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Puppet Masters

Andy Lawless

Virtual People: Ladybug, Grasshopper, Spider, James and Earthworm escape the world of people in "James and the Giant Peach."

In films like 'MST3K: The Movie' and 'James and the Giant Peach,' puppets are free to speak while humans hide their feelings

By Richard von Busack

The origin of puppetry is tangled up in the roots of drama, costume and religious ritual. In most world cultures, drama evolves from sacred performances involving the impersonation of the gods. In ancient Greece, devotees wore the costume of the half-man, half-goat satyr for processions honoring Dionysus in early "tragoidia," meaning "the goat song." Is a man in a costume not a sort of puppet?

Through the centuries, puppet theater was both television and cinema for the public. Often, there was no difference between high and low art; Goethe and Mozart composed for puppet shows, and both Don Juan and Faust started as puppets and ended as operas. Only recently has the puppet show started to get some of its own back. Babe, in which a great deal of puppetry figured, was one of the best movies of last year, and no one has a bad word to say about the Muppets. This week alone, there are two puppet shows at local theaters: the low-tech Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie and the high-tech James and the Giant Peach.

Fans of the recently canceled MST3K, as the abbreviation goes, know the drill. The hosts are the imperturbable-to-the-point-of-sleepwalking Joel Robinson and his replacement (and star of this movie), the much more affable but not-so-intriguing Mike "Curly Joel" Nelson. Both men, the premise has it, have been stranded in outer space with some engaging robots and are being tortured by generic mad scientist Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu), who forces them to watch edited versions of bad movies.

And what a cornucopia of bad movies the show has delivered during its seven years on the air: Manos: The Hands of Fate, Ring of Terror, Sidehackers, Monster a-Go-Go. The last of that group is probably the worst I've ever seen, scoring on two of the three most important factors for bad movies: 1) exploitation of a birth-defect case, namely Harry Height, the circus giant who plays the a-go-going monster and 2) the immortal "It was all a dream" ending. The movie, however, lacks 3) God or his personal representative showing up to fix everything.

MST3K's show is simple format. The puppet 'bots are the basket-headed Crow "T." Robot; his foil, the bubbleheaded Tom Servo (a talking gumball machine); and Gypsy (dog by name, dog by nature). Gypsy steers the ship while Mike, Crow and Tom, seen in silhouette, sit in a theater discussing what they see. They wisecrack just like your friends, except they are much funnier.

Are you suitably MSTie-fied? For further edification, check out Richard von Busack interview with MST3K's Trace Beaulieu and Jim Mallon. We threw in a mess o' links, too, so get going!

In the unusually amusing nonbook The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide (Bantam; $16.95), co-creator Kevin Murphy tells (with typical Midwestern modesty) about getting the brush from his idol Kurt Vonnegut, who was not real pleased at the show's mockery of science-fiction scripts that sometimes took the desperate authors an entire night to write.

Some people hate the show, figuring that they could laugh better on their own at bad movies. Others watch in reverent silence at the rare cinematic artifacts. The movie within the MST3K movie is This Island Earth, which is described by Forrester as "a stinky cinematic suppository." This Island Earth, however, isn't a bad movie in the way that, say, Up Close and Personal is. It's merely a boring one. Too bad--it has one of the most poetic titles in the annals of cinema.

Still, what an unfortunate cast: basso-profundo ham-and-egger Rex Reason as a scientist, and, as the "gurl," the infamous Faith Domergue, Howard Hughes' crush--not really smoldering as much as chafing, perhaps from some sort of a rash. Jeff Morrow turns up as a big-headed alien.

The movie certainly provides meat for the puppets, who seize on its outre points: the near-passionate friendship between Reason and his lab assistant; the insufficient darkness of a day-for-night shot ("Let's escape under the cover of afternoon," comments a 'bot); and the typical MST3K gag, the talking animate object, in this case, a crashing flying saucer: "Pay no attention to me, I'm just a weather balloon; I'm just some swamp gas."

No one who sees the MST3K movie can accuse its makers of monkeying with the formula. Expanded only barely for the wide screen, it has a few live-action interludes. The movie only breaks the frame by a couple of sets and some cursing they couldn't do on the long-running cable show.

On screen, as on the tube, MST3K's puppets upstage its humans. Still, work with puppets occasionally leads the way to work with real people. Tim Burton, who started with stop-motion animation (in the Disney short Vincent), went on to stylized films, making puppets out of people in Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Batman through ultraviolet lighting and white makeup.

Burton's great achievement is bringing an expressionist aesthetic to mainstream American audiences and making them like it. His influence on The Nightmare Before Christmas was as producer. He shares a producing credit (with Denise Di Novi) on the new stop-motion animated fantasy James and the Giant Peach, although San Francisco director Henry Selick certainly deserves more credit than he's been getting for the look of both films.

In James and the Giant Peach, the orphan James Henry Trotter is bullied by his ugly aunts, Spiker and Sponge, until he finally makes his escape. His vehicle, crewed by friendly insects, is a magic giant peach, which goes aloft, lassoed to seagulls by the silk from a spider's spinnerets. The 1961 children's book on which the movie is based was written by Roald Dahl, the
ultradark short-story writer who may have been led to the idea via the ancient Chinese tale of the boy hatched from a peach.

The film is, for the most part, unimpeachable. Some of the troubles Selick went through trying to have this offbeat and macabre film funded by Walt Disney Pictures could be guessed at by an underwater fight scene in a ship's graveyard. Look among the sword-wielding "skellingtons," and you'll see a bony monster with a sailor hat and a duckbill: a dead Donald Duck.

Compared to the relative cuteness of The Nightmare Before Christmas, the characterizations in James and the Giant Peach are beautifully bizarre. Lane Smith, the popular illustrator of children's books (he did The Stinky Cheese Man), was the conceptual designer. If Nancy Burkett's Garth Williams-style illustrations for the original book have been discarded, there is still fanciful beauty in the quieter scenes (of which there are too few), such as the one in which the peach floats among the stars.

The brash centipede (voiced, relentlessly, by Richard Dreyfuss) tends to chase out any reflective moments, and the critter is at his best during the peach-eating orgy number, with the original Dahl lyrics. This sequence crosses the post-Victorian fancifulness of Dahl with the magnum force of the Disney entertainment machinery. The result is that rarity: a showstopping song that indeed stops the show.

There is at least one definite improvement on the original. The maternal Miss Spider has been changed to a beret-wearing expressionist vamp whose sultry Natasha Fatale accent is provided by Susan Sarandon. Spider inspires true love--not a cuteness-induced swoon but the more passionate feeling that comes from falling for a cartoon character who is also a work of art.

The songs in these Disney pictures are usually fairly painful, and James and the Giant Peach is no exception. Randy Newman noodles with lyrics like "Love is the sweetest thing," while James (Paul Terry) sings a show tune with a lisp, straining even the highest cuteness tolerance.

The biggest problem, however, comes in the live-action sequences that bracket the animation. One such sequence would have been enough, and two are too many. An encore wasn't as good a thing as the book, which left them squashed by the prodigious peach, "as giant and thin and lifeless as a couple of paper dolls cut out of a picture book."

Equally thin and lifeless are the uplifting morals about the power of dreams and the importance of facing your fears. There's enough strange magic in the film to make it delightful, but I doubt, as Richard Corliss in Time has it, that the movie is a complete improvement. The book beckons children, the movie (to use that good old Hollywood phrase, with its intonations of assault) grabs them.

The early word for actor, hypokrites, originally meant someone who answers the Greek chorus. Over the years, the word came to mean what it means now: a deceiver, someone whose mask says a different thing than what the wearer believes.

The allure of puppets is their freedom of speech and their honesty. Puppets can speak the unpleasant truth without offending. Everything they say is distanced; their speech comes premade with quotation marks around it. The dangerous speech issues from an inhuman figure, whom one might accuse of deviousness but never of true hypocrisy. He is what he says. This protected yet provocative quality explains why we sense that Miss Spider or Crow T. Robot is alive in a way that, say, Robert Redford isn't. The greatest illusion of puppets is that they somehow speak for themselves--something humans never can.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (PG-13; 74 min.), directed by Jim Mallon, written by Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy and Mallon, photographed by Jeff Stonehouse and starring Nelson, Beaulieu, Murphy and Mallon.

James and the Giant Peach (PG; 80 min.), directed by Henry Selick, written by Karey Kirkpatrick, Steve Bloom and Jonathan Roberts, based on the book by Roald Dahl, photographed by Pete Kozachik and starring the voices of Richard Dreyfuss and Susan Sarandon.

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From the April 18-14, 1996 issue of Metro

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