This is not what you think it is. Unless you think this article is about me advocating for more use of puppets in entertainment media and why that would be extremely cool, then this is exactly what you think it is. Why puppets, one might wonder. And to that, I say: Why not? Puppets and puppet performances are fascinating, from the construction of the puppet to the story it was made for to the way it’s puppeted. And most important is the effect puppets tend to have on people which is exactly why I’m doing my part to spread the puppet agenda.
Now, what is a puppet? That’s somewhat up for debate, according to my Puppet History and Performance professor from grad school. For the purposes of this article, puppets are characters that have been created and built but are inanimate unless given life by performers. That includes traditional puppets, marionettes, animatronics, and even – potentially – character suits. For the most part, I intend to advocate for the use of more traditional puppets, since they’re where my interests lie.
Now: What is a puppet’s purpose? What does it do to complete or elevate or round out a visual story? And why choose to tell a story using puppets?
Puppets evoke a feeling of the uncanny. It’s unsettling and disconcerting to see a hollowed-out version of what looks like a living creature be brought to life by an outside source. Think about what a marionette doll or a ventriloquist dummy look like when they’re just lying around: kind of freakish, isn’t it? That’s part of the appeal of puppets. They makes you just a little bit uncomfortable; they can be a little bit horrifying…and they’re hard to look away from, even if you want to.
I love being made to feel a bit unnerved by art, and I love when things are just a little off – it makes me pay closer attention. I want to follow the story just a bit more intently. It’s also a fun exercise, trying to parse why a specific narrative chose to include puppets if there’s a reason beyond the uncanny. Of course, the creepy factor depends on a variety of things, including what the puppet looks like and how it’s puppeted, but the inherent wrongness of a nonliving thing given life will always be there. It’s why there are so many horror movies about dolls that come to life for one reason or another.
I think that, beside the obvious, what makes puppets good vehicles for antagonists in horror films is that they make people wonder. Beyond just puppeteering, there’s a philosophical element to puppets coming to life. One has to wonder where it comes from, the essence of life given to puppets, and where it goes when those puppets aren’t in use anymore. This is also the root of the psychological terror of not knowing what a puppet is, where it comes from, how to stop it. Animation is not just about puppeting a puppet – it’s about what drives the puppet to be puppeted.
Other than the Muppets and the Sesame Street characters, the majority of puppets in popular media are animatronic characters. While a perfectly legitimate form of puppetry, the key difference is that animatronics are usually made to look as real as possible; unless you’re in direct contact with the puppet, or the puppet is designed to upset its audience, an animatronic puppet doesn’t subject you to the same uncanny unease. For instance, Grogu from The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett is a puppet, the overwhelming reaction to his appearance is that he is extremely cute. Given his character’s age and his relationships with other characters, we can assumed that cuteness was the objective in Grogu’s design. And I love that for him – but that’s not what I’m looking for.
Traditional puppetry in mainstream media is just…not it. Neither the Muppets nor the Sesame Street characters are truly unsettling; being so would defeat their purpose. Beyond that, and with the occasional exception of stage productions, there aren’t many widely available stories that include traditional puppetry. I understand that puppets are expensive, and well-trained puppet performers are harder to find because capitalism doesn’t allow for too many of them. But they offer something invaluable. You can’t get what a puppet gives you via other, cheaper means.
To watch a puppet performer is to be transformed. To see them embody the spirit of the puppet’s character and act with it, adding to the story without overshadowing the puppet itself, is truly amazing. The connection between puppet and performer is quite intimate, and I fear we’re losing the art of puppet performance to newer, more convenient forms of puppetry. I’m all for embracing modernity, but there’s something so emotional, so confrontational about watching a puppet and its performer, and I don’t want that to fade into obscurity.
That might not seem feasible for film or television, but maybe it could be? Maybe there are stories out there that would greatly benefit from the addition of a puppet or two; maybe there are untold stories where all the characters should be puppets. And I think we can all agree that traditional puppets aren’t solely for children, as seen in too many stage productions to count. We need to bring puppets back into film and television so more people can experience them and all they have to offer. I’d end this by telling you to donate to my short film where all the characters are puppets; unfortunately, I’m not there yet. But there are still so many stories to be told through puppet performance – and I invite you, dear reader, to become a champion for traditional puppetry along with me.