February 23, 2014

The Dark Crystal (1982)
Grade: 71/100

Directors: Jim Henson, Frank Oz
Stars: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Kathryn Mullen

What it's about. Perhaps the best, scariest, and least accessible of the various Jim Henson projects. This all-puppet adventure and fantasy is set in a remote medieval world ruled by the Skeksis, large hideous creatures that resemble vultures. The Skeksis eat, torture, and enslave other species. They fear Gelflings, elf-like humanoids who, according to prophecy, will put an end to Skeksis rule when the three suns line up, an impending once in a thousand year event.

The evil Skeksis have counterparts in the large but gentle and sloth-like Mystics. The Mystics have raised a Gelfling youth, Jen, for the purpose of fulfilling a prophecy. Jen must embark alone on an adventure to find a shard of the dark crystal, and unite it with the crystal before the triple sun conjunction. The Skeksis have spies that attempt to kidnap him before he can complete his mission.

Jen must first locate Aughra, an outspoken old hag and windbag, who for some reason possesses the shard, though is unaware of its significance. Jen then encounters Kira, the last female Gelfling and an obvious love interest for Jen. Kira has magical powers over animals that allow Jen to reach the cave controlled by the Skeksis, where the dark crystal resides. Meanwhile, both the Skeksis and the Mystics have entered the hall of the crystal, to witness the effects of the triple sun conjunction. Will Jen and his shard reach the crystal in time to fulfill the prophecy? Is there any doubt?

How others will see it. This strange fantasy was rated PG and, as a result, alienated much of the usual Muppet audience: mothers of schoolchildren. Nonetheless, the film did fairly well at the box office, returning nearly three times its budget prior to any video sales. A sequel, The Power of the Dark Crystal, has long been rumored but has not yet been filmed.

The film received mixed reviews, not too surprising given its inaccessibility and undefined target audience. However, it did win Best Fantasy Film at the Saturn Awards, and BAFTA was kind enough to nominate its visual effects.

The movie is clearly less popular than Labyrinth (1986), a later collaboration between Jim Henson and costume designer Brian Froud. The latter film benefits from David Bowie's star power and, especially, the constant onscreen appearance of ravishing underaged Jennifer Connelly.

However, The Dark Crystal has a fairly impressive 32K user votes at imdb.com, and the 7.2 user rating is reasonable. Women like the film more than do men, likely because Kira is such a winsome and heroic figure. The movie has a strong cult following, and a minority of naysayers who find the story to be a bore and a muddle.

How I felt about it. The Dark Crystal was an attempt by Henson to expand his film identity beyond the Muppet money machine. The Muppets are targeted to children and young adult women, but Henson apparently wanted to explore darker themes of good versus evil.

The story is vaguely Tolkien: the Ring becomes the shard, Frodo becomes Jen, Gollum becomes the Chamberlain, etc. It is yet another version of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, but despite its formulaic aspects remains both interesting and effective.

Though the Skeksis terrorize other species, they leave the Mystics alone. For good reason, as it turns out: their existence depends upon that of the Mystics, as they are complementary halves from a schism caused by the last triple sun conjunction. The evil Skeksis and their selfish and disruptive behavior is contrasted with the Mystics, who believe in harmony and community.

Jen and Kira are good, simple folk forced to assume heroic behavior because no one else can accomplish what must be done. This does not make them any less tedious, and when it turns out that Kira can fly simply by unfolding hidden wings, it seems more like a convenient way for the two Gelflings to escape their Skeksi surrogate oppressors.