The Dark Crystal, from the Jim Henson Company, is a high fantasy tale set in the land of Thra. Although not massively profitable at the point of release in 1982, the cult movie has grown in standing in the 35+ years since hitting cinemas. To the point where a 10 part prequel series has been commissioned by Netflix, due for release on 30th August. So, does it stand the test of time?
Whilst Henson was best known for The Muppets, The Dark Crystal is a darker tale. The evil Skeksis draw endless life force from the Crystal, and use their power to devastate the land of Thra. Other races live in fear and in hiding. Due to a prophecy that their reign would be ended by a Gelfling, the Skeksis had all the Gelflings killed long ago. But unbeknownst to them, a baby Gelfling named Jen survived. Jen is found by the peaceful and wise Mystics, who raise him in secret until he is of age. And so Jen must locate the missing ‘shard’ of the Crystal, and undertake a dangerous journey into the heart of the Skeksis.
The Dark Crystal is rich with visual splendor. The screen is always popping with tons of detail even besides the impressively performed main characters. Flora and fauna (all puppeted) flitter about and the whole thing is given a fantasy ‘haze’ (due to a special lens filming technique) so that action appears more magical. Even after all this time, Dark Crystal is gorgeous to look at.
Plot-wise, these are a bit more standard. Anyone even remotely familiar with fantasy will recognise the ‘chosen one to restore a broken land’ trope. Like many of its ilk, The Dark Crystal exhausts its early quarter-hour with heavy world-building. Voiceovers explain the land of Thra, the Skeksis, the Gelflings, and the Mystics. Even Jen, our erstwhile protagonist, spends most of his early screen time communicating via voiceover. This may be laying the groundwork for the later Acts but it’s clunky, dull, and dated.
Once Jen meets astronomer Aughra and has someone to actually talk to, things pick up. Aughra (puppeted by Frank Oz much like his best-known character, Yoda from the Star Wars series) is all cranky old lady and her sniping dialogue adds some much-needed humour to the movie. From there on Jen teams up with Kira and her fan favourite snappy, aggressive dog-like thing: Fizzgig. Their journey to the castle takes in plenty of other fantastical elements that fans of The Neverending Story, Willow, or indeed Lord of the Rings will enjoy. The Dark Crystal could uncharitably be called Tolkien-lite but to be fair, most fantasy was Tolkien-lite in the 80s.
Jen is such a blank slate of a character (he simply does what he’s supposed to do with little fuss) that much of the character of The Dark Crystal is carried by the bickering and conniving Skeksis. These shuffling bird/dragon/lizard type things fill the screen with an oozing charm. The Chamberlain’s wheedling plotting contrasts The General’s bull-headed strength. The Scientist traipsing around his lab so he can suck the life force out of animals and characters delivers more personality that Jen can muster up throughout. It’s no wonder that the Skeksis are the endearing image of Dark Crystal.
Lauded as a major step forward for live-action puppetry (and credited as the first live-action movie without a human character) The Dark Crystal’s creature creations are all superb. The giant looming Skeksis and small nymph-like Gelflings are brought to life using a combination of costumed actors, puppetry, and electronics. Little Podlings will be familiar to Muppets fans in how they move, but long-legged Land Striders or massive beetle-like Garthim are so otherworldly that you can’t even picture the poor suffering person inside making it all work!
For the most part The Dark Crystal has aged well. It lacks the campy charm of Henson’s later movie, Labyrinth, yes, and the plotting is rather perfunctory (especially during the clunky opening 15 minutes). But regardless the sheer creative wonder on screen is endlessly compelling and the world created by Henson is ripe for expanding in the upcoming series.
Words by Michael Record