‘The Dark Crystal’

by Jim Henson and Frank Oz

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Jim Henson is a name which one would normally associate with Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and other puppet characters which look fairly easy to make. If this is all you think of when thinking of Jim Henson, then you are someone who needs to see a Fantasy picture known as The Dark Crystal, an astounding piece of filmmaking that shows the true genius and talent of one of the world’s most beloved puppeteers, as well as, I have come to realize, my all-time favourite movie! Yes, for those who have been asking which one out of my countless seen films I’d put above all others, I would probably go as far as to say that this is it.

The Dark Crystal is void of human beings and is to date the only live action film I know to be that way. Its world is inhabited only by magical creatures, based on spectacular artwork by Brian Froud and played by many terrifically made animatronic and/or traditional puppets, as well as skilled and agile performers hidden in intensely detailed costumes. Although the version we know was arguably dumbed down after test screenings (David Odell’s original script featured no voice-overs and a made up language for the villains), you can trust me that it is still quite the sight.

The movie is set in the world of Thra, which was once a green and beautiful land. This was until the day when the heart of the world, a bright magical crystal, was somehow broken, causing the rulers of Thra to split into two new species – the cruel, vulture-like Skeksis and the wise, gentle Mystics (otherwise called urRu). The Skeksis rule the dark and tarnished land of Thra from the castle of the now dark crystal. A prophecy has informed them that the only one who can restore the land and its beauty is one of the Gelfling race and so they have made sure that all Gelflings are dead; at least so they think.

The Skeksis gather in the crystal chamber and use its beams to extend their lives.

The Skeksis gather in the crystal chamber and use its beams to extend their lives.

One Gelfling, Jen (voice by Stephen Garlick, puppetry by Henson), is still alive and has been raised by the master of The Mystics, who explains to Jen on his death bed that he is the one destined to find the missing shard of the crystal, but dies before saying what he must do with it. Jen goes to the observatory of Aughra (voiced by Billie Whitelaw, performed by Frank Oz), where the shard has been kept for centuries. With the shard in his pocket, Jen journeys through the land of Thra, searching for the castle of The Skeksis.

On his journey he encounters the vicious Garthim, who serve as the brute force of the Skekis, and the cunning but weak Skeksi Chamberlain (voice by Barry Dennen, performed by Oz) who has been cast out of the castle and serves as the Gollum of the story. Finally he runs into Kira (Lisa Maxwell, Kathryn Mullen) and her adorable dog-like hairball Fizzgig (Percy Edwards, Dave Goelz). Jen is delighted and highly surprised to discover that Kira is a Gelfling too, who was raised by a colony of little people known as Podlings after the Garthim killed her family. And so the two Gelflings team up to make their way to the castle, heal the dark crystal and destroy the Skeksis once and for all.

Fizzgig is one of the most lovable things about the film. He may have more teeth than brain cells but he is still adorable and awesome. I’d love to have a pet like him.

The Dark Crystal is certainly the most complex of Henson’s works and it was most definitely worthwhile. I can do nothing but admire a film of such beauty and ambition. It is crystal clear (har-har) that tremendous work has been put into this film’s production and the quailty of it all is astonishing for a film that’s exactly 30 years old at the point of this post being written. Much of the imagery, particularly that involving The Mystics, brings to mind illustrations from old story books and the art of John Bauer, in which somber-looking fantasy creatures would sit and ponder on who knows what.

Something a bit strange is the fact that compared to Kira, our hero Jen isn’t really that smart. Jen seemed to learn little aside from reading and counting from The Mystics, whereas Kira learned from the Podlings to talk with animals and hide herself when needed. Technically, Kira is most heroic and interesting of the leads, since she has to save Jen at many times. Also, she has wings. When Jen points out his own lack of wings, Kira casually responds “Of course not, you’re a boy”.

I remember still back in the year 2000. My father had ordered what was the first DVD we ever owned. I was puzzled as to what I was watching. It looked live action, I thought, but there were no people on screen. It looked like puppets but they didn’t creep me out as much as The Muppets (that’s another story). I saw something unique that would grow on me more and more as time went on.

As a child I watched The Dark Crystal constantly and possibly too much. I would make bizarre requests that my father should change the audio to French and the subtitles to Spanish and later replay the movie with French subtitles and German audio. It is fair to say that out of the many great films I’ve seen, The Dark Crystal is the one I’ve re-watched the most. Easily.

Podlings.

Podlings.

It is 2012 now. I still re-watch the film frequently, opening my own eyes more and more each time, gazing into the backgrounds and observing the costumes to look for more tiny details, creatures running around the scenery, the intricate craftmanship of such mind-blowing sets as Aughra’s giagantic, constantly moving orrery and small things moving slightly in the distance. Jim Henson has through the use of visuals, music (by Trevor Jones), sounds and atmosphere created a whole other world and that world is alive. I will love his masterpiece The Dark Crystal forever, therefor it will forever be alive.

Because this film means more to me than I think these written words can conceivably describe. The scene where Kira chants a calming Gelfling song as she escorts Jen down a silent river, the numerous shots of Mystics walking across the alien landscapes, the hilariously disgusting Skeksis dinner party – so many scenes still stick with me and still bring me back to my careless days of youth, the atmospheric and quiet ones even moreso than the action-based ones. Without it, perhaps I wouldn’t have developed my appreciation for visual and musical atmosphere in the stead of overly fast-paced action at such an early age? I know that Oz and Henson originally wanted this to be even less dialogue-driven and even more visual and surreal. Perhaps we will see this original version one day, besides deleted scenes included as DVD extras?

This world and its mythology can be explored further in books, graphic novels and a nice documentary. How something like this isn’t nearly as popular as the likes of Lord of The Rings is beyond my comprehension. Few people seem to be aware of The Dark Crystal and those who have not seen it, let me tactfully assure you that there is an entire magical world for you to explore and the best place to start is here – the most wonderful film that one of the world’s most gifted puppeteers has ever created: The Dark Crystal, my favourite film of all time!

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Jen and Kira; the last of their kind, destined to save Thra.

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