Despite the perennial affection — and occasional fervor — shown toward Jim Henson’s Muppet creations, Henson’s other forays into fantasy have never inspired the same level of devotion. No one was ever trampled in a pre-Christmas mall stampede while trying to get their hands on a Gelfling doll. Then again, Henson productions such as The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) have always represented the road less traveled in the post–Star Wars visual-effects boom. For Henson, puppetry and animatronics were never a stopgap measure until CG caught up; they were the medium of choice for their own artistic and aesthetic merits. The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth represent the zenith of a distinct filmmaking tradition that elicits as much fascination as the worlds it brings to life. By comparison, George Lucas (who, to be fair, executive-produced Labyrinth) has all but repudiated the techniques of the first Star Wars films as inadequate to his vision, an insulting attitude most recently exemplified in Lucasfilm’s decision to include the original versions of the trilogy as subordinate extras on the DVD release this Tuesday of the bastardized “enhanced versions.” The airlessness of the new Star Wars films only confirms Lucas’ factory-style, cookie-cutter approach to digital effects. Leave it to The Jim Henson Company, again, to illuminate the alternative. Co-written by Neil Gaiman with Dave McKean, who also directs, the Henson Company’s production of MirrorMask (2005) weaves a diaphanous spell as a live-action CG fusion, in which a young girl seeks to save the inhabitants of a dreamy imaginary city. Shot largely on a blue-screen stage with digital artists filling in every detail of the film’s luminous environs and fantastical creatures, it is, in tone, the anti–Sin City as well as a testament to the potential for digital tools to give wing to utterly unique big-screen visions.
Other recommended new releases: Ballets Russes (DVD); The Office: Season Two (DVD). Also released this week: DVD: Agatha Christie Classic Mystery Collection; DragonBall Z: Movie 13: Wrath of the Dragon; Goal!: The Dream Begins; Grey’s Anatomy: Season Two; Hellbent; Las Vegas: Season Three; Lucky Number Slevin; Moonlighting: Season 4; My Little Pony: The Runaway Rainbow; One Voice: Barbra Streisand; R.E.M.: When the Light is Mine .?.?. The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982–1987 Video Collection; Roseanne: The Complete Fifth Season; Smallville: The Complete Fifth Season; SpongeBob SquarePants: Season 4, Vol. 1; Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977 & 2004): 2-Disc Widescreen Edition; Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 & 2004): 2-Disc Widescreen Edition; Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 & 2004): 2-Disc Widescreen Edition; Stella: Season One; Teen Titans: The Complete Second Season; The Batman: The Complete Second Season; The Miracle Match; The Wild.