Sony's UK release of The Dark Crystal comes courtesy of an MPEG-4 encode that takes the gorgeously cleaned-up 2.35:1 print and breathes new life into it.
Immediately, the colours are stronger and better defined. Deeper reds and blues populate the image. The pastel shades of the Mystics and the lush greens and pinks and purples and yellows of the forests have more integrity and paint a image of this realm with greater vibrancy. But look at the reds of the robes, curtains, bed-covers of the Skeksis castle - much more vibrant and deeper than we have seen on home video before this. The skin textures of the Skeksis, the eyes of the Garthim, the laser-lights of the Dark Crystal etc, all come alive with a cleaner definition and without smudging or smearing. The colour purple (no, not the film) is a prominent feature of the story's visual narrative and, accordingly, it is bestowed a fine presentation here, whether it is emanating from the Crystal, itself, or its wayward shard, or even to be found in the subtle shading of the creatures. The blue streaks in Jen's hair also come across with clarity than they have on previous editions and there are also some clearer bluish tints and shades on the copper and brass instruments in Aughra's laboratory, rendering them with a little more tangible authenticity.
The print is in fine shape. There are still some very small white dots that pop minutely within the image, but these are few and far between. The picture is strong and steady. Grain is also retained. I counted several occasions when the grain intensified but, once again, these were rare and the increase easily overlooked. Whilst the real-life mountains and the set-built locations, the matte-painted backdrops and the characters in the foreground may not mesh altogether as seamlessly as they, perhaps, once have appeared, this is still a terrific picture from a cinematic age that could not resort to CG and relied, blissfully, on our own willingness to employ our imaginations.
Thus, it is great to reveal that detail is also enhanced with the leap to 1080p. Clothing and props supply a healthier wealth of visual acuity. Aughra's planetarium and its mechanisms, the robes and decaying bling of the Skeksis, the sand-patterns of the Mystics, the marshlands and their abundant flora and fauna all now possess keener delineation and a sharper presence within the frame. Comparing this BD version to the older R2 Collector's Edition clearly shows that almost every element of the picture has more depth and detail, although this ends up being something of a mixed blessing as the raggedy edges of some of the puppets and the occasional string or wire can also be viewed - that all-powerful Dark Crystal, for instance, isn't exactly floating. But that's not going to spoil what is certainly a worthy upgrade.
Another great new bonus with this transfer is the enhanced level of depth that is afforded. The frame now exhibits a far deeper aspect than ever before. This is apparent right across the film, but one or two sequences definitely highlight it. Look at the long take in the Skeksis castle that begins with an overhead shot of the scraggy buzzards, themselves, and then lowers down and tracks around the chamber. The positioning of the Skeksis and the props, the walls and the tunnels is wonderfully dimensional and look at the thundering advance of the scuttling Garthim as they clatter and hasten around the image - they seem bigger and more threatening now.
Blacks are also deeper, for the most part, and provide better shadow integrity than the often grey-diffused transfers that have come before. They still aren't the best or the most consistent that we've seen, but they have never been stronger. There are elements of edge enhancement creeping in, but the transfer is not one that is plagued with digital artefacts or DNR.
All in all, The Dark Crystal looks fine to me and definitely benefits from its hi-def makeover. This is sure to impress the fans.
Well, to be perfectly honest, it is probably best to ignore the fact that this disc sports 5.1 lossless sound, because the surround presence is virtually non-existent. Lend your ear to a speaker back there and you will hear some presence, I can't lie, but it is limited to just very basic channel extension and low-level support of general ambiance. Nothing more that is worth talking about, I'm afraid. But the Dolby TrueHD track, however, is not necessarily a poor one. In fact, the frontal array has plenty of life and detail, with effects and voices stretched widely across it, and a pleasing sense of depth afforded the mix. The Dark Crystal was never the most ambitious project when it came to sound design and you have to be thankful that Sony's engineers haven't tried to create aural imagery that simply wasn't there on the original track masters. It may be limited in scope, but the film sounds authentic and clear and as enjoyable as ever.
Trevor Jones' classic score isn't as full or as dynamic as many fans would wish it to be, but it still sounds great, with a sweeping presence and a warm, if limited vigour. Fine detail is incorporated with the subtle chirpings, skitterings, whistles and murmurs of the various forms of wildlife that flit aurally across the front speakers. The sonorous moaning of the Mystics has a good vibe to it - deep and melancholy. The rampaging of the Garthim, again limited in room-enveloping clamour, still provides a fair degree of aggression. The sub won't exactly be taxed, but it adds some weight to the attacks and the various scenes of destruction. The clanging of the Skeksis blades early on is sharp enough and the penetrating electro-pulse of the Dark Crystal's light-beam remains effective and a little tighter and heavier in tone than I've heard it before.
Dialogue is pretty well presented within the mix. The gruff, coarse voices of the Skeksis and of Billie Whitelaw's Aughra, which has a fair amount of actual detail within it anyway, come across well. The deep croaky tones of Jen's Mystic master throb gently, and Jen's voice, as well as Kira's, float a fair bit higher, but equally as cleanly. And, of course, the Chamberlain's iconic whimpering creaks up and down with detail and clarity.
So, The Dark Crystal makes no mistakes with its now vintage soundtrack. Nothing silly has been added, and nothing has been taken away. The surround experience is a virtual non-event, but the clarity and presence afforded the film across the front is a rewarding step-up from what we've heard before.
The Dark Crystal was released on a R2 Special Edition a few years, along with Labyrinth, and this BD version brings with it most of the features that that disc had, plus a couple of inspired new ones.
For a kick-off, we've now got BD-Live, as well as a funky PiP track that allows you to peruse concept artwork and storyboards alongside the film. Introductory text for each section provides a welcome and relevant foundation for what we come to observe and this is a fine collection that you can savour.
Brian Froud supplies a slightly technical commentary that gives him the opportunity to recall his concepts and five-year commitment to bringing the film to life. Obviously still in awe of what he and Henson achieved, he delivers a very reasonable account of the creation and evolution of the story, as well as expressing dismay at the fact many people nowadays cannot understand the use of puppets as a storytelling medium.
The 50-minute making-of is pure gold. This has the enormous benefit of having been filmed roughly at the time of the production, with heaps of on-set and behind the scenes footage and a multitude of contemporary interviews with the vast creative team. Lots of the story's background is discussed and we get to see the evolution of the idea from sketch to prop-built puppet with a dedicated study of how the performers rehearsed and tested their cumbersome costumes. Well worth wading through for the frank observations and the ongoing thought-processes and ideas of Henson and his team.
The Book Of Thra - Dark Crystal Collector is a means with which to interact with the film by collecting certain highlighted objects that appear throughout it and gaining information about them that is then stored in an on-screen book. In cahoots with this feature is a game that plays over the film as you watch. Entitled Skektek's Challenge, this sees you as a Gelfling who must answer regular questions in order to save your life essence from being drained - which will happen if you cock things up or dawdle too long in answering.
An interesting feature is an assortment of scenes from the film that play with their original Thra-based languages. Introduced by screenwriter David Odell, this stems from an early concept that would have the Skeksis, in particular, speaking with their own unusual tongue. Although an intriguing idea that would, conceivably, fit-in alongside the previous year's Quest For Fire in that concessions to the ubiquitous English lingo would be vetoed, it is not surprising that the notion was quashed. This feature lasts for 22 minutes.
The Deleted Scene (3.50 mins) depicts the enormously Gothic-flavoured funeral of the deceased Skeksis emperor.
Reflections of The Dark Crystal is split into two parts. Firstly we have the 20-minute “Light On The Path To Creation” which boasts test footage and interviews with Froud, David Odell and some of the puppet performers and give vent to some of the mystical aspirations and designs they had for the film. Then we get the 16-minute “Shard Of Illusion” which goes a little bit more in-depth on the creation of the puppets and offers some behind-the-scenes recollections of the shoot, itself.
Apart from anything new from the much-missed Jim Henson, this is pretty much all a fan could wish for. Excellent stuff that covers all bases and offers a priceless exploration behind the production of one of the most challenging fantasy projects prior to Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings.
A classic not only of its genre, but of its chosen art-form, too, The Dark Crystal stands as a tribute to the boundless energy, creativity and imagination of Jim Henson. The story may be slight, but its reach is universal and hinged upon the ever-reliable thirst for adventure that all traditional quests make so appealing.
Trevor Jones found his feet as a composer with this and his score enhances the film spectacularly. Brian Froud's conceptualisation is profound and unforgettable, the world he creates truly captivating with its hints of wider possibilities, greater implications and deeper mythologies. The darkness inherent to the drama is as compelling as it is unusual in what is, ostensibly, a family fantasy, and it is this key thematic ingredient that makes The Dark Crystal so energising and enjoyable. Whilst many other family adventures of the time were watered-down and genuine danger and unease were filtered out of them, the pet-project of Henson and Froud doffed its cap to the classical yarns and retained the majesty of menace.
And, beautifully, it hasn't dated all that much either. Only the hairstyles smack of the 80's!
With splendid AV quality - the image really does Henson's vision proud - and an engrossing and detailed roster of extra features, this release simply demands to be in every fan's collection. A very worthy upgrade of a fantasy milestone. Highly recommended.
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