I don’t think I’ve mentioned here on the blog what I do for a living. It always gets a big reaction when people, trying to make small talk, casually ask me what I do, and I answer, “I’m a professional puppeteer.” That’s the truth…and I love it! Of course, the work of Jim Henson and his Muppeteers has been a huge influence on me, but there are others, too…among them, Sid and Marty Krofft. Their somewhat psychedelic mixture of puppetry and giant costumes combined to make some of the most unusual children’s television programs of the 60’s and 70’s. Their first big hit was the series “HR Pufnstuf.” It only ran for one season (17 episodes), but its influence can be seen today in everything from “Yo Gabba Gabba” to “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” After the sole season of the show was complete, a stand-alone feature film was quickly produced…1970’s “Pufnstuf.”
The film follows the adventures of Jimmy (Jack Wild), a young British boy whose family has relocated to the US. Jimmy is not exactly the most popular kid…he is constantly late for school due to spending time twirling in the forest and the other kids think he talks funny. One day, after being kicked out of the school band, Jimmy is talking to his flute when suddenly it starts talking back. The flute’s name is Freddy and the two become fast friends. When they find a talking boat, the two friends hop on board. But trouble soon comes in the form of Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes) who attacks the boat with a storm in an effort to get Freddy for herself.
Jimmy and Freddy end up jumping ship and washing up on Living Island, where a strange cast of characters live under the rule of the Mayor, a yellow dragon in a cowboy hat called Pufnstuf. The island is called “Living Island” because everything there is alive…the trees, the houses, books, candles…everything. It is a little silly, but it’s also a great opportunity for the crazy creativity of the Kroffts.
Even with Jimmy and Freddy now under the protection of Pufnstuf and his gang, Witchiepoo is not deterred. She first manages to capture Freddy by sneaking into the town disguised as a hippie giving dance instructions. After making her way into Puf’s cave, she manages to snatch Freddy and dance off with him. But all is not lost, as Pufnstuf (also the town’s fire captain) and the gang head to Witchiepoo’s castle pretending to be there to put out a fire. They manage to grab Freddy back.
With Freddy rescued, the gang tries to help Jimmy escape Living Island by smuggling him out in the beak of the mail delivery pelican, Orville. Jimmy proves to be too heavy, though. Meanwhile, Witchiepoo is determined to get the magic flute in time for the big witch convention, which will be attended by the Boss Witch (Martha Raye) and her rival, Witch Hazel (Mama Cass Elliott).
Unable to capture Freddy, Witchiepoo manages to shrink down Pufnstuf and his buddies and take them back to her castle, planning to steal the flute when Jimmy tries to rescue them. So, now it’s up to Jimmy to go into a castle full of witches and save his friends.
Over the years, many people have made claims that much of the kids entertainment created by the Kroffts, including “Pufnstuf,” includes subtle drug references. The Kroffts always denied this, but there is no denying that watching “Pufnstuf” is a pretty trippy experience. Unfortunately, their young star, Jack Wild, himself became a victim of the drug of alcohol. An Academy Award nominee by the age of 16…but an alcoholic by age 21. Years ago, I read the book “Pufnstuf & Other Stuff” and the Kroffts had nothing but glowing things to say about Wild. He certainly brings a remarkable energy to the film. Consider that he was pushing 18 at the time this was made and was singing songs about his friend the magic flute…or as Wild says it in his strong accent, “My fwend fweddy.” Most 18 year-old actors would probably see this material as beneath them…if that was the case, Wild sure doesn’t show it. Unfortunately, Wild passed away in 2006 at the age of 53.
Also great is Billie Hayes as Witchiepoo. It’s easy to get caught up in the hooked nose and blacked out teeth, but the performance is expertly done. She manages to pull off a character that is executed in both a manic and slyly calculated way. It’s crazy…but not over-the-top.
When it comes to the puppets, sets, and costumes…this is classic Krofft. If you’ve never experienced their television work before, you’re in for a treat. It’s very different from the feel of Jim Henson’s work, which was hitting it big with “Sesame Street” when this was released. The Kroffts work has a sort of stream-of-consciousness feel to it…like no idea was too crazy to try. Sometimes that worked in their favor, and sometimes it didn’t. From a puppetry standpoint, the Kroffts did not have quite the eye for detail that Henson and crew had. There are plenty of moments where the lip movements don’t match, or the puppet’s eyes drift off…gazing at nothing. Yet, the characters and designs are so wonderfully playful, it’s easy to look past that.
No knowledge of the series the movie is based on is required to enjoy this film, and I think even the CG generation kids of today will enjoy it…not to mention all the ex-hippies out there looking to trip out on some psychedelic puppetry!