The Dark Crystal (1982)
Another World, Another Time … In the Age of Wonder.
Most fantasy, on screen or in print, is cut from the same cloth, and that cloth is branded ‘Tolkien.’ Or maybe ‘Howard.’ Occasionally ‘Burroughs.’ There’s a standard model for the narrative, which is a quest, and a standard model for the hero(es), which generally involves martial prowess (even the Hobbits know how to throw down when the need arises). For a genre that purports to stray well beyond the boundaries of the possible, the paths taken over that border are well-trod. These safaris have never lost a guest.
Jim Henson’s expedition to the World of Thra, commonly known as The Dark Crystal, also followed a quest path, but one that led to a far more exotic location. The muppet maven left it all out on the field, creating the first full-length movie to feature only puppets, with no human characters at all present in its narrative. Instead, he built, from the ground up, a completely alien setting with its own history, culture, ecology, and spirituality Acclaimed illustrator Brian Froud acted as lead designer, infusing the whole thing with his weird — or perhaps ‘wyrd’ — fey and ancient sensibilities. It was a massive creative and practical undertaking and, as such, was met with predictably mixed responses. Partly that’s because Henson and his people were doing something nobody had ever done before, and that kind of pioneering always leaves some of the crowd a little nonplused. Partly that’s because, for all its many wonders, it’s less than perfect, as bold experiments almost always are. Now, of course, it’s beloved — which is a bit odd for a movie that straight-up terrified a generation of ankle-biters (that G-rating was earned by the slimmest of margins, I’m sure).
There was nothing quite like The Dark Crystal when it was released — and, despite its position in the cultural pantheon now, there’s been little like it since (but Guillermo del Toro is a fan, make no mistake). Of course, now we’re about to get a prequel series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, courtesy of Netflix and director Louis Leterrier, The Incredible Hulk (2008), so it’s high time we took a look back at what is one of the oddest, most fascinating children’s films ever made.
As we’re told by a portentous voiceover by Irish actor Joseph O’Conor over a dark and menacing landscape, the land of Thra has been under a shadow for some thousand years, ever since the magical crystal that is the spiritual heart of the world was cracked, leading to the dissolution of the benign UrSkek race (so mysterious we’re left to infer a lot about them) and the rise of two lesser orders: the wise but largely ineffectual urRu (the Mystics), who basically look like ‘What if a horse was a snail?,’ and the ambitious, evil Skeksis, who essentially resemble undead vultures. The Skeksis took control of the now-dark crystal and use its power to rule the world with an iron grip, in the process wiping out the race of elf-like Gelflings who were prophesied to one day end their rule (there’s a lot of predestination in The Dark Crystal).
One Gelfling survived, of course: our hero Jen (voiced by Stephen Garlick, puppeteered by Jim Henson and Kiran Shah), who was raised in secrecy by the Mystics until, on the death of his master, he must set off to fulfill his destiny: find the shard that is missing from the crystal, and heal its wound.
And so, he does, on the way encountering another surviving Gelfling, Kira (voiced by Lisa Maxwell, puppeteered by Kathryn Mullen and Kiran Shah), a female raised by the peaceful Podlings (cute potato people), who joins him on his quest. He’s hunted by the Skeksis’ footsoldiers, the giant, crablike Garthim (and their intro was a nightmare moment at the age of six, let me tell you), and also the Chamberlain (voiced by Barry Dennen, puppeteered by Frank Oz), a renegade Skeksis outcast after a leadership spill.
So, very questy. In writing the screen story (David Odell would be credited for the final script), Henson drew on a whole bunch of different mythologies, even though he hid his tracks by divorcing the film’s aesthetic from anything earthly. The ‘healing artifact’ trope is redolent of the Holy Grail stories, while the pacifistic Jen was originally going to be blue as a nod to the Hindu figure, Rama. Duality is a big theme, and the need to reconcile conflicting viewpoints and stances — the UrSkeks were, of course, split into the Mystics and Skeksis back in the day, something the film heavily alludes to throughout its runtime (the Skeksis emperor and Mystic master die at the same time, a wound on a Skeksis is recreated spontaneously on a Mystic’s forearm, and so on). A lot of the movie’s cosmology is drawn from Jane Roberts’ Seth Material, a series of New Age teachings purportedly channeled by her from some manner of spiritual entity. Dive into that one on your own accord, if you feel up to it.
But, as the film stands, that’s all kind of window dressing. The Dark Crystal’s biggest issue is that its hero, Jen, isn’t very interesting, and so neither is his quest, for all that it is drenched in mythic symbolism. Henson gives us a pacifist hero but neglects to give him other things to overcome, or skills with which to accomplish his tasks other than the martial. He does have the odd moment of self-doubt and his ability to play his little bifurcated pipe comes in handy, but that’s about it. Kira, a kind of self-possessed wood nymph who’s accompanied by a little ball of fur and teeth called Fizzgig, fares much better in terms of characterization, even though she’s relegated to a secondary role (the drive to reconcile binaries falls short of gender parity, it seems).
No, what draws us to The Dark Crystal isn’t the plot or the main characters (supporting characters, like the one-eyed seer Aughra, are another matter entirely — she’s great) — it’s the world. Indeed, the setting Henson and his people have created is so evocative, so fascinating, that I’d argue the tie-in guidebook is a better read than the movie is a watch. It is something to sit through this film and know in your bones that every single element is handcrafted — every pebble, every leaf. Not just every scrap of cloth or piece of jewelry but every tree, shrub, pool, hill, and creature has sprung, Athena-like, from the collective brow of the creative team. And then to see the things they’ve wrought — the scuttling, terrifying Garthim, the elegant, rabbit-eared Landstriders, the Podling village, Aughra’s fantastical orrery — it’s jaw-dropping.
And yes, you can see that none of it is ‘real;’ if you know what you’re about you can see where the puppeteers are hiding inside the creatures, and the Gelflings never fully convince as living, breathing characters — but then, none of Ray Harryhausen’s stuff did either, nor did the original King Kong, and so to get hung up on that kind of detail is, willfully or not, watching the point sail cleanly overhead. The artifice is the value; nobody is here for reality. Far from it.
That is perhaps why The Dark Crystal’s cult has only grown steadily in the near-40 years since its release, and why some kind of return to Thra has been on the cards for so long; animator Genndy Tartakovsky, Samurai Jack (2001-17), almost did it, and then the Australian Spierig brothers, Daybreakers (2009), had a crack, before Leterrier finally brought it home. We’re drawn to that unreal and darkly beautiful place; something about it resonates, and it does because it doesn’t pretend to be real. It’s a dream, a confection, and so it lingers in our minds more subtly and yet more deeply than we might suspect. Age of Resistance, when it comes, might very well be great, but that’s not what I’m hoping for. I’m hoping for strange and eerie and wonderful and haunting. Greatness is overrated — give us something unique instead.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson