A film like Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal deserves a significant amount of credit simply for looking the way it does. So many filmmakers are forced, by causes ranging from studio cowardice to simple budget constraints, to compromise their visions in order to translate them onto the big screen. However the immense successes of Sesame Street, the prime-time Muppet Show, and the use of his creations in films like Star Wars had earned Henson the right to do whatever he wanted. As a result, The Dark Crystal often seems like a raw download of his puppetmaster’s brain onto the big screen.
However, the most important word in that previous paragraph is “raw.” A movie which seemed to tap directly into the childhood nightmares of my generation – and probably caused more than a few – The Dark Crystal doesn’t quite hold up when examined in the cold light of adulthood. It deserves an A for effort, though.
Henson’s fantasy world is populated mainly by the twisted, birdlike Skeksis who worship the titular crystal, and the monkish Mystics who generate their own natural magic. Jen is a Gelfling, the last of a nearly-exterminated race, who is the Chosen One meant to break the Skeksis’ iron grip over the land. We know all of this because it is explained to us several times over the course of the film’s first act: first by a lengthy narration at the beginning of the picture, then by Jen’s Mystic mentor, and then again by the odd oracle who guides Jen on his way.
The problem is one of the fundamental ones of screenwriting: show, don’t tell. The opening narration tells us that Jen’s people were exterminated, which is something that should much rather be shown; imagine if Star Wars skipped right to the Mos Eisley bar sequence and and had a narrator tell us “Luke’s aunt and uncle were killed by the Empire because of these droids.” Similarly, Jen later finds out that he might not be as alone as he thought, but that should have been shown at the beginning of the film, because otherwise we begin to distrust everything that the narrator has told us so far.
This is the one area where Henson had to compromise, because it’s the one area where virtually every movie must compromise: his story, if told properly, was far too dark to maintain a G rating. As it was, the ideas of genocide and slavery (as well as the rather terrifying puppets used for the Skeksis and their insectoid soldiers) pushed the film to a PG rating.* Scenes of the slaughter of the Gelflings were shot, but had to be restricted to use in flashbacks much later in the movie, at which point the movie is showing us something we have already been told many times.
Once we get past all of the telling, though, the movie starts cooking with considerably more gas. It may be difficult for young movie fans, raised in the computer-generated era, to understand how effective the all-puppet cast of this film is. Puppets can’t move very fast, or fight with the efficiency of a stuntman in a CGI motion-capture suit, but the action in this film is as sharp as it can get under those restrictions. The sequence where Jen rides to the castle of the Skeksis on a weird, horselike Landstrider conveys a lot of speed and grace; later, when the Landstriders are called upon to fight, skilled puppetry and editing cover up for what otherwise might have been a very awkward scene.
The weakness of the puppets is that they had no facial articulation, especially for the Gelflings who need it most. Skilled voice actors are used – although not Frank Oz, the famed voice of Yoda and many Muppets, despite the fact that he co-directed the film – but they just can’t make up for the wooden or possibly plastic nature of their on-screen counterparts. When you look at many fantasy films of the 1980s, even the terrible ones, a lot of them benefit from having one wildly expressive human in the cast (Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer, say). During its slower scenes, The Dark Crystal could have used that sort of benefit.
At Movie Klub we watched The Dark Crystal via Netflix Watch Instantly, which is relevant because afterward Netflix recommended The Secret of NIMH to us. The Secret of NIMH is a far superior film with its all-star voice cast and its efficient storytelling, but it’s not really the sort of picture that would give nightmares in its day; it has no creations like the Skeksis and doesn’t even aspire to be that frightening. Whatever flaws it has, The Dark Crystal is one of a kind, perhaps the purest expression of Jim Henson’s style that has been or will ever be made, and is worth seeing for that reason alone.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Remember, the PG-13 rating didn’t exist at the time, so a Henson project being rated PG was kind of a big deal. The example I always like to go back to is Jaws, which was also released with a PG rating (later reclassified to R).