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The Muppeteer: Brian Henson will visit S.L. to celebrate 50 years of the Muppets

Brian Henson didn't intend to follow in his father's footsteps. It just worked out that way.

Henson's father, Jim Henson, was the creator of the Muppets, those much-beloved icons — led by Kermit the Frog — from their own TV variety show, TV specials, big-screen movies and, of course, "Sesame Street."

"He always encouraged me to become my own man and to do what I really wanted with my life," Brian Henson said by phone from the Hollywood offices of the Jim Henson Co. But his earliest jobs as an adult included puppetry work on such films as "Return to Oz" (1985), and he soon decided that was the way to go.

"I learned a lot from my father," the 42-year-old filmmaker said, "especially when it comes to performing and puppetry. And I quickly realized it would be a mistake for me not to use those skills."

Henson also picked up his father's passion for filmmaking.

The younger Henson served as the second-unit director on "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1990) and went on to direct the big-screen feature "Muppet Treasure Island" (1996), as well as episodes of the science-fiction television series "Farscape," which includes aliens created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

The Salt Lake Film Center is hosting Henson for a three-day "residency" next week, which will help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Henson Co. As part of that event, Henson will be showing a "Farscape" miniseries, "Peacekeeper Wars," as well as as other works he directed or in which the Henson company was involved.

He'll also be lecturing on the future of digital puppetry. "Having played an important role in independent filmmaking and computer-animation techniques, Salt Lake City is a perfect host," he said. Utah is also "home for some of our most loyal and supportive audiences, and I am looking forward to meeting them and discussing our upcoming projects."

Brian Henson has been running the Jim Henson Co. since his father's death in 1990. Under the younger Henson's leadership, the company and its Creature Shop have produced creature effects for the "Babe" and "Dr. Dolittle" movies, among many others.

But, fearing the company had become too big and might lose its way, the Henson family sold the company to German interests in 2000. "They had the best of intentions, but they weren't the best of businessmen," Henson said with a sigh.

So, three years later, the family reacquired the company, and today, Henson and his sister Lisa serve as co-CEOs and co-chairs. (Their sisters Cheryl and Heather, and brother John, serve on the company's board of directors.)

The family drastically reduced the size of the company, preferring to focus their efforts on film-and-television production and their work as an effects house, rather than being involved in distribution and acquisition. "We're a creative family, and that sort of thing really doesn't interest us," said Henson. "I know I prefer to be behind the scenes."

Most recently, they sold the Muppets properties to the Walt Disney Co. "We've been looking for a way to get the Muppets back into the public consciousness," Henson said. "It's been too long, and we really didn't have the resources to do that. So this was ideal."

That deal has yielded immediate results, as Buena Vista Home Entertainment is releasing the various Muppets TV shows and movies on DVD, as well as the recently released box set of "The Muppet Show; Season One."

Of course, that also means Disney now calls the shots with regard to any and all future Muppet projects. But Henson says he believes the family will be involved. "Obviously, that's up to the Disney people. But they've always been very respectful of their own properties, so I have to believe that they will treat my father's beloved creations with similar sensitivity and care."

In the meantime, the Jim Henson Co. is concentrating its efforts on new productions. One that Henson is most proud of is "MirrorMask," a live-action/digitally animated fantasy that is a collaboration between writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean. (That film will be released in select cities, including Salt Lake City, next Friday.) "It's something else — it's just so imaginative. I'm sure people are going to love it."

He's also lining up a series of animated films based on the best-selling "Frances Treasury" novels. And he and sister Lisa are spearheading a sequel to the 1982 animatronic fantasy "The Dark Crystal," which is tentatively titled "The Power of the Dark Crystal." "It's getting pretty far along in development, though we're not quite ready to announce some of the details yet. But this will bring the Jim Henson Co. back in a big way."


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com