Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Dark Crystal (Review)

Directors: Jim Henson, Frank Oz

Company: The Jim Henson Company, Universal Pictures

Year: 1982

Country: United States, Britain

Dated but visually impressive, it's certainly a darker fairytale film than most audiences today are accustomed to. 

The Dark Crystal has become a cult classic over the years, being well known among fantasy and special effects enthusiasts. However, public opinion has always been somewhat divided about the film. Some regard it as an ambitious but flawed film, others love it, and certain people are absolutely frightened by it. (The Dark Crystal contains more instances of scarier imagery than most PG movies these days. Keep in mind that several 'adult' films coming from the same era - Indiana Jones, Jaws, and The Gremlins - were rate at PG when they first released.) Although The Dark Crystal was a huge undertaking for Jim Henson and his crew, spending over five years in production, it did relatively modestly at the box-office, perhaps due to competition from Spielberg's E.T. and the fact that the audience may have been expecting something more like The Muppets. (Both works were made by Jim Henson and utilized puppets, but the similarities end there.) 

The film takes place "in another world, in another time, in the age of wonder." In this world, called Thra, two prominent races emerged when the crystal cracked, causing a large chunk of it to fall off, resulting in chaos. These two races represent the opposing sides of human nature. The gentle and wise Mystics are very knowledgeable about the natural world, but lack the will to fight. The quarrelsome, violent skeksis have thus taken over much of the land. (Apparently, the vulture-like skeksis were based of off the seven deadly sins and Ms. Havisham from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.)  Both they and the mystics are dying races, and their fates will be determined by the next Great Conjunction. If the crystal is not healed by the time the three suns meet, then the skesis will reign tyrannically forever. However, if the crystal is healed before the conjunction is over, then the mystics and skeksis will reunite as a whole, and peace will be restored.

At the center of this conflict is a young elf-like boy named Jen. Jen is a gelfling, the last of his kind. All of the other gelflings were victims of genocide, killed off by the skeksis due to a prophesy stating that the crystal would be healed "by gelfling hand or by none." Raised by the Mystics, Jen is told to meet Aughra, an eccentric astrologist who lives in an observatory. Aughra gives him the shard, before her home is wrecked by the Skeksis's garthim warriors. Jen manages to escape into the swamp, were he discovers that he is not actually the last gelfling. He meets Kira, a girl raised by the swamp's Podlings, who can communicate with animals. Kira proves to be a very useful guide and offers Jen moral support. Both must keep on constant guard of danger. In addition to the garthim, both Jen and Kira must also beware of the Chamberlin, an exiled Skeksis with an annoying habit of whimpering, who plans to bait both of them back to the castle were his clan resides.  

The kind and caring Mystics contrast with...

... the cruel and nasty Skeksis. (Both representing the divided sides of human nature.)

From a production standpoint there is much to be admired, given how much labor was required to bring The Dark Crystal to life. Although the gelfling puppets have a harder time getting emotion across their faces except for mild shock or surprise, none of the other characters suffer from this problem. (Jim Henson and his staff would continue to make improvements on the range of expressions their puppets could display in the future, utilizing robotic technology.) Indeed, the height of the technology used in The Dark Crystal was bicycle chains. Today, it is so easy to overlook how intensive filmmaking can be, especially with the saturation of CGI in the market. Each puppet was performed by trained professionals or gymnasts. The skeksis were acted by men crawling on their knees, holding up an arm over their heads, to control the creatures' necks. The garthim costumes were so heavy, that the people inside them had to take breaks every five minutes, and the costumes had to be lifted off of them with cranes. The Dark Crystal's unique and intricate design was created by Brian Froud, a famous fantasy illustrator who also provided concept art for Labyrinth (1986), The Storyteller (1989), the infamous Little Nemo (1989), and Peter Pan (2003). (Froud's son, Toby, appeared as the baby in Labyrinth and would later help with the production design on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Froud's wife, Wendy, met Brian on the set of The Dark Crystal and was responsible for the puppet work on Yoda for Star Wars.)

To appreciate all the details in this movie, it has to be seen on a large screen. 

The Dark Crystal's soundtrack is another plus. It's complexity and variation really adds to the unearthly atmosphere of the movie. The Golden Globe nominee Trevor Jones provides a memorable score that combined dramatic symphonic orchestral style with period instruments and synthesizers. Perhaps the best pieces in the film are its overture, ''Love Theme", and "Gelfling Song."

The degree characterization in the movie is bit varied, but fairly interesting. Because they are so absolutely despicable, the skeksis can be a lot of fun to watch interacting with one another, once you are able to get over the creepiness factor. (One of the movie's more humorous scenes involves them eating dinner that rivals my family's Thanksgiving celebrations in its bad manners.) The fact that the skesis can come across as goofy at times, and terrifying at others makes excellent use of contrast. Speaking of contrast, the Mystics really do an excellent job of embodying this to the skeksis. Yes, the Mystics are relatively passive and only appear at the beginning and end of the film, but they are supposed to be less flamboyant and egotistic than the skeksis. Aughra is so bossy, grotesque, and uppity that she just demands attention whenever she is on screen. Frank Oz considered her to be, "So ugly, that she is beautiful." (Frank Oz also was going to be the original voice of Aughra, but this was dropped, likely because it made her sound too much like Fozzie Bear.) Fizzgig, Kira's dog-like pet, provides the most comic relief. His fearful nature causes him to constantly bear his large number of teeth, that take up most of his body when his mouth is open!

 As for the film's leads, Kira is probably the stronger of the two. She has is knowledge about the outside world than Jen, who has lived a relatively sheltered life with the Mystics prior to his quest. Her role was not that of a princess or 'distressed damsel' common in childern's media at the time. One scene even pokes fun at gender conventions. (Jen: "Wings? You have wings? I don't have wings." Kira: "Of course not, you're a boy.") Jen, however, is ironically the least interesting of The Dark Crystal's cast. He tends to simply react to what's going on around him and talk about the difficulty of his quest...that's about it. Perhaps this is because he is ignorant about many things in the outside world. (Jen can prove to be quite knowledgeable at times, however, like when he revealed that he possesses the ability to read.)   

This ball of fluff serves as comic relief. 

Of course this film is not perfect, its age shows and some of the dialogue is a bit cheesy, but not to the point that it makes The Dark Crystal bad. Personally, the 'darkness' of the film does not overly concern or alarm me. It is somewhat refreshing to see storylines in family films that tackle more mature themes or have slightly scary scenes. Kids will grow up after all, so they should learn that the world is not all jellybeans and rainbows! Just because the film was produced by Jim Henson, it certainly does not have to be 'cute' or avoid serious topics. (Henson's career was far more elastic than most people realize.) Many people compare this film to Labyrinth (1986), but The Dark Crystal was ultimately better received by the critics and did better at the box-office. (Labyrinth did gain a substantial fanbase later on with TV reruns, but Henson sadly never lived to see this.) I would have to agree with them, as Labyrinth, while still quite enjoyable in places, is a far 'safer' film and its David Bowie songs just don't suit its aesthetics (and this is coming from somebody who likes most David Bowie songs).

Skeksis: giving young childern nightmares since 1982. 

So is this film perfect? No. Is it worth seeking out if you are curious? Yes. If you are able to accept something slightly more unconventional than most Hollywood fair, forgive some of its quirks and age, and can appreciate handmade art, I strongly suggest seeking out The Dark Crystal. Never before has there been a film that stands out so distinctively in its visual style. Due to this factor, its reliance solely on puppets (no human actors), and its importance to the history of special effects, Jim Henson is said to have been most proud of The Dark Crystal out of all of his work. Appreciation for The Dark Crystal continues to grow, and it is now considered to be one of the greatest fantasy films ever made. 

Rating: 3.5