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The Next Muppetmeister? : With Jim Henson’s death, his creative empire was thrown into disarray; now his elder son is trying to lead the company back

The workshop floor and benches are strewn with turtle masks, body parts and green latex suits in various stages of preparation. A furry creature’s head sits on a desk, its features contorted into a perpetual snarl. In the corner two mice, each a foot high, look on unblinkingly, their mouths slightly open in expressions of wonder.

This is the Creature Shop, one of two creative engine rooms in the late Jim Henson’s puppet empire. Today is a Saturday, but a fair number of employees are at work--painting, trimming, fiddling with electronic circuits and bringing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle puppets to something resembling life.

The mice, Luke and Bruno, are from an earlier exercise in animatronics--the art of making remote controlled puppets move and change expressions. They star in a British-made film “The Witches,” adapted from Roald Dahl’s best-selling children’s book. Anjelica Huston leads the human faction in the cast. Distributed by Warner Bros., it opens across the country on Friday.

The brisk work generates a businesslike atmosphere that almost makes one forget that this is a company only just recovering from a deep shock.

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Henson died suddenly of pneumonia in May at age 53. His death came as a sorrowful blow to his colleagues and to his company.

He had, after all, given the world Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the other Muppets, along with “Sesame Street” and Muppet Babies--not to mention lesser achievements like “The Storyteller” and “Fraggle Rock” which others in Jim Henson’s line of work would be proud to call their masterpieces.

Now his elder son Brian surveys from a balcony the work being done on this day at the Creature Shop. Brian Henson, like the mice in the corner, does not blink.

“There was a drop in morale when my father died,” he says quietly. “A large percentage of the company was crying about it two weeks later.

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“Everyone was in emotional turmoil. But that period also hardened their drive, and their feelings for what he wanted. Now they’re probably more motivated to keep the dream alive than ever before.”

Brian Henson reminds one inevitably of his father. The same shy, lopsided grin is in evidence, as is a slightly diffident manner and a soft Canadian burr. Though Brian is clean-shaven, he too has a long face with an aquiline profile, framed by masses of hair.

He is being spoken of as the keeper of the flame, the man who, at 26, will carry Jim Henson’s vision into the 21st Century. But will it happen?

Brian Henson pauses a long time. “It’s too early to say,” he says finally. “I’d been working with my father for eight or nine years--in production, direction and here at the shop as performance head.

“I have the same kind of background that he had by this age, but to a lesser degree. I’ve developed an interest in performance, in directing and in (puppet) characters. And I’ll also get involved in the company, because . . .” and he pauses again for a long time, “I have been his apprentice.”

Doesn’t all that constitute assuming his father’s mantle? “To a degree, yes,” says Henson. “Which is a slightly scary prospect. But it’s exciting at the same time.

“You know, that mantle is not quite as big as people think. People know of my father’s creative work, but what they don’t know is the way he chose people to work with him.

“He wanted the company to run itself so he could still be a performer and a director. It meant he could be a father figure and not a boss.

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“So he chose creative, self-motivated people. He tended to pick people who were still young, a lot of them under 20, and they’d stick with him. That’s how we’re managing to carry on right now, because everyone’s so motivated. Here, we’re currently going through our heaviest amount of production ever.”

Henson sold many of his Muppet characters and the New York-based Henson Associates Inc. to Walt Disney Co. last year for an estimated $150-200 million. But Jim Henson Productions, which runs the Creature Shops here and in New York, has stayed within the family and functions like an independent production company, pitching its expertise to would-be collaborators.

The bulk of the London shop’s work is being taken up by the sequel to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The huge success of the first movie, also done at the shop, prompted a decision to mine the same ore quickly, and Creature Shop craftsmen are working against tight deadlines to ready their creations for the second movie.

The Henson contingent admit to reservations about the first Turtles film, feeling it veered uneasily between harmless cartoon-style entertainment for children and a hard-edged assault on the senses with violent overtones.

“The Witches,” says Brian Henson, was a far more challenging and complex task. Dahl’s story is of a boy who uncovers a plot by witches to rid England of small children by turning them into mice with a specially concocted magic potion.

“Real witches,” as Dahl tells it, “dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women . . . that is why they are so hard to catch.”

But when the boy hero of the story (played by young Chicago actor Jasen Fisher) stumbles on a witches’ convention at a seaside hotel led by the Grand High Witch (Huston), he and a boy he befriends are turned into mice before they can combat their evil plans.

The film is directed by Nicolas Roeg, the maverick Briton whose movies such as “Bad Timing,” “Castaway” and “Track 29" combine a dazzling visual sense, adult themes and a freewheeling directing style.

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A collaboration between Roeg and Jim Henson seemed improbable, to put it mildly. “One thing everyone knew before hand,” says Brian Henson, who was coordinating puppeteer on “The Witches,” working closely with Roeg, “was that they had no idea what the movie would look like.”

Roeg, a father of six, insists he has made a film for children: “It speaks to a group, the 6 to 12 year olds, who I think have been overlooked,” he says.

Still, there are flashes of vintage Roeg brilliance, notably in a highly filmic sequence (not in Dahl’s book) where the two mice are chased by witches under chairs and tables in the hotel’s convention hall, then through air vents below ground. “One hopes that if it has some kind of truthfulness, all the people will enjoy it too,” concedes Roeg.

Technical problems in make-up and animatronics were immense. Each witch had to spend an hour each day being transformed from ordinary women. Anjelica Huston, whose metamorphosis involved latex prostheses including an enormous hooked nose, chin whiskers and skin so wrinkled it looks scarred, spent two hours daily being made up.

The Creature Shop had to make electronically controlled mice in three sizes, said John Stephenson, its creative supervisor. Lifesize mice were created for long shots; two mice ten or 12 inches high were used in medium shots in which they had to blink or move their jaws or ears and large hand puppets were employed for close-ups and emphasizing facial expressions.

The problem was that the script called for a huge amount of mouse movement,” added Stephenson. “The whole film was difficult.”

Though “The Witches” opened in London in May to good business, strong word of mouth and generally excellent reviews, it has also been marked by controversy.

Roeg’s film has infuriated Roald Dahl, who has in general not liked film adaptations of his work. In the past, he has criticized the movies of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (released in this country as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and last year’s “Danny, The Champion of the World,” which was shown in the U.S. on the Disney Channel.

As happened with “Danny,” the ending of “The Witches” has been changed on film, and has become more upbeat. Also, the unnamed English boy who narrates the book’s story has been given a name--Luke--and has become American.

The film, the 73-year-old Dahl has said, is “utterly appalling.” He tried, in vain, to have his name removed from the credits. He feels that it is aimed at an audience of adults rather than children, and told an interviewer earlier this year: “I want it known that I wouldn’t allow a child to see it, let alone encourage one to do so.”

(According to a spokeswoman at Puffin Books, Dahl’s publishers, he is currently undergoing hospital tests and was unavailable for further comment.)

Dahl’s public comments about the film adaptation of “The Witches” brought an angry response from its screenwriter, Allan Scott, who in an article written for the Guardian newspaper called him “curmudgeonly.” The film, said Scott, “is, with the exceptions that apparently offend (Dahl), faithful to the book and its spirit.

“The effect, impact and nature of a film is utterly different to that of a novel, and most novelists recognize this difference with good grace or at least well-remunerated silence.”

Scott has written three other films adapted from books and directed by Roeg--"Castaway,” the forthcoming “Cold Heaven” and (with Chris Bryant) the highly regarded “Don’t Look Now.”

“All have been faithful to the original material in the sense that they were serious attempts to recreate in a wholly different medium from which they were derived,” he says.

Scott advised novelists contemplating the sale of a work to the film industry “to remember that word ‘industry’ and bid the book goodby.

“If you’re not willing to take the risk, refuse the blandishments, the (huge) sums of money and the fame--and stick to your own lathe. Even children know that having your cake and eating it is not a maxim to be tampered with.”

Others involved in the film have closed ranks against Dahl’s criticisms. “I like our ending,” says Brian Henson. “It helps the film’s structure, and it makes for a more rounded story. Roald Dahl is fabulously talented, but I think he thinks if anyone else works with his work, it’s going to suffer.”

Roeg also applauds Dahl’s talent, but adds: “This happens when you translate from one medium to another. (Books) are a medium of total imagination, and everyone can imagine a character differently. But when you have to show the Grand High Witch, how can it look like what someone else thinks it should look like? You have to make that leap.”

Clearly, a success in America for “The Witches” would be a strong psychological boost for the Henson Organization in the wake of its founder’s death.

This is why Brian Henson now swivels nervously in his chair on the Creature Shop balcony, enumerating his worries. Will everything depend on the first weekend for what is essentially a word-of-mouth movie? Is 16 cities a wide enough release? Would it have been better to open it last Halloween?

Henson, of course, feels the weight of family expectations on his shoulders. His four siblings show signs of making the Hensons an all-entertainment industry family. His eldest sister Lisa is senior vice president of production at Warner Bros.; Cheryl Henson is a puppeteer and designer, younger brother John is also a puppeteer and has directed student films, and youngest child Heather is at Rhode Island School of Design.

“When I say my father was a father figure, it was really true,” says Brian. “We kids would come into the Creature Shops at weekends growing up, and everyone treated us like they were our aunts and uncles.”

John Stephenson is more detached and relaxed about the family firm’s future. “Jim was a subliminal presence, a gentle hand on the tiller,” he observes. “He was quality control--extremely fussy about what got in front of the camera.

“But we’re very busy, there are 10 or 15 projects on the books in the States.

“Jim has left us an awful lot to be going on with.”


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