Since the movie premiered in 1982, I’ve loved this film. My husband is about the biggest fan you’ll ever meet. I have a copy of the original book and we own the collector’s edition of the film. So when Fathom Events announced that they would be having a special screening for the 35th anniversary, we were both ecstatic and bought tickets right away. What I did wonder is if the film would hold up to the test of time, both the story and the effects. The puppetry was every bit as skilled and wonderful as I remember, the story as beautiful and while some of the effects were a bit outdated with the film showing the patina of age, the overall film was worth seeing in the theater.
If you haven’t heard of Dark Crystal, you’re either way too young or need to take a refresher course on movies of the eighties along with the genius that is Henson Studios and the partnership of Jim Henson and Frank Oz. But for those who missed the film in the last thirty-five years, let me tell you a little about the story.
Dark Crystal is set on a world of three suns, Ther, where a thousand years ago there was a conjunction of the three suns and the Crystal that provided magical essence and fertility to the world, was cracked and two races were born, the dark Skeksis and the gentle Mystics.
In this world, another conjunction is occurring and both races are slowly dying. The Skeksis rule from their castle and have wiped out the Gelflings except for Jen, who was raised by the master of the Mystics. The Master is dying and tells Jen, he must find the Crystal shard and use it to repair the Dark Crystal. Jen sets out with minimal instructions. Along the way he finds companions to help him, including another Gelfling, Keira and together the two find a way to fix the Crystal and their world.
Despite the age of the film, there are some elements that don’t show their age at all. The first is the brilliant, genius puppetry of the movie. Watching Jen, Keira, the Mystics, and the Skeksis, it is difficult to believe that these aren’t real people from a very different world. They are not human but they are believable. When they move, they move naturally and the cast hid every single wire. That is a phenomenal feat which required dozens of crew to move the puppets from every angle. Even thirty five years later there has not been any director or artist that has managed to recreate anything like it. While CGI is great, there is something beautiful about puppets created by hand.
The design of the landscape and the characters is another aspect that we felt is an incredible act of artistry. The landscape is realistic in close up scenes. The Mystics valley peaceful while the swamps of the podlings realistic. The rocky dead castle of the Skeksis perfectly fitted to their nature. The animals fit the world, the tiny bugs all the way to the tall creatures Jen and Keira ride to get to the castle as well as the diabolical insectoid guards that are sent to attack Jen. The attention to detail are what makes the world lie and breath.
Beyond the design, the characters themselves and those that voice them are what anyone would look for in a great story. Jen is kind and persistent, his courage driving the story. Keira is brave, bold, and beautiful, sacrificing herself to save her world and keep her friends from dying. The character of Aggrah is insightful, wise and played for humor in what could have been a darker story. The Chamberlain is sycophantic and manipulative. And each of these are voiced by those who are talented, give emotional performances and are the life of these characters.
While the story could be considered simpler, it is very important to remember that this type of fantasy story was still new at the time. Quite simply, if you see it from the angle of mythology, this is the hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell. Jen is sent on a journey, not only to find an object that will save his world, but also to discover who he is. His people have been destroyed, he thinks he is the lone survivor and knows nothing of his true people, the Gelflings. On his journey, he learns that he is not alone, he learns about his people and his world, Keira teaching him about Gelflings and the two of them save their world. This is not an unusual story but it does contain some concepts that are insightful. The idea of the Gelflings connecting mentally, that every creature deserves respect and love, and that we are all connected to our world. This is not traditional fantasy fodder and that idea of connectedness, of the spirituality and love shown in the film make for a beautiful and wondrous world, one I’m willing to go back and visit over and over.
There are a few points where the film misses and does show how far technology has come. One of these was the flat backdrops. The up close scenery and design is exceptional but every long shot of the environment is on a flat backdrop that spoils the illusion of this being a three dimensional world. Instead, you are pulled out of the film at these moments, very well aware that this is the creation of humans. It spoils the believability of the film but the story and the characters make these tiny moments worth it.
The other effect that shows the changes over time are the lighting and laser effects of the crystal. Some of these still work but either the film has aged too much or technology has increased but I couldn’t help feeling that the light was over the top at points, especially the light charging the Skeksis at the beginning of the film. The end, when the crystal is repaired, still works, the bright light creating the effect of beauty and purity. But the pink light in the other scenes lacks depth and doesn’t quite convey the edge of darkness I remember from seeing the film originally.
Overall, I still love this film. The techniques developed in the this film are still used in stop motion and in green screen today. Without the work of Jim Henson and Frank Oz on this film, some of those ideas would not have been developed. I also feel like this film, using zero humans gets less respect than the more famous, later film “Labyrinth” upon which the perfected techniques were used. Without Dark Crystal, there would be no Labyrinth and I think it’s important to remember that. But more importantly, while the concepts were new in Dark Crystal, the story is more original and more creative than Labyrinth. Labyrinth is flashier but the heart of Dark Crystal is about discovering yourself, discovering your connection with your world and love. The ideas are universal and this story will still be enjoyed generations from now as long as those who love it continue to share it with new fans.
Rating: 4 fizzbangs out of 5
Directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz
Produced by Jim Henson and Gary Kurtz
Screenplay by David Odell
Story by Jim Henson
Starring Stephen Garlick
Narrated by Joseph O’Conor