The Babe with the Power is Back!

Toby Froud crawled his way into our hearts in a red-striped onesie in Jim Henson’s cult fantasy movie Labyrinth. Now, he's creating his own world of magic.

By Aaron Scott August 26, 2014 Published in the September 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

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Toby Froud with King Time, a handmade puppet from Lessons Learned

As a jammies-clad toddler, Toby Froud was kidnapped by the Goblin King and taken to the center of an enchanted maze. Of course, the Goblin King happened to be David Bowie, sporting one of history’s greatest mullets, and the maze was an elaborate set for Jim Henson’s cult fantasy movie Labyrinth, which created its own mythos of otherworldly adventure. Toby’s real father, Brian Froud, was a chief designer on Labyrinth, as well as the creator of The Dark Crystal and an illustrated world of magical creatures that still enthralls fantasy lovers and Renaissance fairs everywhere. Toby grew up to follow in his father’s footsteps: six years ago he moved to Portland to work as a puppet fabricator at Laika, and last year he teamed up with Jim Henson’s daughter Heather to bring the mystical worlds their parents created to modern audiences. Their short film, Lessons Learned, plays alongside Labyrinth at the Portland Film Festival on August 28 at Cinema 21. (Read our recap of the world premiere of Lessons Learned in May.)

I can never say if I remember filming Labyrinth or not. I have vivid memories of goblins’ faces and strange creatures and chaos around me that could be remembering the movie, or it could just be from growing up in the house I lived in, or from seeing the film as many times as I have. 

My parents are synonymous with faeries and goblins and fantasy. I grew up in a Dartmoor longhouse. It’s an old farmhouse built in the 16th century that has a thatched roof, big granite stone walls, and it’s set on small hills in Devon in England. It was full of my father’s paintings of creatures, my mother’s dolls, and strange, wonderful items. Having left that home to have to find my place in the world, I truly understand how magical it was.  

I went to Wimbledon School of Art in London, a tech university, and did a special effects and arts degree. But I always came back to the fantasy that my family created. I started working with them on small projects: video and commercial pieces. 

People will whisper, “Are you the baby from Labyrinth?” It’s a very interesting conversation opener. With Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, people say, “They inspired me to become an artist, a puppeteer, to build worlds.” That’s the amazing power that they have: they’re still in people’s minds.

Heather Henson commissions filmmakers to create short puppet films. My parents and I had an art show in New York over a year ago, and she saw it and gave me a grant to start. Straight off, I knew it was going to have to be in the style I love that people haven’t seen in a while from us—to have the younger generation of Henson and Froud come together.

Lessons Learned is about a small boy whose grandfather gives him a wooden box for his birthday and explains it’s his lessons-learned box—all of the lessons he learns in life go in it. The boy asks his grandfather, “Do you have a box?” and he says, “Of course—I have a trunk.” The grandfather shows him the trunk, and the boy gets curious, looks in, and gets pulled in and ends up in an old file room that holds all the lessons. He starts looking at the boxes and they come alive, and he goes on an Alice in Wonderland journey. 

I rented a warehouse in North Portland for three months. I had an amazing team of 30–50 people at different times to build sets and puppets and create special effects. We had an old-school way of going about it—cable-control puppets—with as many physical elements as we could, although there’s also one green-screen set. 

I wanted to put a screening on for the crew at the Hollywood Theatre, and from there it just took off. I keep getting responses from people around the world asking to see it. More festivals are picking the film up, and all sorts of media. In New York magazine, Lessons Learned is in this funny chart right next to Taylor Swift and Morrissey under “Lowbrow/Brilliant.” The journey has been absolutely insane.

I wish I had met David Bowie as an adult. I grew up a huge fan of his music—and knowing I sat in his lap! I believe the first time I met him, I peed on him, but I haven’t met him since.

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