The Dark Crystal, one of those lesser-known gems from ‘80s fantasy genre. Created by Jim Henson, Crystal’s legacy has been far overshadowed by his other non-Muppets film, Labyrinth, and arguably for good reason. Despite it’s dark qualities, The Dark Crystal lacks the some of the charisma of the latter film. However, that doesn’t change the fact that The Dark Crystal – in my personal opinion – is many other, better things: macabre, fanciful, and intriguing to watch from start to finish.
Borrowing heavily from the Tolkien playbook, Crystal imagines a world of Mystics and Skeksis – one a reptilian, twisted tyranny; the other a docile, academic civilization. At the center of their existence, a Crystal that once preserved universal balance, and now cracked in the face of greed and corruption. Who is supposed to fix it all? Jen, the last of the Gelflings; an elf race extinct at the hands of the Skeksis, who went on to be raised by the Mystics. Upon the death of his guardian, he is employed to heal the Crystal and defeat the Skeksis. Thereby, Jen sets out on his journey, meets his love interest Kira, another Gelfling exile, and seeks out destiny in the face of near hopelessness.
In retrospect, there’s nothing groundbreaking about The Dark Crystal’s script. Its plot is not unlike other ’80s fantasy fare, such as Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of The Rings, Legend, Dragonslayer, or the original Star Wars trilogy. But what was unique to it was it being Henson’s only live-action film to not feature human actors. Instead, the entire film is performed with advanced puppetry and animatronics; two trademark special effects now absent in modern cinema. The puppetry is what makes the film epic and believable. Also, this one is without question Henson’s darkest film. Here, he took risks that he would later tailor back in Labrynith. In The Dark Crystal, young audiences were exposed to death, diaspora, enslavement, torture, and some true moments of claustrophobic horror. Of course, as was always the case with Jim Henson, his movies trumpeted values like love, optimism, and fortitude – so even with so much shock value in one children’s movie, there is well-earned pay-off by the end.
What always stuck with me from The Dark Crystal was the same thing that frightened me: the dark depths Henson seemed to fearlessly explore. I give Henson’s legacy much due credit, since even at the film’s starkest moments he maintained an interesting story that fascinated me as a child, then a teenager, and now an adult (yes, I own the special edition DVD). Granted, it doesn’t pack the same skin-crawling punch it used to (thanks Human Centipede trailer – NSFW), but it will always be a personal benchmark for myself, and I can hope a generation of movie fans and filmmakers. Of course, there is something to be said for a children’s artist never who thought less of his audience or, even worse, thought of them as commodities. These days, I can only recall J.K. Rowling and Spike Jonze as being in the same philosophical camp.