australian children’s television series from the 1990’s, is a marionette puppet with a pencil for a nose. Children would write in with their ‘squiggles’ and Mr. Squiggle transformed them into recognisable drawings with his pencil nose. More often than not, the picture would be drawn upside down, and then Mr. Squiggle would gleefully declare, ‘Upside down! Upside down!’ and his assistant would turn the picture the right way up to reveal the completed drawing. Mr. Squiggle was accompanied by other puppet characters featuring, the grumpy Blackboard that Mr. Squiggle uses for an easel, Gus the Snail and Bill the Steam Shovel.
Tell us your favourite puppet movies and television shows in the comments below.