Whatever happened to making films with ornate puppetry? I miss the days where special affects were a detailed person in a suit or a giant marionette giving a truly alien appearance to something but also giving it an organicness too where people or the puppets themselves can interact with one another. This was a Jim Henson film and it truly is amazing. It is in this film I saw how from it sprung the animatronics and suits from “Farscape” and other works connected to the Jim Henson Company outside of the “The Muppets.” This film really shows what you can do and how powerful they can be as a medium to tell stories.
“The Dark Crystal” was directed, co-produced and original story by Jim Henson, also directed by Frank Oz and produced by Gary Kurtz with the screenplay by David Odell.
The story takes place in Thra, a fantasy world where a powerful Crystal cracked creating a perfectly good race called the mystics and a completely race known as the Skeksis. There was a prophecy made around this time that lead to the Skeksis to try and wipe the native Gelflings. They nearly succeeded in doing so if not for the Mystics taking in Jen and the Podlings taking in Kira. The story unfolds as Jen seeks to find the Crystal Shard and with Kira fulfill the prophecy and bring about a new world.
The Pros: The World of Thra – The World of Thra is a dark and fascinating world, where each culture and civilization is very distinct and has their own style and way of being. From the Mystics that are like Tibetan Monks with chants and a way of pacifism, to the cutthroat Skeksis who rule through might and the hidden Podlings who live hidden in the forest connected to nature and the nearly extinct Gelflings.
The Puppet Designs – The Mystics look like a mixture between a crocodile and a lemur, Gelflings look like an elf mixed with a cat, the Skeksis look like lizard-vultures and the Podlings look like tiny people. These puppet designs are amazing, but I wouldn’t expect any less from Jim Henson and Frank Oz as not only do the puppets look and feel real but they sound real too as the voices match up to the character designs really well. There are also the creatures, which all have an organic look to them, especially the Garthim, who look like a mixture between a large beetle and a crab.
The Voice Acting – Jim Henson and Frank Oz are masters of puppetry and the voice work behind it. Frank Oz plays the voice of the Witch
Equality of Heroes – There are two heroes, a man named Jen who was raised by the Mystics and Kira who was raised by the Podlings. Both of them are fighters and rescue one another in equal measure, more-so Kira at first actually, but Jen uses the purified Crystal to bring her back to life. She is the one who uses nature as a weapon as she learned how to communicate with animals growing up from the Podlings and Jen drives the story as the primary hero as he find the Shard of the Crystal and because of this is being chased by minions of the Skeksis.
The Characters – The characters are very distinct in personality. Jen is the standard hero but he also hates too because the Skeksis destroyed his family. The Mystics are calm with Jen’s Master being the most calm and the Skeksis are all conniving and strategic, trying to one up one another and survive.
Balance – The overall quest of “The Dark Crystal” is the search for Balance. It was the Crystal getting shattered that made the Skeksis and Mystics become created because their original race had strived for power and control which made them unbalanced and lead to the annihilation of the Gelflings. In this their is balance in the end but also consequences. The Gelflings are still a dead species and we have no idea how many Podlings died in slavery under the Skeksis rule…also the Skeksis and Mystics are no more. Establishing balance lead to the formation of the original species and their leaving the planet in the hands of the Gelflings. It’s bittersweet, which I appreciated.
The Cons: Bland Jen at the Beginning – He is super bland when he first starts out and I didn’t believe his sorrow he felt when his master died. It felt too contrived and wasn’t expressed well. He gets better when we meet Kira but before that was a major issue I had with the film. This also took away from it a little as the bland elf-like hero (“The Hobbit,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Legend of Zelda”) who is an orphan is a pretty common trope and seeing it again made me a bit nervous at first going in.
Slow Start and Telling not Showing – The film starts out pretty slow which made it initially hard to get into it beyond how fascinating the world was. The telling rather than showing also detracted from it but fit the fact that in the end “The Dark Crystal” is a dark fairy tale.
Chamberlain – This is a Skeksis who attempts to become Emperor but is defeated. He tries to help Jen and Kira but it turns out it is only for his own ends. When he was exiled from his people I was hoping he’d change to show that not all Skeksis were evil slavers. Sadly the scene before he’s defeated has him trying to drink Kira’s life essence, so in the end he was wasted character potential making him a con.
This was a great film and one of my favorites for sure! I have always been a fan of Frank Oz “What About Bob” and “Death at a Funeral” are two of my my favorite films. His voice work as Yoda and as many characters in this is also fantastic! Also this film really showed me that Jim Henson could do much more than humor. “The Muppets” are funny but this had drama and stakes and felt like a dark fantastical adventure, which was what it was meant to be. I miss the lost art of puppetry in films and hope it can come back, especially as this film shows you don’t need people to tell an amazing story with puppets and to create fascinating civilizations and creatures that are unforgettable.
Final Score: 9.3 / 10