The Dark Crystal Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    The Dark Crystal Review

    My apologies for not getting around to reviewing this fantasy classic when it first arrived on Blu-ray a few months ago, folks. But, here at long last, is a good look at Sony's region-free UK disc of Jim Henson's fabulous The Dark Crystal from 1982.

    As we all must agree - the first part of the 80's was an absolute boom-time for fantasy films. George Lucas had capitalised on his galaxy far, far away with the superior The Empire Strikes Back, and then there was Terry Gilliam's bizarre couplet of Time Bandits and Brazil, muscle-bound heroism could be found in Conan The Barbarian and his much more fun cousins-in-arms found in The Sword And The Sorcerer and The Beastmaster, English folklore was unearthed in John Boorman's operatic Arthurian retelling, Excalibur, and the excellent, though underrated Dragonslayer from Matthew Robbins, opulent set-bound mysticism swirled around in Peter Yates' flamboyant Krull, and animation was allowed to explore giddy new realms in The Secret Of Nimh and Heavy Metal, and even in the soon-to-revisited computer-generated Tron. But perhaps the most audacious and elaborate of them all came from a surprising direction. Jim Henson, the man behind The Muppets and renowned all-round puppeteering demigod, had long fixated upon a dream project that would push his love for fantasy and the theatre together into one lush visual showcase. And, having become besotted with the celebrated artwork of British fantasist Brian Froud, whose lavish illustrations uniquely melded reality with faerie, he found the perfect collaborator with whom to envision his fanciful imaginings and help shape them into a feature film that would elevate his craft into mainstream cinema.

    Bringing in his expertise with puppets, Henson, Frank Oz and the full team of Muppet whiz-kids spent years crafting the most intricate full-size creatures and finding new and dazzling ways in which to bring them to life in a manner that would explode beyond the normal restraints of the art-form. Employing an army of amazingly flexible puppet-operators to manipulate and contort these vast and complex suits and dolls and wrapping them around a time-honoured and purely traditional tale of good triumphing over evil and eventual spiritual redemption, he and Froud successfully developed what would go on to become something of a cult classic. With this insane creativity in mind, 1982, then, was also an amazing and ground-breaking year for special effects. John Carpenter and Rob Bottin grossed us out with The Thing, whilst Steven Spielberg gave sweetly messianic life to Carlo Rambaldi's E.T., but the achievements made by Jim Henson and his menagerie in The Dark Crystal should not be overlooked or forgotten for their contribution to a field that would rapidly become dominated by computer trickery in the years to come. Acrobatic mime artists and courageous puppeteers donned intricate, spine-snapping costumes to become the crook-backed, squatting Mystics - a race of gentle, wise old philosophers - and the malformed vulture/dinosaur hybrids, the Skeksis - evil, corrupted power-mongers who seek domination over the distant planet of Thra. Aided by their monstrous pincer-armed soldiers, the relentless Garthim - bloated armour-plated beetle-cum-cockroach critters that are genuinely the stuff of nightmares, the Skeksis fast became the cinematic bogeymen to a generation of kids who had grown up watching Rhubarb And Custard, Hong Kong Phooey, Battle Of The Planets and, inevitably, the very series that the Skeksis, themselves, probably inspired, Gerry Anderson's Terrahawks. In so doing, The Dark Crystal, like Dragonslayer a year before, became notorious for actually scaring kids ... the way a proper fairytale should.

    “The reflector will capture the beams of the Dark Crystal floating high above. Look into the reflector, Podling. Feel the power of the Dark Crystal!”

    Obligingly unencumbered by much in the way of plot, The Dark Crystal is, in part, a medieval ode to the time-honoured quest, as well as being a fascinating, if rather simplistic study of class conflict and the corruption of a decadent and decaying society. When the titular crystal that bequeaths life to their planet cracks and loses a very important shard, the balance of order is upset and two distinct factions are formed who then vie for supremacy. The Mystics are benevolent, contemplative ideologists and thinkers in harmony with their surroundings and in touch with the essences that breathe life into all. They shelter in a delightful stone-terraced network of caves surrounding a central villa and engage themselves in gentle ritual and alchemy. But in complete contrast to this apparent enlightenment-seeking, the Skeksis reside within the grasping-talon-shaped fortress in the middle of a lightning-spitted plain of barren rock. The Mystics, seemingly of the earth, live within it. The Skeksis, paranoid, devious and scheming, opt to barricade themselves away from the world, their castle-lair even looks as though it is striving to pull up and away from it. Both races are dying and only ten of either remain. A time of change is upon the world and an ancient prophecy must be fulfilled. So sayest the portentous opening voiceover man, Joseph O' Connor, in a style very reminiscent of many a BBC children's program of the era.

    Between the two poles, there is a veritable Garden of Eden, a lush valley of meadows, forests, rivers and jungles. Other creatures inhabit this region, but they live in fear of the Skeksis and their prowling Garthim scouts. The pygmy-like Podlings, a race of cute land-tillers who in luxuriate in Yoda-style huts and enjoy Hobbit-like festivities at the drop of a hat, are the closest thing to a genuine civilisation that this planet seems to offer now that the Kajagoogoo-haired Gelflings who once roamed free have been all but exterminated by the Skeksis. A Gelfling, it has been foretold, will be the one to return the balance of the power to the Dark Crystal and end the reign of terror of the Skeksis - thus the gnarled old vultures have waged a campaign of genocide against the child-like race. But such bigoted oppression is always doomed, and two Gelflings have managed to evade capture and execution. One, Kira (voiced by Lisa Maxwell), has been taken in by the Podlings and the other, Jen, has lived with the Mystics since the Garthim wiped out both of their families and their respective clans. Neither are aware of the other, at first. With the Mystics dying alongside the equally numbered Skeksis - when one meets his end, his opposite in the other race fades away as well, their existences forever entwined - it becomes time for Jen (voiced by Stephen Garlick) to go forth into a world he has no understanding of (which is a bit of an oversight on the part of his sage-like mentor, to be honest) and find the missing shard. This he must then return to the Dark Crystal, itself, in time for the ominous sounding Great Conjunction that will take place in the heavens above. And where would the Dark Crystal happen to be, then? Why, it's in the fortress of the Skeksis, of course. But then a quest wouldn't be a proper quest if it wasn't fraught with danger, would it?

    “Mouldy mildew, mother of mouthmuck, dangle and strangle and death.”

    Weren't they the firemen of Trumpton?

    Unsurprisingly, coming from Jim Henson and Brian Froud, the imagery is superb. You've got the screwball oddity of the one-eyed astronomer/witch, Augra, the Watcher of the Heavens and the Keeper of Secrets, (voiced marvellously by the great Billie Whitelaw - “Hmmm ... look like duh Gelfling! Smell like duh Gelfling!”), and her dubious ability to pluck out that single orb and allow it to gaze around from wacky vantage points. Our first encounter with Aughra, as Jen hangs suspended in a playful trap of hairy tendrils outside her mountaintop observatory, is a nice reminder of the alien pilots that Graham Chapman's mistaken Messiah accidentally hitches a sky-ride with in Monty Python's Life Of Brian. A smooth pan through the lush marsh-land becomes an intriguing montage that reveals to us many of the other bizarre critters that inhabit the place, and those uncanny distance-shots that have a real person performing Jen's mountainside scampering duties actually add to the credibility of the character and the setting instead of sticking out like a sore thumb. But there are some terrifically lingering, nay haunting, moments that beguile, unsettle and captivate along the way to the film's exciting and beautific finale. The stripping of the Skeksis Chamberlain (Barry Dennen) after he fails the Trial By Stone which leaves him whimpering and trembling in the corner is a genuinely affecting image, folks. Watching imprisoned Podlings become zombified by the reflected light of the Dark Crystal is pretty harrowing, too, which is particularly impressive when you consider that they are just puppets with heads shaped like potatoes. There are shades of that Muppet professor's put-upon lab assistant in their terrified eyes and tufty fright-wigs, but Henson slyly twists the effect into something that is much more macabre and actually quite bone-chilling. And the sight of the clear-white life-essence dripping out of such victims through nastily inserted tubes by the Skeksis Scientist is also uniquely disturbing. But the most embedded impressions that the film left me with are of those bloated ground-hugging camel-esque Mystics lumbering slowly across the plains to fulfil their destiny, their passage almost visually melodic - after some of the things seen in the first two Star Wars features and, of course, the Alien, itself, these sand-hippies were the most convincingly otherworldly creatures that I'd had the pleasure of examining, and even though there have been much more incredibly impressive monsters and otherworldly “things” in the years since The Dark Crystal came out, I still have a lasting fondness for their distinctive and ungainly physiognomy. Is it just me, or do they look a little bit like Nicholas Cage? And if that's the case, then doesn't Jen remind you of Steven Tyler from Aerosmith?

    “The Great Conjunction is the end of the world! Or the beginning ... hmm!”

    The stilt-legged Landstriders may look wildly unusual, but their apparent ability to cover immense distances at incredible speed is about as convincing as the huge Fire-Mares in the following year's big fantasy epic, Krull. It is about the one real slip-up that the creative team make - even with the suspension of disbelief that seems to come so easily with almost everything else, this single element never quite works for me. Although you have to admit that when the Landstriders find themselves surrounded by a filthy Garthim raiding party, you truly feel anxious for them and their sacrificial last stand. It is also worth recalling that the late great Percy Edwards, animal voice artist extraordinaire, supplied the weird vocals for Kira's devoted pet, the toothy but cute furball, Fizzgig, and that Michael Kilgarriff lent his sinister timbre for the Skeksis General. Kilgarriff voiced the menacing Robot in the classic Tom Baker Doctor Who story of the same name from 1975.

    Even celebrity little person, Deep Roy, was involved with some of the creature-feature puppet wrangling.

    “End ... begin ... all the same. Big change. Sometimes good. Sometimes bad.”

    Yet for all of those fantastical innovations, Henson's style is firmly entrenched in the profoundly theatrical. The whole notion of puppeteering is, naturally, indebted to the stage, but the unusual gift that Jim Henson possessed was the ability to marry up this age-old art form with the resoundingly cinematic. Yet this does not exclude some occasional, and wholly fitting self-indulgence. You only have to watch the Skeksis banquet sequence to understand just how smitten Henson and his talented crew are with their profession. Really, this sequence serves no purpose other than to show-off the off-kilter characterisations and comical/surreal attributes of the puppets, themselves, but as a centrepiece of such exuberance, you just can't fault it.

    “Wings? I don't have wings!”

    “Of course not ... you're a boy.”

    The film feels neatly put-together and both epic in scope, yet intimate enough not to dazzle young minds. Cross-cutting Jen's ordeals with the slow, but unstoppable progress of the Mystics as they amble methodically across the wild terrain of Froud's magical realm keeps the momentum of an unavoidable resolution keenly in mind at all times. And, as such, The Dark Crystal, perhaps more than a great many other fantasy quests, blows a lot of its own suspense value. We already know how it is all going to end. But, whilst such an obvious revelation could sink those other fantasies, it provides a curiously reassuring sense of pre-ordained eventuality. Based on a prophecy that is actually for such a greater good that it also encompasses the bad guys as well - which is unusual in such fables - this gives kids a very definite lifeline in a story that is more frightening and intense than a lot of what they may have been used to before this unique myth in-the-making came along. The touching romance that blossoms amid this epoch-altering chain of events between Jen and the animal-enchanting Kira is dealt with in an extremely child-like manner, almost superficial. Dream-fasting - the Gelfling ability to read the mind and memories of another of their kind - is another example of what many would consider to be contrived storytelling, but this thought does the mood of the film a great disservice. Whereas the likes of George Lucas often confused himself and his audience with his fundamentally inept (but still great) combination of one-dimensional character motivations, awful dialogue and fantastical exposition, Henson's saga is knowingly aimed at the minds of children and, its darkness aside, makes no misguided attempts at philosophy or deep emotions. Henson paints his story broadly, yes, but he expertly nails the core elements that appeal to young and old alike. I mentioned the whimpering Chamberlain getting stripped and banished by his despicable kindred - the impact of this incident of shunning and ridicule something that most young children will be horribly aware of, whether from personal experience or simply from having observed it happening to another. But the Chamberlain's later return, with a hostage Gelfling in tow, is an act that is equally enshrined within the trials of childhood. “I did this! I caught the Gelfling. I have done this!” the Chamberlain implores with the self-satisfied smugness of someone hell-bent on getting themselves back in with the “in” crowd and winning back some robbed prestige. In this and many other ways, Henson's fable becomes an honest assessment of the dark side of innocence which, troubling for parents or not, makes The Dark Crystal a refreshing and thought-provoking milestone in the genre.

    “I wish I'd never heard of this shard!”

    Didn't a certain questing little Hobbit say something similar about that ring of his?

    British composer (but South African born) Trevor Jones, so quiet of late, was still just making a name for himself during this period. Not only had he scored John Boorman's Excalibur, amid copious classical elements brought in from Wagner, and a couple of award-winning shorts, but he had this and the subsequent Labyrinth to contend with. Going on to score Runaway Train, the fine Sam Neill TV mini-series of Merlin and, of course, the awesome The Last Of The Mohicans for Michael Mann, Cliffhanger for Renny Harlin, From Hell for the Hughes Bros and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen for Stephen Norrington, Jones has, bewilderingly, dropped off the “big movie” scene in the last couple of years, although he is slated to score the tantalising, though rather unnecessary animated sequel to Henson's story, The Power Of The Dark Crystal, for Dave (Mirrormask) McKeen - an idea taken from Jim Henson's and Brian Froud's original production notes - in the next couple of years. For The Dark Crystal, he created a wonderfully rich and lyrical main theme, some terrifically moving passages for the Mystics, great rhythmic action cues, including a bravura and relentless Jaws-like motif for the ferocious Garthim, and, best of all, the infectious fun of the folk/Irish/medieval merry-making jig for the Muppet Show-inspired Pod Dance. Use of the Synclavier and Prophet synthesisers aided the atmospherics of the actual Dark Crystal sequences, the incredible sound of an electric organ for some of the Skeksis scenes, and bestowed the film a similar electronic resonance to those experimental scores that Jerry Goldsmith was starting to deliver around this time. Fans should be aware that his complete score was made available in a 2-disc release from Numenorean Music a few years ago, and can still be sought out.

    “Where are we?”


    “I don't think anywhere is safe any more.”

    With Henson's magical, mischievous Labyrinth available on Blu-ray as well, it makes perfect sense to pick up both of these most beguiling and memorable forays into the realms of the purely fantastique. Of the two, I actually prefer The Dark Crystal a little bit more - there is something tragic and sinister about it that I find brave and challenging in a genre that is so often stuffed with saccharine and whimsy. Real fear is generated with the attacks of the foul Garthim - check out the anguished Podling prisoners being hauled off in rope sacks towards the Crystal stronghold - and there is a definite vein of sadism coursing through the decrepit bodies and poisoned minds of their Skeksis masters. Somehow, I find their self-centred hunger for life and power actually more frightening and odious than the tyranny of Lucas' Empire. Like a rest home full of wicked old sorcerers, they gossip, back-stab and grub about in their sordid clutching for stolen youth, and that just makes the skin crawl, doesn't it?

    The Dark Crystal makes a welcome debut on high definition. It is just as exciting, mesmerising and surreal an adventure as it ever was. Enchanting and dark at the same time, it seems to invert the template of Tolkien's great quest in an attempt to fashion its own mythology. Yet, leaving the supposed animated sequel aside for the time being, the story is very satisfyingly complete and circular which, given the type of genre it hails from, is actually rather quaint.

    The Dark Crystal is fantasy at its best.

    The Rundown

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