Back in 1982, gangly visionary genius – and full time felt frog proctologist – Jim Henson unleashed a vision onto the silver screen the likes of which had never been seen before. In an act of world building on a scale unprecedented before or since – including when Peter Jackson first visited Middle-Earth, James Cameron decided to reinvent the cinematic wheel with blue, nine-foot cat people or George Lucas started playing with spaceships – Henson proposed to create a world completely from the ground up where everything – and I do mean EVERYTHING – would be realised by the multiple forms of puppeting he himself had been pioneering. While this may seem like quite a technological stretch even for the guy who taught generations of kids to count via a purple, fuzzy vampire, Henson was never one to let the impossible slow his roll and so the enchanting pseudo-experiment The Dark Crystal was born.
The fantasy world of Thra has been slowly dying for thousands of years ever since an all powerful, giant crystal was cracked which coincided with the appearance of two new species: the wise Mystics – chanting, four-armed peaceniks; and the Skeksis – corrupt, spindly, buzzard-like arseholes. As the noble Mystics went about humming and doing mystical shit, the Skeksis utilized the Crystal to rule, dominate and to live unnaturally long lives, eradicating any creature who opposed their will such as the elf-like Gelfling’s a race hunted to extinction for their life enhancing essence.
Jen, a Gelfling male who is supposedly the last of his kind and who also looks vaguely like a lesser Kardashian, has been raised by the Mystics ever since he was a baby and following the death of his master, must go on a Tolkien-esque quest to heal the Dark Crystal as it fulfills an ageless prophecy and after meeting up with the one eyed astronomer/witch/whatever, Aughra and collecting the Shard which will help complete his task, runs into Kaya, another last-of-her-kind Gelfling who aids Jen on his mission (typical, you wait thousands of years for the last Gelfling and then two come at once).
Meanwhile, at the the Skeksis palatial shit-hole, both the brutish General and the scheming, whimpering Chamberlain both have their beady eyes on a newly vacated throne and will stop at nothing to claim it, especially with the prophecy stepping into high gear. Unleashing their shock troopers, the tank-like, nightmare-beetles known as the Garthim, to capture the two Gelflings the race is on throughout this mystical land in order to save the world and heal the Crystal.
I mentioned earlier on this review that The Dark Crystal often feels like an experiment in filmmaking and it’s important to bare that in mind when casting a critical eye over the film as a whole. Creating a world from the ground up and realizing all wildlife and plants (and I do mean all) primarily as hand puppets is going to come with it’s own set of unique challenges which in turn directly impact the plot. For example, do we actually need a 5 minute scene showing the Skeksis messily chowing down at a banquet in their rotting castle? Is anything inherently added by watching them pick their teeth and get confused at eating spaghetti that wasn’t already apparent by their decadent intro 20 minutes prior? No, it isn’t, but they needed a filler scene that didn’t involve them using their feet so there you go. That being said, all the drawn out scenes that just simply show life as it is in Thra are still (because of the sheer level of craft involved) absolutely captivating even when the plot is strictly by the numbers. Extended skits of the Skeksis acting like Caligula was reborn as a race of emaciated vulture people or a spirited festival in the village of the simple Podling folk hold the attention far more than Jen bleating on about his quest.
Yes, our fearless hero has somewhat a case of the Luke Skywalkers as in he’s constantly fretting about doing it instead of actually just fucking doing it. Virtually ever character is far more interesting than him and you start wonder why the far more cooler Kaya (who comes complete with wings, an ability to communicate with animals and who isn’t as naive as a newborn baby attempting to haggle in a market in Cairo) isn’t the main character. The smug Chamberlain, ornery witch Aughra (voiced by Billie Whitlaw), even the squawling, comic relief fuzzball Fizzgig all make more of of an impact than Jen but then find me an 80’s fantasy film that DOESN’T have a whinging lead…
What does back up the stunning visuals however is Henson and co. not being afraid to put the DARK in The Dark Crystal with various nasty happenings ready to traumatise an unprepared kiddie audience at a moment’s notice that mostly concern the worryingly harsh treatment of the peaceful Podlings. Be prepared to cover your moppets eyes when the hulking, rumbling Garthim raid their village, stuff them screaming into tiny baskets and carry them off to be experimented on until they are milky-eyed, mindless shells who resemble victims of the Holocaust. I won’t even mention the results of the Garthim versus the lanky, cute, bat-faced Landstriders…(to shreds, you say?). The plot may fall somewhat short, but the execution is impeccable.
It’s easy to see why Henson’s other directorial fantasy epic, Labyrinth (starring both Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie’s protruding codpiece) is more universally loved as it’s the more “fun” of the two, but for my money it’s alway been the darker, more challenging, more INTERESTING Dark Crystal that I’ve personally been drawn to.
The reasons are virtually crystal clear.