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Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie may be the stars of Jim Henson's 1986 fantasy classic Labyrinth, but they're surrounded by scene-stealing puppets who seem every bit as human. That's the special magic brewed by Henson and his entire creative team at the Creature Shop, who know how to bring life to the most unlikely of objects. That's why their creations continue to feel more like living, breathing creatures than many of the computer-generated characters seen in modern-day blockbusters.
Yahoo Entertainment recently spoke with one of those magicians, Brian Froud, who collaborated with Henson on both Labyrinth and its predecessor, The Dark Crystal. (Both movies were filmed in England, where Henson also made The Muppet Show.) Working alongside his wife and creative partner, Wendy Froud, the illustrator and conceptual designer dreamed up almost all of Henson's puppet characters that the director packed into every frame of the film. You can hear Froud narrate our exclusive AR experience, which allows you to get a close-up virtual view of three of Labyrinth's most memorable puppets and the inside story on how they were crafted.
As you take a closer look at our virtual version of Sir Didymus, make sure to pay attention to one small, but important detail: his walking stick. According to Froud, that's the detail that unlocked the character for him. "A stick is a useful thing," Froud explains. "It gives the puppeteers something to do. When we did Yoda, Frank Oz [who puppeteered and voiced the character in The Empire Strikes Back] would talk about how to manipulate him in the early days while we were mocking it up making a puppet. He said: 'Give him a walking stick, and I'm going to be all right.'"
In the film, Sir Didymus is a noble, but slightly fearful fox-like knight who aids Sarah (Connelly) in her quest to rescue her baby brother Toby from the clutches of Bowie's goblin king, Jareth. And Froud used actual medieval knights — mercenaries known as Landsknechts — as the basis for the character's design. "They were famous for having very flamboyant costumes and huge hats with lots of feathers. So Sir Didymus is really a miniaturized version of that. Of course, it was always useful for those knights to have a sword, but in Didymus’s case it’s that stick. A lot of his character comes from that very simple device. Didymus is very demonstrative with that stick: He's always bashing things or tapping things."
Sir Didymus currently resides at Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts, which houses several of Henson's creations. (Henson died in 1990.) But you won't find his trusty canine steed, Ambrosius, there... mainly because Ambrosius was mostly played by a real dog. "We had to use a real dog to move Sir Didymus across the stage!" Froud says of the tricks the production used in the days before computer generated characters. "It's hard to imagine now, but we didn't have greenscreen back then. Now, having Sir Didymus riding on a dog-like creature wouldn't be a problem. And the dog actor was great!"
The Four Guards
While navigating through the Goblin King's titular labyrinth, Sarah frequently encounters an obstacle or two blocking her path. Or, in this case, four of them. In order to pass through one of the two doors these four guards are protecting, she needs to solve a brain-teasing riddle. If these puppets look like playing cards to you that's entirely by design. "Those are playing cards," Froud confirms. "The impulse initially was, like with so many things, Punch & Judy. It's just having a square with a hole in it and a puppet that peers over the top. I thought that was great, but also a bit boring. What I like about playing cards is that you have heads at the top and the bottom, so we could put a puppeteer down below."
Like Sir Didymus, the Four Guards are part of the archives at the Center for Puppetry Arts where they are stored back-to-back instead of side-by-side. "Because they were guards, we knew they could be stationary and now you can start puppeteering through the wall," Froud notes. "Everything is working for you."
The person responsible for coming up with the riddle that the Four Guards present to Sarah was medievalist and Monty Python member, Terry Jones, who did a polish on the script. And fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail are sure to hear his influence on the way the Guards speak to each other. "When you've got someone like Terry Jones come along who has an ear for dialogue, the thing comes to life via how it looks and also what it says and how it moves the story along," Froud explains. "It's all about creating the illusion of life. That moment where life happens in front of your eyes is always magic. It takes your breath away."
The Goblin Knights
Once they get to Goblin City, Sarah and her comrades find it well-guarded by the Jareth's own band of Goblin Knights. And unlike Sir Didymus, these knights are encased head-to-toe in armor. "I've always loved armor," Froud admits. "What's great about an armored figure is that it's a completely different texture to what you'd have as a puppet creature. It separates out visually. I love those big enclosed helmets, so it was a great opportunity to get some shape and form and make them large."
According to Froud, there are no actual goblins inside of that armor, which is stored at the Center for Puppetry Arts. But those suits do hide some fun secrets anyway. "The idea of coloring them differently actually came from the British series Thomas the Tank Engine," he reveals. "If you peer into the costumes, you'll see little numbers on them which are references to steam engines! And there are drips of oils, so they really are archaic steam engines. That's the in-joke about those characters."
Is it possible that the Goblin Knights could ride again in a sequel? Froud says that Henson never contemplated making another Labyrinth, preferring instead to come up with new material. "Jim was always wanting to do something new and push the boundaries of what puppets could do," Froud explains, describing how he and Henson explored the possibilities of radio controlled puppets both before and during Labyrinth. "We kept learning more and more as we were doing these movies."
Flash-forward three decades, though, and a Labyrinth sequel is currently in the works at TriStar Pictures. And while Froud isn't involved in that project, he'd be excited to see new filmmakers revisit that world that he, Henson and the rest of the film's creative team invented. "Because Labyrinth takes place in a labyrinth, around every corner you can come across a new adventure. It can literally go off in all sorts of directions. It's also very dreamlike, so you can play around with time and space. It's always a world you could return to at any point in the story or any point in time."
Labyrinth is currently streaming on HBO Max and Netflix.