By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Kathryn Mullen, Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire
1982 was a banner year for science fiction/fantasy films. Star Wars was one year away from completing its first trilogy, and Steven Spielberg had introduced the world to a little alien named E.T. to staggering box office results. However, on top of these kid friendly films that parents could safely take their children to, there were also a few dark ones coming down the pike. Some, such as Carpenter’s The Thing and Scott’s Blade Runner, were obviously so. One film, however, came and took people by surprise with its darkness. It was being made by Jim Henson, the man who brought us Kermit The Frog, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear. There was no way that this guy’s open mind could be filled with darkness now, could there? Parents that first weekend who thought they were taking their children to see The Muppets Take The Crystal, were to be shocked at what unfolded in front of them. Instead of the parents’ anticipated family friendly yuk-fest, Henson’s mind was proven to indeed include darkness. Within the confines of The Dark Crystal, there is attempted total genocide done in order to prevent a prophecy, an onscreen elongated choking death and the raid & capturing of a village by scary-looking lobster looking creatures called the Garthim. It was a movie that flopped upon release because the shock from these initial parents and reviewers were just too much for others to handle. However, in retrospect, The Dark Crystal is a film of pure imagination. It is a film of extraordinary effort. And, in short, one of the most engrossing and brilliantly put together movies in the history of film.
Sometimes, it is dangerous to watch movies that captured your heart as a kid, because there’s always a danger that it doesn’t hold up as well in the decades since you watched it for the upteenth time (I am looking at you, Short Circuit). For this reason, and this reason only, I was scared to revisit The Dark Crystal. It was a film I remembered loving. It was a movie that I would always return to. And, the fact that those memories could be tainted, quite frankly, scared me. To my ecstatic surprise, the first shot of the castle has not aged a bit. And Henson (as well as his co-director, Frank Oz) does something that went over my head as a child, but captured me by delightful surprise as an adult. Instead of having a series of events that show what exactly led up to the crystal’s cracking, the two directors have a bit of voice over that explains what happened, and accentuates the aftermath more than show the ‘before.’ It is a brilliant way of storytelling that is sadly missing today, as audiences are always asking to see ‘how’ we get to where we are. Yet, in a film that is as dark as The Dark Crystal, seeing the aftermath made it feel even more powerful. We are then introduced to some of the nastiest villains ever created, the Skeksis. The crystal almost acts as a spotlight, as it shines a beam of light in each of their eyes, and there are individual shots and long close-ups of each. As a child, I was already encompassed, and what made this viewing even better for me is that I might have been even more involved in the story as an adult than I ever was as a child looking to be visually thrilled. These are all ugly, fantastically evil characters. So, Henson and Oz bring us these characters in the perfect way. Introduce them in voice-over, show them through camera. Don’t have them talk. And don’t have them fight. Yet. As Hitchcock so wisely put it, the anticipation of a bomb under the desk can be just as powerful as its blowing up for an audience.
The film’s lightning quick pace takes us to our hero of the story, a Gelfling named Jen. We see him innocently play his flute, unaware of where his journey will take him. After his master (a Mystic, more on them later) tells him that his mission is to ‘heal the crystal,’ it doesn’t take him long to meet the female protagonist, another Gelfling named Kira. It should be said that these two have outstanding chemistry. I know that comment seems odd when it comes to mind that I am talking about two characters made of felt and are being controlled by puppeteers. But, some of the exchanges between Jen and Kira are so heartfelt, that it puts a lot of live performers’ chemistry to shame. Think about the way that when they meet, she reaches down to help Jen up and they exchange moments, both tragic and funny, in their backstories. Also think about the way that when she rescues Jen from an attack by jumping off a cliff and growing wings, and Jen questions them, saying that he doesn’t have them himself. She just slyly responds, ‘of course not. You’re a boy.’ They are exchanges that bring them together, yet the emotion of them would fit in any romantic twosome portrayed onscreen. Fantastic writing and drawing in of the images portrayed, and the repore between them puts me in the mindset that not only is this world a fantastical one. It is a fantasy world with human emotions contained within fantastical ones.
Speaking of the world portrayed, if there is one complaint that I have heard over and over, it is that The Dark Crystal is a direct knock-off of Star Wars. I can see that to an extent. Aughra, with her sprouting out of non sensible advice that is quite unclear until Jen puts the pieces together, can be seen as a direct rip of Yoda (consequently, Oz voices both characters). The Mystics, with their world advice and, umm, mystical powers, could be looked at as Jedi. The way Jen is forced into a situation that involves him saving the world could be looked at in the same exact light as Luke backing into heroism. Does Jen go the full route and end up finishing his mission? Let’s just say that Luke’s blowing up of the Death Star also has a comparison. However, in a time when there were no such things as a sure thing at telling a vibrant involving story, I myself am not going to knock these tendencies. Looking at its world, Brian Froud (the artist who spent five years designing The Dark Crystal) does enough creating of interesting characters to brilliantly distract us. There are the Podlings, a bunch of likable little characters who give us a few smiles after a few vast dramatic escapes. There are the Garthim. These are scary, lobster like henchmen of the Skeksis. There are the Landstriders, a huge race of cat-like creatures that get Kira and Jen to the castle (and tragically also fight Garthim & scarcely die in front of its entrance). When taking into account that The Dark Crystal was filmed ten full years before perfected digital special effects were in full force, it is quite obvious that this film looks phenomenal. Whenever possible, Oz and Henson linger on the world that is created, and shoot unheard of things like flying plants and huge fish like creatures that live in mud. It should also be said that a lot of what I feel while watching the film has to be attributed to composer Trevor Jones. Pulse poundingly brilliant, his score for The Dark Crystal does exactly what it intends, and that is feel like we are colored the tint of the film, and thrust into the fantasy world brought before us.
As we have spoken to computer effects artists on our Amigo Radio Show, I do know that computer graphics imagery (CGI) is not ‘an easy way out’ of effects. Even if the effects are not created practically, people still have to drive the computers to do what they do and throw images onscreen. However, I do not know one computer effects artist that had to squat in 35 pounds of costume, with one of their hands in front of their face, for full takes at a time. This is just one of many reasons that The Dark Crystal is a film made from the basis of artistry that I question thrives today. It is a film of contradiction, as the two races that are made after the crystal is cracked splits the original species, the Urskers into two others that represent good and evil. It was also a brilliant contradictory move to have the first and final image of the film mirror each other in such completely different ways. Furthermore, as soon as we feel delight at one of the Skeksis falling into the lava that encompasses the crystal, a Mystic is shown bursting into flames in the exact same way. It is a type of storytelling that is a lost art, and brings to light that even if they wanted to, just eliminating the Skeksis was not an option.
There is no other way to put it. The Dark Crystal is brilliant. Is it perfect? No, because the only effects in the film that do not hold up are shown in the final moments of the film, as a certain bit of merging comes off looking pretty ordinary and unlife like. But, what would you expect from a true visionary that was so far ahead of his time? Jim Henson, in 1982, gave us his arguably best piece of cinema contributed to the screen (I know that Labyrinth has its lovers, but I am not one of them). And, this is a very minor quibble given the story that has unfolded, and has no effect on its final arc. If you have not seen The Dark Crystal in decades like me, watch it again. I guarantee you: it holds up just as well, and the world & emotions it creates, as well as its late co-director’s imagination, is timeless.
5 out of 5