When sitting down to watch The Dark Crystal, a labor of love directed by legendary puppeteer Jim Henson and his frequent collaborator Frank Oz, you know you’re in for something unique in the truest sense of the word: not merely unusual, but one-of-a-kind. There really hasn’t been another film quite like it before or since. A “digitally enhanced” sequel titled The Power of the Dark Crystal is rumored to be in the works, but even that film won’t match its predecessor for sheer daring and ambition. Released in 1982 after being in production for five years, The Dark Crystal was conceptualized by Henson and British artist Brian Froud as the first live action film to feature only puppets and not a single human actor. This was a dream project for Henson, an attempt to explore new territory and push his art further.
Henson and Froud conceptualized an entire world, one painstakingly realized through the filmmaking technology of a quarter century ago: the puppets, of course, and the carefully built sets supplemented by matte paintings. The limits of the technology available on the set of The Dark Crystal helps to bring the achievement of the filmmakers into sharper relief, and today at least, it also seems to be the element that gives this film, vaunted for its lack of human beings on screen, a refreshingly human touch. I don’t mean to disparage the artists who work with digital effects in so many of our current films; the visuals that they produce can indeed be breathtaking. However, computer-generated effects usually work best when they blend seamlessly with the action, and are too often ineffective when looking overly slick and antiseptic, breaking the spell they’ve created by appearing too much like a cartoon and too far from our own reality. By contrast, the earthy visuals of The Dark Crystal remain so magical and endearing because they’re still so tangible.
Though it is a fantasy film with no human characters, The Dark Crystal represents some of Henson’s most realistic work. His world famous creations — the beloved critters that populate Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and its movie spin-offs — are nothing like this. The Muppet Show, with its fond and antic take on good old-fashioned show business, is at its best when it’s at its most ridiculous. It doesn’t really matter that Kermit the Frog moves like a puppet or that you can see his strings. To worry over a lack of realism on The Muppet Show would be akin to fuss over the slightness of the plot of an Astaire-Rogers musical — you’d be missing the point. Conversely, The Dark Crystal’s serious tone requires a definite change in Henson’s style. Here he and his many talented fellow puppeteers and crew members take great pains to make the characters look and feel authentic. Henson even went as far as declining to voice the lead character, Jen, for fear of making him sound like Kermit, and the movements of the figures onscreen were carefully performed for optimal verisimilitude. The result is visually mesmerizing.
And indeed, it was out of no failing on the technical end that The Dark Crystal is at times overlooked in the Henson canon. A tale of good and evil, it may surprise many in that it is a genuinely frightening film. This fact dampened the film’s box office on its initial release and has perhaps prevented it from gaining wider acceptance even now. The film’s leering, vulture-like villains, the Skeksis, will surely startle sensitive or very young children. Their crablike minions the Garthim are even more frightening, looking more like something from David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune than distant relatives of Big Bird and Fozzie Bear. There’s real menace in this film; a scene in which a member of a peaceful race called the Podlings is drained of his essence by the Skeksis is so creepy that it will unsettle both young and old alike. It’s rare to see Henson get this ominous. Even Labyrinth, Henson’s 1986 feature follow-up to The Dark Crystal and the film it is most commonly compared to, possesses a more playful, kidfriendly sensibility (including catchy songs and a giant, furry fellow named Ludo), and a more whimsical visual style.
In truth, The Dark Crystal may be earnest and sober to a fault. “Miss Piggy would take one look at the place and order pink satin drapes,” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss determined when the film was first released. He wasn’t alone in missing Henson’s usually prankish and sprightly sense of humor, and while The Dark Crystal has a sizable and dedicated cult following, it’s the unapologetic hokum of the Muppets that more filmgoers will closely associate with Henson’s name. Me? I’ll take both. The Dark Crystal is vital because it gave Henson a necessary opportunity to stretch, and to prove just what he and his fellow artists could do. It’s also something that’s increasing, discouragingly rare in the world of family films — a work that puts artistic ahead of financial ambitions. For these reasons, The Dark Crystal remains a must-see for anyone interested in experiencing the full range of a filmmaker who was — and once again I use that very true sense of the word — irreplaceably unique.
US/UK, 1982. 93 min.,Jim Henson/Productions/Universal