Here is what our guest reviewer Silver has to say about a little known classic: The Dark Crystal.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
Vocal Talent: Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, Billie Whitelaw, Percy Edwards, Barry Dennen, Michael Kilgarriff, Jerry Nelson, Thick Wilson, John Baddeley, David Buck, Charles Collingwood, Sean Barrett, Mike Iveria, Patrick Monckton, Susan Westerby, Joseph O’Conor
Directed by Jim Henson & Frank Oz
Expectations: One of my favorites. I watch it every few years.
Growing up in the 80s, my childhood was filled with the puppets of Jim Henson. From Sesame Street to Fraggle Rock to the first three Muppet films, I was an absolute Henson fiend. Hell, I even watched the Muppet Babies cartoon. One day while rummaging through a stack of VHS tapes when I was around eight or nine, I came upon one that had the words, The Dark Crystal scrawled onto the tape label. What was this? Even in my youth I was obsessive about my film watching, so seeing a title that I was unfamiliar with took me by surprise. I popped in the tape, finding that we had recorded the movie off of TV and the first minute or so were cut off. I didn’t mind missing that first minute, nor did I mind the fuzzy quality of the TV reception recorded onto that magnetic tape, for I was thoroughly enthralled in the tale being woven before me. So began my quest with The Dark Crystal. I must have watched that tape five or six times over the course of my childhood, obviously not a lot for an obsessed kid, but I distinctly remember wanting to savor every viewing so that it wouldn’t become cheap. I’ve pretty much stayed the course ever since, only re-watching the film every three-four years and loving it every time.
The Dark Crystal is a story of tragedy and renewal, of the Skeksis and the Mystics, and the Gelflings that will change the course of their world forever. It is a realm rich with history that unfolds as the minutes pass by. There are definite shades of Lord of the Rings throughout, especially the “halfling venturing across the land with a storied object to enter the evil one’s domain and destroy them” storyline, but to discredit The Dark Crystal’s story in such a broad way would be unfair, as its greatness lies within its detail and its characters. The birdlike Skeksis are haunting and creepy to this day, the Mystics wise and moving slowly with purpose. Jen the Gelfling hero is an orphan that most children will find easily relatable if they’ve ever felt lonely or ostracized in any way, not to mention that every kid wants to go on an adventurous journey.
Technically, the film has no equal. Never before or since has anyone undertaken such a massive puppet film, with no humans represented on-screen. Even if you hate the film (how dare you!), you have to admire the genius of Jim Henson and his studio at work. I highly recommend also watching the PBS documentary included on most DVD releases of the film, The World of the Dark Crystal. It’s filled with great footage of the guys inside the puppets, and while that does break the illusion, it grows a respect for the performers that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
In addition to the puppets, the optical FX are incredibly well done and add to the visual splendor of the film. And let’s not forget the matte paintings! Holy shit, they are even more impressive than I remember and this should be Exhibit A for the case to bring them back to filmmaking. CG backgrounds can look good an all, but there’s something majestic about the matte paintings here that 3D art could never attain. The cinematography helps a great deal as well, with wonderful color representation and gorgeous framing. One might expect a film filled with puppets to feature a rather static camera, as the puppet’s mobility is obviously limited. This is not so, as the camera moves in, out and around conversations and action, further intensifying the sense that we are watching real characters as opposed to cleverly designed puppets. In addition to the visuals, Trevor Jones’ dark, haunting score has resonated and stayed with me since my first viewing all those many years ago. It’s truly one of the best fantasy film scores of all time, other-worldly, fantastical and haunting all at once. Jones perfectly evokes the character’s through his music, resulting in a perfect auditory compliment to the visuals.
The serious tone propels the film deeper into the crystal chasm, presenting unaware viewers with quite the dark fantasy film. And I mean dark! If you know of another kid’s movie that features cute, tiny characters strapped into experimentation chairs against their will as their life essence is drained into a vial for the evil emperor to drink, then please let me in on the secret. The film is rated PG, but I’d be surprised if it got released with the same rating these days. Not to mention that, the film is just creepy and scary. It ran me through a range of emotions as a child and it still has me feeling similarly after tonight’s viewing. Any film that can still affect someone on such a deep level is worthy of your time.
On the negative side, it does drag a bit in spots (the opening narration is over six minutes), but overall it is paced pretty well. I’ve seen it so many times at this point that I’m unsure if I’m a qualified judge of this anymore. There is also a scene with the Gelflings in the forest that reminded me of the 70s sci-fi hippie film, Silent Running. This is not a positive in my eyes and thankfully it’s only a few short moments. Other than these minor quibbles, I had a great experience with the film, even if I was able to see through a lot more of the FX this time around.
I’m biased as this is a film from my childhood, but I would honestly say that The Dark Crystal holds up admirably. If you fancy yourself a fan of fantasy, you should be entertained with this fine film and the history of the world and its inhabitants. If you’re a fan of puppets, you’ll be entertained by the technical wizardry of it all and the power of puppets to create the illusion of life. If you’re a fan of both, then it should be a match made in heaven.