April 27, 2011 by abbyo
Just like most decent, God-fearing American children raised in the 80s and 90s, I grew up watching a lot of Jim Henson movies. The Muppet movies were a staple, as was “Labyrinth.” I knew all the words to the Muppet Show theme song, as well as “Dance, Magic, Dance.” I was a big fan.
But there was one Henson movie I never got behind that lots of people hold in high regard: “The Dark Crystal.” I first watched it a year or two after seeing “Labyrinth,” told by my parents that I would love it. I did not, but I remember really wanting to, out of devotion to all things Henson. I even watched it twice, to see if I would like it better the second time, with no success. Something about it just didn’t hit me the way “Labyrinth” did. I was curious to watch it again to see if the passage of time would perhaps change my opinion of the movie. It didn’t, but now I can more exactly pinpoint what doesn’t work about “The Dark Crystal” for me, and what does.
“The Dark Crystal” was Henson’s first movie with conceptual designer Brian Froud, the mad genius responsible for creating the look and feel of “Labyrinth” and Henson’s TV series “The Storyteller.” It involves a fantastic world inhabited by the nasty, cruel Skeksis, who look like a cross between a vulture and a decaying horse, and the peaceful Mystics, who look like your favorite grandparent imagined as a cuddly dinosaur. They are in a struggle for power, which will be finalized at a soon-to-come eclipse. Our hero, Jen, is a deerlike creature called a Gelfling, who’s tasked with repairing the mysterious Dark Crystal before that eclipse happens, so he can restore the balance of power.
“The Dark Crystal” was an experimental foray into a form Henson would later use with great success, branching out from the Muppets to create more “realistic” puppets. As a result, some of the characters look and move better than others. The Skeksis and Mystics look fantastic, as do the myriad animals and insects Henson uses to people the world he creates. But the Gelflings have problems. They’re an awkward size, too small for full-body puppetry like the Skeksis and Mystics, too big for small, precise movements. Consequently, they are stiff and slow— like the puppet version of the uncanny valley.
But the main issue of “The Dark Crystal” that I think got in the way for me as a
child is in the storytelling. This movie is about 60% less fun than “Labyrinth” (I imagine part of it probably comes from it having 100% less David Bowie). It’s a dark movie, with no obvious jokes or clever humor. For children whose main joy in life comes from fart jokes and pratfalls, this makes it a hard movie to get behind. There’s also very little internal conflict. The characters are simple. The good guys are unfailingly good, the bad guys are unfailingly bad, and sarcasm is a totally foreign concept. As a result, I didn’t find myself caring much about any of the characters.
Another important factor “The Dark Crystal” is missing is an audience surrogate. It’s a big leap for audiences to be dropped into an unfamiliar world, with rules known only to its creators. We need a character who’s as new to it as we are to help us navigate the setting. “The Dark Crystal” gives us only an opening narrative about the Skeksis and the Mystics, then lets us do the rest of the work. It requires extra attention, more than I was willing to give this time around, let alone as an easily-distracted kid.
But there’s one thing Henson gets right that hints at his successes to come: details. The world of “The Dark Crystal” is full of gorgeously detailed sets and costumes and odd little scenes that reflect a unique biology. There are fairy-like creatures that float around like dandelion seeds, something that looks like a log, but swallows bugs and small animals like a large bullfrog, and teeny-weeny rodents that move like tiny balls of lint. Those are just a few of the many things to look at. This is one of the few parts of “The Dark Crystal” that’s really delightful, and something Henson later used to an increasingly fun degree in his later collaborations with Froud.
I’m glad I re-watched “The Dark Crystal,” if only to re-affirm my belief that it’s a lesser film in the Henson canon. It was an admirable attempt, to be sure, but in retrospect only shows how far he had to come with his newer, more realistic brand of puppetry. It’s missing the dose of whimsy that so many of Henson’s other movies had, the thing that makes them so special. As a kid, it just didn’t feel right. As an adult, it’s a little more interesting, but still just doesn’t ring true.
Note: I’m still competing for a speaking role on Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” audiobook! I need LOTS of votes to get into the top 20 and be considered. Help me out by going here and voting! Thanks!