When most people think of the best puppetry filmmaking has to offer, they usually think of the whimsy and heart of “The Muppets” or “Sesame Street.” The Jim Henson Company’s work is revered worldwide, and the feeling Kermit or Elmo can give to an audience as they perform a tune or dance a number is nothing short of magical.
Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling are aware of this feeling. Their web series, “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared,” which just released its sixth episode, subverts the Henson musical experience. Under the guise of that cheerful tone, they tell stories with puppets who discover the world and become uncomfortable, disturbed, and, well, scared.
For those unfamiliar with the series, let’s back up to the beginning. “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” launched in 2011 with the introduction of three puppets named Red Guy, Yellow Guy and Duck, who encounter a singing notepad who gives them a lesson in creativity.
Still among the scariest of the series, the episode (also titled “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared”) plays with eerie character design, a mishmash of animation styles (veering toward blocky CG and then to the puppets as body suits) and a musical rhythm that builds into something out of control you are terrified you didn’t see it coming. The short comes to lambast a rigid, cautionary approach to education in creativity, revealing true creativity as potentially far more disturbing.
The video became a 2012 Sundance Short and SXSW selection, and has scored over 33 million views.
“DHMIS 2” (January 2014) features the same three puppets waiting for their favorite television show to come on when they encounter Tony the Talking Clock. Tony whisks them away to new times and places, his music taking on a David Bowie sort of tone. His final trick, however, puts the puppets in an endless cycle of aging, complete with feathers wilting and eyeballs falling out of sockets. Eventually, everyone runs out of time.
In the summer of 2014, Sloan and Pelling launched a Kickstarter for what they now called “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared: The Series.” The campaign framed the two episodes they made and the four to come as “Life Lessons” for the puppets to be guided through. Rest assured, they said, all would be revealed at a later date.
“DHMIS 3” (October 2014) was the first epsiode to be produced where its viewers were aware of an endgame. No longer self-funded, the scope of Sloan and Pelling’s work opened up to a forest full of critters, complete with strawberry clouds and Easter Island kings. The detail and finesse of the short’s design – centered around love – helped build the “DHMIS” world to something beyond a child’s paradise gone wrong.
“DHMIS 4” (April 2015) further pushed the series into new mediums (like CG and “glitch” simulations) as well as into long-form storytelling. Red discovers something beyond the construction of a singing computer showing the friends a new digital reality, and the world around the puppets starts to crack.
The focus of “DHMIS 5” (October 2015) lands on food, and the short represented a cataclysmic shift in the series. Beyond the increased size of the musical guests (this round being a steak and fridge), the threat of these lessons becomes less silly and more tangible in this outing. Fair warning: even if you were disturbed by previous episodes, you may find images in “DHMIS 5” outright appalling. Or delicious.
All was indeed revealed at that promised later date. Last Sunday, “DHMIS 6” released and the video has already scored nearly three million views.
In the story, Yellow Guy tries to sleep in a room where his three friends are no longer with him. His lamp keeps him up and tries to take Yellow Guy on a journey through his dreams. The results are scary and silly as usual, but the finale takes on a new, un-musical quality. We see Red occupy a dreary, lifelike world. We watch a series of puppets actively torture Yellow Guy. And we witness the reason why all of this is happening in the first place, maybe.
Whatever box you put “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” in, it’s hard not to think of Sloan and Pelling’s work as a bright new voice in modern filmmaking. The absurdist tone and perversion of childlike storytelling isn’t particularly new to the Adult Swim generation, but the craft and precision with what these shorts are doing is rare. Under a kid-friendly educational framework, this series expertly demonstrates shifting tones through visual storytelling, reveling in building images that can make a viewer laugh or cry.
The final note of the sixth episode, which reads as the final note of the series, engages with a sense of repetition that is haunting, confusing and more existential than anything a puppet should make you feel.