Long after selling the Muppets to Disney and the “Sesame Street” characters to Sesame Workshop, the Jim Henson Co. is busy creating new fare via originals — such as a live-action fantasy series in early development with “The Walking Dead” star Norman Reedus — and existing IP that the company still owns, like “Fraggle Rock.”
In the case of Reedus, the star has worked with creatures for years, fighting zombies on the long-running AMC hit. Now, he’s creating an entirely new universe of characters by teaming up with Brian and Wendy Froud (“The Dark Crystal”) for a project in the works for Henson. The primetime adventure series, intended for a family audience, will feature an entirely new universe of creatures created by the Frouds.
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“Norman Reedus, the Frounds [who will create the show’s creatures] and the Jim Henson Company coming together to create a show is the mashup of my dreams,” says Halle Stanford, president of TV at The Jim Henson Company. “Norman is an artist, and when I suggested to him, what if we create a series with the Frounds together that explores his love of magical creatures, he was so excited.”
Reedus calls that “an understatement. They are masters in the fantasy world-building space. I mean, a show about goblins, trolls and otherworldly creatures? There’s nobody in the universe better suited for that than the Henson Company.”
That’s just one example of the expanding slate at Henson TV, which also includes “Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock.” Henson’s reimagining of the kids series that launched in 1983 on HBO, “Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock” premiered last month on Apple TV Plus.
“I just definitely felt the world even more Fraggles. We needed more hope right now in the world,” says Stanford, who has clocked nearly 25 years at the company via various stints there. “We did a lot of talking to kids and teachers and parents, and we came up with a lot of topics that you can see them in the show. A lot having to do with science, and talking about sustainability, social justice and repairing problems that we create. We have a lot of conversation about identity. We discovered there’s a lot of anxiety in children.
“It feels so true to ‘Fraggle Rock’ as it’s made by fans,” she adds. “They were very aware of how we had to transform it for a modern-day audience, not just with the topics we’re talking about, but the sophistication of comedy, the way that it’s filmed, making it exciting.”
Henson TV is also behind Apple TV Plus’s 1960s-set animated series “Harriet the Spy,” featuring the voices of Beanie Feldstein and Jane Lynch. On Netflix, the shingle is expanding its preschool franchise “Word Party” with the companion series “Word Party Presents: Math!”
“It uses our Henson digital puppetry system,” Stanford says of the latter. “In terms of innovation, Henson is always, I feel, trying to push the visuals in television.”
Coincidentally, “Word Party” creator Alex Rockwell started in the company as Jim Henson’s assistant, and later Stanford was Rockwell’s assistant. “It was my pleasure to help her keep growing this franchise,” Stanford says. “Hopefully, there will be more math parties, world parties, language parties, everything. I hope the babies keep having parties forever and ever on Netflix.”
Although Netflix canceled “The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance” after one season, Stanford hasn’t given up on figuring out a new way into that franchise.
“We are nimble, we are resilient. We are ready to jump. The minute anyone would like to jump back into Thra [“The Dark Crystal” planet setting], it is a world that we will continue to build on and think about,” she says.
She tells Variety that the company is especially eager to expand further into family-oriented primetime fare in fantasy and science fiction. Stanford uses the term “hope punk” to describe the positive take on genre.
“We want to make hope cool,” she says. In regards to the Reedus project, “it is an urban fantasy. It will be a magical world. But I feel like Norman is going to help us bring the ‘punk’ back in ‘hope punk.’ I also think that people kind of like that punk in Henson’s legacy. The Muppets were the underdogs, our [‘Labyrinth’] Goblin King with David Bowie was so cool…
“When you say ‘Jim Henson,’ it invokes something in people,” she adds. “So I’m hoping those that felt inspired by him, like Norman Reedus, will look to us as a new home to create these types of stories that are transformative and entertaining, and having something to say, but also wanting to kind of push the medium of television.”
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