Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tale of Sand Stuns Visually, Skimps On Story

My earliest memories of muppets are wrapped up in the movie Labyrinth, the TV show Fraggle Rock, and obviously, actual "Muppet properties" like The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Great Muppet Caper, A Muppet Christmas Carol, and The Muppet Babies. This statement is noteworthy for a couple of reasons, but chiefly it deals with how I frame my interaction with this piece/these pieces of popular culture. Notice I did not say, "My earliest memories of Jim Henson," similarly to how I would never say, "My earliest memories of George Lucas...". The properties themselves are what I interact(ed) with, and although now I am much more aware of a creator or creators than when I was younger, I still go into a book, movie, play, or anything presenting a fictional narrative with the hope that I can place myself inside its created world and experience it as seamlessly as possible. Jim Henson is without a doubt one of the most important visionary creators of the 20th century, and if you debate that I would ask you why. His creations still exist to this day, and often bridge the gap for many fans between various age ranges. Henson managed to bring something into the world that boys and girls could enjoy, and made it possible to carry the enjoyment and entertainment with them as the calendar pages fluttered by and their age-appropriate nouns changed. Passing down a beloved movie (or book, or song, etc.) to one's children is surely a fantastically rewarding aspect of parenthood (I can only speculate), and Henson, along with his collaborators, gave the world a huge amount of material that can function in this way.

I never would have described myself as a huge Henson fan, but sitting down to write this I realized exactly how much of my young life (as well as young-adult, and now adult) has been spent appreciating the art of Jim Henson. Labyrinth was an enormous part of my childhood, and a large role in the development of my imagination and love of escaping into stories - which the movie deals with explicitly - and realizing this led me to see how much I really owe to Henson. I graduated from watching Labyrinth on a VHS prone to storms of static to enjoying it on a pristine Bluray.

My lifelong interaction with certain Henson properties was taken into consideration when Archaia Entertainment announced they would be putting out a comic based on an un-published/un-produced screenplay by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl entitled Tale of Sand. The announcement came with images from Ramon K. Perez that were absolutely gorgeous, and immediately set the excitement and anticipation levels high. Maybe, at my current age, the eventual enjoyment levels I experience with a book are intimately tied to my previous levels of anticipation/expectation. That equation is something I've dissected and worried over for a few years now, and realistically there is most likely nothing I can do if it's true. I hate to think the actual strength of the material has less to do with my enjoyment than my own personal expectations do, and that is one of the reasons why I refuse to admit there is truth to the theory "It's all about expectations."

When I finally got to read Tale of Sand I went into it looking for adventure, comedy, and maybe just a pinch of introspection powered by the book's own characters learning about themselves. What I found was a collection of absolutely gorgeous images by Ramon K. Perez, with colors provided by he and Ian Herring that lingered in my mind. Also of note is the lettering, which was based on Jim Henson's handwriting.

This book has some of the most memorable art published by Archaia to date. The art plays a large role in how noteworthy the publication has become, and is much more worthy of the positive critical outpouring than the script provided by Henson and Juhl. The words "un-published" and "un-produced" become particularly glaring when Tale of Sand is actually read, rather than just looked at. The prospect of creating a comic based on content from a beloved source that was previously unseen (or even completely unknown) may have saddled this project with unfair critical expectations, and may have made it hard for some reviewers to look with anything other than nostalgic eyes. I absolutely love Henson, but this book delivers 50% of a complete project; its art is gorgeous, its story is all but non-existent.

Maybe the problem with the Tale of Sand story lies in its existence as an un-produced screenplay that had been in the Henson vault for years. Information on the Tale of Sand publication gives a couple of indications of what was to be expected from taking this un-produced script and adapting it. The back of the book states, "It was during the development of the final draft of the screenplay that Jim Henson came involved in the production of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, and he left the experimental filmmaking of his youth behind to concentrate on the creations that would in time make him a household name." We're given two possible reasons for why the story and/or a plot is missing from Tale of Sand. First, Henson was unable to finish a final draft of the script before moving on to other projects. There's absolutely no evidence to support the theory that Henson left the script unfinished because he was unhappy with it, but that is certainly a possibility. It is undoubtable that Henson's commitment to Sesame Street and The Muppet Show occupied much of his time, but I wonder if Tale of Sand being shelved for almost 40 years didn't indicate Henson's displeasure with the material he and Juhl had created. We'll most likely never know that answer.

Another indication that Tale of Sand was going to be light on story is the book's jacket copy referring to Henson's leaving the "experimental filmmaking of his youth." Karen Falk - the Archives Director and historian of the Jim Henson Company - addresses Henson's experimental work in her foreword to Tale of Sand, specifically an Oscar nominated short film he created entitled "Time Piece." You can see the short film on YouTube here, and I suggest if you're going to read Tale of Sand, you would do well to watch this short film first. It gives you a pretty good hint at what you're going to experience with the book, and might put your mind in the right place going into the material.

I disagree with anyone labeling Henson as a strictly visual storyteller, and that is why I was so disappointed to find very little story in Tale of Sand. Yes, the visuals of Henson's many creations are strong and memorable, but the best of his creations has always relied on story and character to some degree, tales that evoke, as I mentioned earlier, some level of introspection in the viewer, whether it be through comedy or drama.

Tale of Sand is undoubtedly an experiment in visuals, one that succeeds immensely. Where it fails, however, is to deliver a story alongside those visuals, which is a significant failure for a hardcover of 152 pages which will cost you $29.95. If you're content to buy a book that is beautiful to look at, and nothing else, then this book is definitely for you. I think if I had known just how experimental it would be (again, I direct you to the short film Time Piece), my interaction with Tale of Sand would most likely have been different. It's odd to think that even though I have spent a large amount of my youth, adolescence, and adulthood with Henson's creations, I was absolutely unaware of the short film he almost won an Oscar for. I can't help but wonder if this piece of Henson's past should have stayed in the vault, if for no other reason than maybe that is in fact where he intended it to stay. Although the foreword contains references to many attempts to find financing for the film, all resulting in failures, it is entirely possible the script's status as un-produced was because it was in reality just an extended version of Henson's one minute and 37 second short film, which is utterly without story and entirely reliant upon experimental visuals.

I am pleased I got the opportunity to read this publication for without it I wouldn't have seen Ramon K. Perez's gorgeous art, and been able to put his name on my list of artists to watch. Another thing of note is how reliable Archaia is at producing quality publications, from paper stock to binding. A book published by them is almost guaranteed to look wonderful on your shelf. Tale of Sand hasn't altered my love of Henson, but it definitely has put my love for his creations in perspective, and in a way, strengthened that love.

Archaia is currently developing a Labyrinth graphic novel with artist Brian Froud (who helped design the characters for the original film). I will undoubtedly be reading it.

-Austin Wilson

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