It’s been a while since my last edition of Forgotten Friday, so let’s take another trip down the rabbit hole…
It surprises me how many Jim Henson fans have never heard of Dreamchild. While technically not a Jim Henson film, Dreamchild arrived in 1985, right in between Jim Henson’s two seminal works of fantasy, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and it represents an important step between the two.
As everyone familiar with his work knows, Jim Henson really began pushing the limits of puppet technology in the 1980s, which resulted in a Renaissance of creativity from Jim Henson and his team that continued even after his death. Much of this is due to the formation of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the workshop that Jim Henson created in the wake of The Dark Crystal to design and fabricate puppet-based characters that were far more elaborate than the Muppet and Fraggle-like hand puppets which most people were familiar with at that time.
Dreamchild was the first movie the Creature Shop worked on that was not a Jim Henson film (they would later move on to contribute puppets and animatronics to movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Where the Wild Things Are, among many others). And is notable in that it’s actually the first time any of Jim Henson’s fantasy characters interacted believably with human actors, a process he would go on to perfect with Labyrinth.
Dreamchild is inspired by the work and life of Lewis Carroll, but it’s not a retelling of Alice in Wonderland. Rather, it’s a fictionalized account of the life of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Lewis’ Alice. Set primarily in New York in the 1930s, the now elderly Alice has arrived to receive an honorary doctorate from Columbia University on behalf of Charles Dodgson (the real-life Reverend who wrote under the pen name, Carroll). It proves to be a challenging trip for Alice, who is overwhelmed by the pace and size of the city and frequently finds herself escaping into memories of her life with Rev. Dodgson.
But that’s not all. Alice also occasionally slips into moments of fantasy where she’s confronted by many of Carroll’s creations, and as the film goes on, you must wonder if the distinction between reality and fantasy is starting to slip in Alice’s mind. I don’t want to give anything else away, but suffice to say that Dreamchild is a complex, occasionally uncomfortable film that deals with a very complicated relationship and the equally complicated task of maturing and accepting faults in yourself and others.
Of course, it’s the Wonderland creatures for which Jim Henson’s team is responsible, and they’re every bit as engaging, bizarre and fun as anything in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth – but with a bite that’s uniquely their own. The creatures in Dreamchild lack the humor and warmth of the ones in Labyrinth, or the intricate societies of the ones in The Dark Crystal. They’re actually pretty malevolent – Carroll’s creations turned even more nightmarish – and serve as an interesting set of demons for Alice to overcome.
I worry about taking the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth comparisons too far, however. Dreamchild is a very different film from either of them. I’d compare it more to a movie like Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. It uses fantasy to illustrate one character’s disassociation from reality (and if you haven’t heard of The Fisher King…well, maybe that should be a topic of a future Forgotten Friday). However, differences aside, it’s a film that fans of The Jim Henson Company, Lewis Carroll, or good character-based drama shouldn’t miss.
Check out the trailer below…