10 Most Iconic Movie Puppets of the '80s

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    The eighties were filled with TV shows, bands and films that hold a special place in our nostalgic hearts. The hilarious, family-friendly antics of The Cosby Show’s Huxtables were one of the biggest draws on TV. The power ballads and anthems of rockers Boston and Journey climbed the charts, and movies were filled with awesomely bizarre-looking animated puppets, a far cry from today’s much more polished – but arguably characterless – CGI creations. Back then, everyone from Steven Spielberg to James Cameron used the now somewhat lost art of puppetry heavily in their films, resulting in some of the most unforgettable movie characters of all time. Here’s a look back at ten iconic ‘80s movie puppets that are forever etched in memory.

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    10. Jabba the Hutt – Return of the Jedi (1983)

    Slug-like intergalactic crime lord Jabba the Hutt is quite possibly one of the grossest space creatures in film history. The hedonistic, slave girl-loving gambler with a taste for torture first showed up in the 1983 Star Wars sequel Return of the Jedi. In the movie, he famously makes Princess Leia dress in a bikini that would go on to appear in nerd fantasies for decades. Off camera, however, Hutt was actually an enormous, complex puppet that literally weighed a ton and needed three puppeteers to operate. In perhaps one of the least flattering tributes ever, costume designer Nilos Rodis-Jamero said that his vision of Jabba the Hutt was based on an older Orson Welles.

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    9. Ludo – Labyrinth (1986)

    Jim Henson’s 1986 Bowie-tastic children’s adventure Labyrinth features tons of oddball puppets, but maybe none are more memorable than Ludo, the gentle giant of a companion to a young Jennifer Connelly, as teenage heroine Sarah. Ludo scores high on the ugly-but-lovable scale, saying adorable things like “fwend” and talking about himself in the third person as he helps Sarah rescue her infant brother after a babysitting session goes terribly awry. Under his thick coat of fur, Ludo required the services of two puppeteers, whose window to what was happening outside was a TV monitor located in the puppet’s belly. Three more puppeteers used radio controls to manipulate Ludo’s facial expressions and other movements. The character’s broken English and main puppetry was performed by Jim Henson’s apprentice at the time, Ron Mueck, who has gone on to become a prominent sculptor.

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    8. The Alien Queen – Aliens (1986)

    Following the success of 1979’s Alien, director James Cameron decided it was essential to go one up on the life form that wreaked havoc in the first film, with a much larger and more terrifying creature that tested the boundaries of puppetry. The result was the Alien Queen, which famously battles the extra-terrestrial-ass-kicking force that is Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) at the end of the 1986 sequel Aliens. With the help of legendary special effects and makeup guru Stan Winston, the creature came to life – and in some style. The queen, which looks more like an animatronic bug than a puppet, stood 14 feet tall. Her arms were operated by two puppeteers within the suit, while a further 16 on the outside handled the queen’s mobility – and no post-production treatment was necessary.

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    7. Gizmo – Gremlins (1984)

    If a cast list featuring Phoebe Cates and Corey Feldman isn’t enough of an indication that a movie was made in the thick of the 1980s, then nothing is. The real stars of 1984 dark horror comedy Gremlins, however, are the furry-turned-scaly titular creatures that wreak havoc on the town of Kingston Falls. Lead fuzzy character, main mogwai Gizmo, required the use of several different puppets – but these were prone to malfunctioning, much to the frustration of the crew. So, to appease everyone, the film included a scene in which the gremlins pin Gizmo to a wall and fling darts at him. The expressive foam latex monsters that are the evil gremlins needed machine parts and various puppeteers to operate them. At one point, villain Stripe called for the use of 64 different controls. The creatures were brought to life by Chris Walas, who was also behind the melting Nazis in Indiana Jones classic Raiders of the Lost Ark. And while the movie went on to inspire several creature-featuring rip-offs and a 1990 sequel, Gremlins still reigns supreme.

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    6. Audrey II – Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

    Audrey II has to be the most memorable singing plant in movie history. Since the release of 1986 musical comedy Little Shop of Horrors, master of puppets Frank Oz’s creation has become a cult icon of screen as well as stage. The film itself is an adaptation of a popular ‘80s Alan Menken musical that was loosely based on a non-musical B movie released in 1960. It follows the exploits of flower shop owner Seymour Krelborn, played by Rick Moranis, and his evil, demanding, human blood-consuming plant Audrey II. Fans will remember Audrey II’s deep baritone voice, which was provided by Levi Stubbs, best known for his work with Motown group the Four Tops. The filmmakers achieved a more realistic look by shooting Audrey II’s scenes slowly and then speeding them up, meaning Moranis and the other actors had to (quite impressively) lip-sync their lines and act in slow motion.

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    5. The Muppets – The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

    The Muppets are puppets for all decades, or at least all decades since the 1950s, when they were created. Moreover, the ‘80s was no exception, as everyone’s favorite rowdy puppet crew hit the big screen in 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper and the 1984 classic The Muppets Take Manhattan. In the latter film, the Muppets head to the Big Apple, hoping to get their show on Broadway. Naturally, however, things don’t go as smoothly as planned, and they all end up broke and have to find jobs. Frank Oz directed the movie, and legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson stars as the voices of Kermit, Rowlf and Dr. Teeth, to name but a few. Oz himself, meanwhile, voiced Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, and a host of other Muppets. Sadly, The Muppets Take Manhattan was the last Muppets film released during Henson’s lifetime.

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    4. Falkor – The NeverEnding Story (1984)

    Doggish-looking creature Falkor either scared the bejesus out of you as a kid or had you convinced you’d be mounting your own luck dragon and flying over fantasy worlds in no time. Falkor is also surely the best-remembered character from 1984 children’s classic The NeverEnding Story. Set in a world called Fantasia, the movie revolves around quiet, bookish young boy Bastian Bux (played by Barret Oliver), who reads The Neverending Story and travels to Fantasia in order to help save the world from “The Nothing.” Actor Alan Oppenheimer provided Falkor’s voice, and two models were necessary to bring the lovable dragon to life, including a monstrous version that was more than 49 feet (15 meters) long, with a head that weighed 220 pounds (100 kilograms). The model had a frame composed of airplane steel, while its skin included roughly 10,000 “scales,” each the size of a human hand. A team of well-coordinated technicians controlled the puppet’s 16 movable parts, allowing it to laugh, speak, smile and frown. Today, a giant Falkor model resides at Bavaria Studios in Germany, where visitors get the chance to snag a ride on its back.

  • Image: YouTube/Fletcher Prouty

    3. The Skeksis – The Dark Crystal (1982)

    Cult 1982 fantasy epic The Dark Crystal was movie fans’ first introduction to the darker side of Muppets creator Jim Henson, who co-directed the film with legendary voice actor Frank Oz. Few kids’ movie villains are more terrifying than bizarre reptilian, vulture-like species the Skeksis, who are obsessed with immortality and who fiendishly oppress the benevolent Mystics in the strange, nightmarish place known simply as “another world.” Henson originally intended the Skeksis to represent the seven deadly sins, but because there are ten of the beings, some sins were reused or thought up. During filming, each Skeksis was operated by multiple puppeteers, including one operating the head and face and another who moved the right arm.

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    2. Yoda – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

    Jedi Master Yoda isn’t just a memorable puppet; he’s one of the most iconic movie characters of all time, having been endlessly quoted, parodied and referenced in everything from Space Balls to Family Guy. Yoda first appeared in 1980 Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, in which he was voiced and operated by the illustrious Frank Oz, with the diminutive figure created by celebrated makeup artist Stuart Freeborn. In 1999’s The Phantom Menace, director George Lucas still chose to use a puppet for Yoda, despite the huge advances in CGI. It was the last time that Frank Oz would portray Yoda in puppet form, and unfortunately, Lucas replaced the puppet with a much smoother-looking CGI Yoda for the Blu-ray release of the film. Interestingly, Yoda’s eyes are partially based on the look of Albert Einstein.

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    1. E.T. – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

    E.T is another iconic ‘80s puppet character partly inspired by Albert Einstein’s appearance, and ever since the release of Steven Spielberg’s classic 1982 family comedy E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the otherworldly being has left an indelible mark on cinematic history. The movie’s story, of course, focuses on how the titular E.T. ends up stranded on Earth and befriends a boy named Elliott (played by Henry Thomas). The lovable alien was created using several specialized puppet elements, including an animatronic head, separate heads for facial expressions, and a costume that was alternately occupied by two dwarf actors and a 12-year-old boy who was born without legs. The final puppet price tag was $1.5 million – although this was a figure Spielberg and company more than made up for at the box office. Still, not everyone was in love with E.T. from the start. Mars wouldn’t permit M&Ms to be used in the film, possibly believing that the strange-looking creature wasn’t a good fit for their product. Instead, the candy distinction would famously go to Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces.

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Adam D'Arpino
Adam D'Arpino
Scribol Staff
Pop Culture
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