Format Reviewed: Blu-ray/Sony Pictures (2009).
The weight of expectation is a powerful thing. When Jim Henson - master puppeteer and creator of The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock - began his crusade to construct a fantasy film showcasing animatronic puppetry, people naturally expected Kermit the frog in a wizard’s hat; a benign whimsy, as safe and solid as a mother’s love. What they got was a visceral, mature and unrelentingly dark spectacle, telling a tale of hope mired amidst oppressive despair. It was a reality about as far removed from frogs, piggies and muppets as crude oil is from fine wine. Foolishly marketed as a film for children, Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) failed to find an audience upon its original opening, and having been released in a year that has since become legendary for its congested slate of extraordinary films (and corresponding flops), The Dark Crystal swiftly became just another victim of ‘82. This is a real shame, for Henson’s vision (filtered through the prism of Brian Froud’s frightening yet hauntingly beautiful designs) deserved to flourish. The vibrancy and visual appeal of its world is unquestionable, but the sheer audacity of Henson, in driving this film into being, deserved much greater rewards.
The Dark Crystal tells the story of two extraordinary individuals; both representatives of a pixie-come-elven race known as the Gelfling. They are the last of their kind, with the rest of the Gelfling having been genocidally wiped out by the Skeksis: powerful, vainglorious creatures resembling bipedal vultures. They control the eponymous Dark Crystal, which is the foundation of their power, and the wellspring from which all life on the planet Thra draws energy. Owing to a prior abusive act, the crystal cracked, removing a single shard. A prophecy arose concerning the shard, and the restoration of the crystal bringing about the end of Skeksis’ rule. Central to this were the Gelfling, as it was claimed only they could reunite the crystal with its lost element. This is what prompted the Skeksis to annihilate the Gelfling in all their forms. Unbeknownst to the Skeksis, two Gelfling survived: Jen - a male Gelfling - and Kira, a female. Jen was hidden from the Skeksis by a race of peaceful but powerful magical practitioners - the Mystics - who very loosely resemble the Skeksis, and mirror them in number but certainly not in intent. Kira was sheltered by a benevolent village people known as Podlings, who are themselves frequently targeted and enslaved by the Skeksis. These two members of a doomed race must first discover each other, before embarking on a journey to restore the Dark Crystal, by once again making it whole.
The premise of The Dark Crystal is fundamentally uncomplicated, and full of typical fantasy tropes. The crystal itself is a classic creation symbol, with aspects of both the supernatural and extraterrestrial woven into its fabric. Jen and Kira are representatives of a broken race, seemingly destined to restore balance to a fallen world. During the early stages of his journey, Jen encounters the wizened and ancient astronomer, Aughra, an enlightened being of scientific learning and spiritual wisdom. She is aware of the scale and ramifications of the prophecy, and acts as both guide and consolation to Jen in his quest. She is a witty, amusingly tart and profoundly aware entity, beautifully realised by adept puppetry, and a manic and altogether zany vocal performance from the dearly departed Billie Whitelaw. All of the aforementioned creative choices constitute a willing blend of modern science, pagan mythology and Judeo-Christian symbolism. So, in terms of philosophical inspiration, The Dark Crystal casts it net far and wide. This is a sound decision, as we as a species are hardwired to respond to the familiar tones and moral certainty of a universal tale, which in this case, is the most primal story of all: good versus evil.
The simplicity of the story is an obvious choice in terms of audience accessibility. For all the controversy concerning the film’s perceived ‘darkness’, it was still designed to be viewed and understood by younger generations. However, the primary purpose for such a broad strokes approach to storytelling is to allow for a very specific emphasis on design. The Dark Crystal was conceived as a vehicle to demonstrate the versatility and potential of puppetry, and it succeeds handsomely in this regard. With the exception of certain unavoidable, mostly stunt-based shots, all the characters depicted within the frame are animatronic puppets. They were performed by the foremost luminaries of the field, including Jim Henson and the great Frank ‘Yoda’ Oz, and their collaborative influence was such that they are credited as co-directors of the film.
From an observer’s perspective, puppetry is not designed to fool you. Anyone can see the flaws in its construction, but the craftsmanship and artisan application of the form (as depicted here) is something akin to a lost art, and you find yourself surrendering not to realism but romance: the dream of a magical world in which a fantastical story is unfolding before your eyes. What’s more, if you view puppetry purely as an aesthetic choice, then the film gains an ageless quality. It looks the same today as it did upon its original release. Of course, certain practical effects have aged more gracefully than others, but the noble intentions of the original creators blaze as brightly as ever. The mechanical majesty of the puppetry is vital then, but so too is the artistic designs that bring colour to the animatronic canvas.
The Dark Crystal is a true visual showcase, that lingers long in the memory. The look of the completed film remains the enduring masterpiece of concept designer Brian Froud, who worked in tandem with Jim Henson to create a multifaceted aesthetic. The planet of Thra is a beautiful construct, teeming with bizarre and implausible flora and fauna; warm backdrops of orange and green, and vast stone and mountains that sprawl beyond the farthest horizon. It is also charred, obtrusive and monstrous, and populated by terrifying creatures, from which many a nightmare was unwittingly born. This is the crux of the issue, as pertains to the film’s uncertain placement, demographically speaking. To put it in the simplest terms imaginable, The Dark Crystal is shit-scary. Not since the 1960s, and the glory years of Dalekmania, had so many children fled from the horrors unfolding on their screens, in search of the dingy-yet-safe shadows of that hidden place behind the couch.
The primary weapons of the Skeksis are their foot-soldiers, the Garthim. They are a monstrous fusion of bio-mechanical engineering, most closely resembling the bastard offspring of a stag beetle and an emperor scorpion. They chatter like rattlesnakes whilst shuffling like crabs, and they literally snatch women and children from out of their beds and into captivity. The Skeksis themselves are a hellish vision of twisted ornamentation and gnarly decrepitude. They are murderous, soul-sucking beasts of craven indulgence, limitless ambition and low-cunning. This is perhaps best conveyed in the form of the Chamberlain, whose bulging eyes, grating tones and iconic whimper embody all the unworthy attributes of the odious masters of the crystal. American actor and singer Barry Dennen deserves enormous credit for imbuing the Chamberlain with such a delicious cocktail of vocal villainy, and in the process helping to craft a character that has endured the passage of time. It is no coincidence that when the first proper trailer for the long-anticipated prequel series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (2019), was first unveiled, it ended with Simon Pegg’s interpretation of that loathsome, unforgettable, spine-tingling whimper.
It is apt that in closing, we consider Age of Resistance. It is the culmination of four decades of persistence, and highlights in glaring terms the full scope of the original film’s legacy. The Dark Crystalhas simply refused to fade away. It was a labour of love; a creative vessel, into which an undying commitment to world building and unceasing imagination was gleefully poured, forming a loyalist cement that has refused to buckle or yield. Whilst one could argue it lacks the narrative vocabulary to do true justice to its own ambitions, the film offers a tantalising view of a world as vivid as any witnessed in an opium-addled haze. Alongside all this is composer Trevor Jones (who would enjoy greater acclaim a few years later, thanks to a certain film starring David Bowie’s codpiece), who provides a searingly dramatic score evoking dreams of wistful longing, allied to the clarion call of thunderous violence. It is a magnificent (and criminally underappreciated) musical masterpiece.
Thus the legacy of The Dark Crystal lies in its surviving a misbegotten arrival into the world of cinema. It has endured, as all great things should, and now passes from one generation to the next, in a manner akin to an urban myth. Its themes of friendship, renewal and death are so fundamental that if you let them, they will infiltrate your heart and fascinate your imagination. It is Jim Henson’s magnum opus; at once a credible and legitimate fantasy film, transcending all eras and creeds, and a time capsule, preserving the tools and dreams of a sadly forgotten trade. The film is a victory for the imagination over the relentless greed and tedium of the norm, and if The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance achieves nothing more than adding to the legend of the original incarnation of The Dark Crystal, it will have done much indeed.
Daniel R. Browne. (For KYF. Then, now and always.)