This is one of the greatest retro reviews I’ve ever had the pleasure of writing. This 1982 masterpiece by the legendary duo of Jim Henson and Frank Oz is nothing short of a technical masterpiece that leaves films like Avatar in the dust. James Cameron couldn’t even come close to the heights of brilliance reached in The Dark Crystal. If you’ve ever wanted to argue a case for practical effects over CG effects, you need look no further than this right here.
I watched this just last night (as of the time of writing this) for the first time since I was about 7 or 8 years old. Obviously, all I could remember about is was that there was some puppetry going on and a really big floating glowing purple crystal. Not much else. I’m ashamed to say that my memory did not serve me well at all. This was a film shown at school and unfortunately I never revisited it but it was a true delight to be so enchanted by a film again, something I’ve not felt for years and I actually felt almost childlike again. Personally though, this film is dark and quite scary in places. I personally wouldn’t recommend it for the youngsters until they’re a lot older than 7……maybe even young teens. Certain scenes even gave me the creeps which surprised me, and there are others that I’m surprised didn’t scar me for life.
This film was one of the biggest wake up calls for a true talent I’ve ever seen. I knew Henson and Oz were good, but not this freaking good. These aren’t just a few puppets walking and talking on some rickety old sets. Henson studios created an entire living, breathing ecosystem with not one real human in sight. Plants, animals and sentient beings, all lovingly and painstakingly created and leaving you in a completely incredible world of wonder and awe. There’s one scene with some insects flying, being chased by a little critter trying to eat them and then he gets gobbled up by a larger predator. Now these things don’t have to be in there and serve no purpose to the plot, but when filmmakers go that extra mile it really immerses you in ways you can’t put on paper. I cannot state enough just how jawdroppingly beautiful this film is, but I’ll stop with the shameles blabbing for now (not that I want to).
The film begins with a narration of how this particular world was thrust into darkness and war over a powerful Crystal. The Crystal itself a source of phenomenal power and being forcefully taken over by the hideous vulture-like Skeksis race and used for eeeeevil! The flipside to this evil side of the coin is the peaceful , wise and very old Mystics. Both the Skeksis and the Mystics are the same species but whilst the Mystics are nice, old and wise, the Skeksis are twisted, hideous and ugly. Kind of like what the ring does to Gollum in the LOTR trilogy. A sole survivor of the race called Gelflings, fairy like creatures, were wiped out by the Skeksis due to a little problem of a prophecy regarding a single Gelfling bringing an end to their reign. This sole surviving Gelfling, called Jen, is called upon by the Mystics to retrieve a lost shard of the crystal and reunite it with the Dark Crystal before the three suns align in the sky and restore peace to the lands. That old chestnut.
This film has the best puppetry I have ever seen, period. Labyrinth comes close but being from the same creative genius, that’s no surprise at all. I loved and watched the hell out of Labyrinth and its a film I love to watch with my children now. Even knowing what I’m about to write next makes me almost want to rethink what I’m saying, but The Dark Crystal is EASILY Henson’s best work. Easily. Every single thing about it is perfect. Even better still is the titular character’s inner monologue. Why don’t we ever see that in films? At first I was thinking he was talking to himself out loud but he was actually thinking. The mouth wasn’t moving and the fact that I was taken aback by something so simple as this proves the amount of forethought that went into this film. It absolutely oozes atmosphere. Every. single. frame. And I was emotionally attached to many of these characters made of latex, plastic and hair. Not an easy feat. All the CG in the world could never make you feel like this….well not yet anyway. The only time I ever cared for CG characters was in District 9 and maybe Gollum in LOTR. Avatar was comparatively soulless but hailed as the greatest achievement in fimmaking ever. I beg to differ. This is one of them right here and made 27 years before it, no less.
Another point I’ll make about this film which struck me as odd with how exceptionally detailed it is, is the running time. This ain’t no short kids film but a full length feature coming in at just over an hour and a half. Considering the basic plot, it could’ve easily run a much shorter amount of time for a film of this nature but Henson and Oz must’ve been off their rocker when they decided to undertake this behemoth of a film. It’d be hard enough with actors and a real life setting to run a film into this sort of time frame, but a fully puppeted, animatronic, encapsulated living world? People must have thought they were bonkers when it was first pitched. I gotta say though, I’m ecstatically glad it does run for the time it does. When things are this good, you don’t want them to end, thankfully this extended run-time feels like the perfect amount for its genius that you’ll witness.
The character of Jen the Gelfling is so endearing. He is such an innocent thrust into an unforgiving task. You can draw many parallels to Lord of the Rings with some of the plotlines. Replace the shard with the ring and it would come close but even saying that, they are such completely different beasts. Another character not so endearing is Chamberlain the Skeksis, who tried to take the throne after the emperor died and lost the duel with the other Skeksis contender and following Emperor. Chamberlain’s constant and unnerving “Hmmmmmmmmm-ing” really gets to you. You kind of like him but also don’t trust him either. The way he is treated when he is expunged from his group makes you feel so sorry for him, it’s quite humiliating for a supposed kids film. Even though Chamberlain is a hideous looking creature, Henson studio’s really make you feel for him all the same. I really think this film was catering for a much older audience than most people seem to think it does on the interwebz.
Okay, from this review I gather you’ll get the feeling that I liked The Dark Crystal somewhat. From my viewing alone last night, it easily nestles itself among my favourite films of all time. I wont gush any further, just go check this film out if you’ve never seen it. If you only saw it as a kid and your memory is a little vague then get yourself updated quicksmart!