PG, for kinda sorta '70s-leftover / early '80s dark fantasy stuff. Like, as an adult, it's not scary. But a puppet gets stabbed with a knife. Also, there's genocide. You don't think of it as genocide, because they're all puppets or children in costumes from a distance. But it's got some pretty intense genocide. There are scary creatures who try killing everything. Like, I was born in '83. I was hip deep in this kind of disturbing stuff growing up. But I realize that a lot of people weren't born in darkness. They had to adopt it. PG.
DIRECTORS: Frank Oz and Jim Henson
There's something absolutely hipster about loving this movie. I'm not saying that people don't love this movie. But if I was to give you the grand spread of Jim Henson films, claiming you love The Dark Crystal definitely says something about your personality. Hey, I got wrapped up in the pageantry of the whole thing too. I'm not above it. So many of the websites I follow won't shut up about follow-ups to The Dark Crystal, I suppose I had to rewatch it.
Here's a confession. I'm 100% certain I watched this as a child. It's in the same category as Legend, where I know that I've seen it, but I remember nothing about it shy of what pop culture references have permeated the landscape beyond the film. I don't think that The Dark Crystal has always had the strongest fandom, shy of the last five years. I don't know why there is now a surge in fans for this movie, besides rumbles of eventual continuation of the franchise. But I decided that I owed it to myself to really find out what was up with this film. If I was to be completely unfair to this movie, which I often am to a lot of movies, The Dark Crystal is such a visual feat that it is kind of a crime that so much of that movie is left uncooked. Like, a lot of this movie, for multiple reasons, takes a lot of shortcuts when it comes to storytelling. But I know what a lot of defenders of this film could say. The same is true for The Lord of the Rings. Honestly, the films are eerily similar. I know that a lot of epic fantasy can be tied to Tolkien's work in some form. I mean, Tolkien technically plagiarizes himself with The Lord of the Rings books after he wrote the template for it in The Hobbit. That epic quest through a world with the goal of reaching a location and accomplishing what should be a simple mission, yet knowing that the simple act is actually a great hurdle. (I hate that sentence as much as you do, but I have a baby who is sitting on my lap AND who is intrigued with how keyboards work.) But look how both movies begin. Both Peter Jackson's films and The Dark Crystal begin with a shorthand of a great and complex history of the land. But for some reason, Jackson's works better. I may be infusing some of my love for the movies on top of that, but I feel like Jackson gives us the bare minimum that we need to know about Middle Earth. He tells us about the forging of the rings. But more so, he does show us the major moments in time. One of the things that really bug me about The Dark Crystal is that we get a painfully verbose infodump at the beginning of the movie with very few visuals to help us really understand the world. Henson made this really in-depth world with so much detail, but asks us to kind of jump into the deep end with it.
It's biggest burden is its short run-time. I'm thinking about 1982 Jim Henson studios. They want to make this epic movie starring puppets / muppets. They've got puppetry down to a science. They are the leading company to make a movie starring protagonists that are puppets. They want to blow everyone out of the water and prove that puppetry should be taken seriously. So they embark on this nearly impossible quest. They need to make this movie not only as good as its fantasy contemporaries. They need to show that puppets should be the only way to make stories that rival Tolkien's imagination. It's the equivalent of trying to make the first CG film. Or, maybe its the same attitude that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow had. But puppets, even for the most amazing technicians and artists, are time and effort. They cost money. Also, there has to be a sense of scale. The Lord of the Rings was an impossible feat. But Jackson also had a budget. He had a studio that really wanted to blow everyone else out of the water. He also had the patience to be only making one movie for the rest of his life if he wanted to. The Lord of the Rings works because it feels epic. The Dark Crystal, for as much as it accomplishes, feels rushed. It acts almost as a proof of concept video. I know. An hour and a half is a good length for a film. But they have this epic world full of history and complexities. Instead, the story really becomes about Jen trying to get from one place to another without a sense of how far that story would be. Frodo and Bilbo constantly remind us of the impossibilities of their tasks. The odds are against Jen, but Jen is almost ignorant of the dangers that he is in throughout the film. Part of this comes from the placid look on Jen's face for a lot of the film. As cool as the Skeksis look (albeit really hard to tell one from another), Jen and the Gelflings look like puppets. I don't know what it is about Muppets that allow me to empathize and relate with those characters, but I do. Perhaps its the silliness of it all. But that silliness allows for characters to over-emote. Jen only has a range of emotions that is pretty limited. I know when Jen is scared or inquisitive. For ever major action scene, of which there are a few, the camera has to pull back to allow a child actor to act as a stunt double. This made me think of the very nature of stunt actors. I suppose that the goal of the stunt actor is to appear invisible. He or she has to move and convey the mannerisms of the named actor on the bill. Really, it's an attempt to make us believe that the character can do all of these things. But when you watch The Dark Crystal, it's clearly not the puppet. I know. It seems silly. But that kind of leads to my main idea behind the entire viewing / article.
The Dark Crystal is more of an experiment in filmmaking. There's a lot of heady stuff going on here. I'm sure that the entire team thought that they weren't just making an art film or a step forward in special effects. There is a story there. In fact, it's a really detailed story. But so much of the important part of the film is talked about and not shown. Rather, we put a lot of faith that Jen's journey is important without really understanding the context of the whole thing. Everything that is important about Jen reuniting the shard of the Dark Crystal is talked about. The entire thing is linear. Because Jen's journey is an attempt to show off what the filmmakers can do in terms of setting and scenery / creature design, there really isn't a great importance to what all of these locations really mean to the greater tapestry. Sure, people who were making this movie know what these places all really mean in the end. I'm sure that Dark Crystal fans also have the same attitude. They know the maps and the locations. But like Avatar, it's all looking pretty without a lot of substance. I never really connect with Jen like I do with Frodo. It's not because he's a puppet. I connect with lots of inhuman characters created by effects workshops. It's just that Jen has time to grow. Instead, Jen has always been a member of this world. He is the last of the Gelflings, meaning that he already has greatness thrust upon him. Yeah, he's a reluctant hero, but he's really a reluctant hero that isn't all that reluctant. There are so many shortcuts to get this guy on his journey that there's never actually a sense of normalcy. I know. The rules of the plot mountain don't always have to be three. But the exposition does some very important things. The first thing that the exposition does is to establish the world of the story. The narrator does a lot of that. We never get to see, from the common man's perspective, what normality is in the world. Instead, we have a lot of narrator. In The Lord of the Rings, we get Gandalf's birthday party that shows what the world is like. Then, we also get to see how the protagonist views the world. Instead, our first interaction with Jen is mourning the loss of his father figure. What is normal for Jen? What is he fighting for? By cutting all of this short, it really becomes just a movie about a journey instead of giving us purpose for this journey.
The thing is, in no way is The Dark Crystal a failure. If you ever wanted to see a movie about directors and their priorities, The Dark Crystal is kind of it. The movie shows that stories, regardless of genre or tone, can be told using a different form of expression. I'm thinking of how long certain films weren't qualified for Academy Awards because they used CGI. This is the 1982 equivalent of that. I'm certain that there were probably many, MANY no's because this was trying to be a serious film using puppets. I'm super impressed by this film. I would watch The Dark Crystal for its effects sooner than Avatar. I think that Avatar has the luxury of having a lot of money behind it and a director who is playing more than anything else. The Dark Crystal is a challenge of filmmaking. I look at that movie and see an entire team who believes in the mission of the film and is probably exhausted because of it. It looks exhausting, the amount of detail on that film. You knew that stuff probably fell off of those puppets time after time. Every scene had to take forever. With a Muppet movie, you at least had the benefit of having human actors on screen to divert attention away from any kind of puppet mishaps. But in this, everyone has to simply trust the director. There had to be rehearsal after rehearsal. No one could really see what was going on and everything had to be timed with such precision. I can imagine the long nights, having to figure out how to make impossible shots work. Simple things as characters running probably drove people nuts. And then, to do the whole thing and still try to make it an immersive experience is mind-boggling. The TV show has the benefit of 21st century technology. It looks gorgeous from the trailers. But there's almost nothing rag tag about the new show. I'm just in awe that The Dark Crystal actually exists. Yeah, it's not my cup of tea. I often found myself bored. But my daughter, she lost her mind. My son often makes me pretend that I'm the Skeksis and attack him. There's something there and I think that the TV show can actually do a lot with this model. I mentioned that this is almost proof of concept. The TV show will prove whether or not I'm right.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.