Let me start out by saying this: The Dark Crystal is an astonishing achievement in the world of puppeteering and animatronics, and that merit alone is the only reason I’d possibly recommend that someone suffer through this terribly written, poorly paced film that’s devoid of any sort of charm you think would accompany the first film ever to star only puppets and no humans.
Now, this may sound harsh, as I know plenty of people view this film as a timeless classic, but I can assure you that the only thing everlasting about this movie is its runtime, which somehow makes 90-minutes feel like an eternity. I swear, once the credits began to roll I had to check and make sure I didn’t miss any birthdays, or have to start Christmas shopping again.
Again, this may sound extreme, but this is how I felt after watching this movie for the first time. Now, part of me believes I likely saw bits and pieces of it when I was younger, as some parts seemed familiar; however, I have no childhood connection to the movie, and I feel that must have a great influence on how many adults view the movie today.
I mean, back in the day this was some groundbreaking stuff, so maybe the awe of it all hid the fact that the story is incredibly weak and often baffling, or the fact that there are no memorable characters – let alone the protagonist, who I can only compare to Derek Zoolander for not only his similar delivery of lines, but also his sheer incompetence when it comes to being a character that understands anything that’s going on around him.
And don’t even get me started on the heavy-handed narrated exposition right out of the gate. Some friends at work are big fans of this film (I don’t hold it against them) and when I explained to them that the opening narration just goes on and on and on and on and on, they said, “Well you love Star Wars, right? The opening crawl is the same thing!”
No. No it’s not.
Now I actually wrote out the opening narration for The Dark Crystal, as well as the opening crawl for Star Wars: A New Hope so we can compare them. Feel free to click on the image, or open it in a new tab to get a closer look. I mean, even just looking at them side by side there’s no way you can seriously say they’re close to the same, but let’s continue:
In the brief Star Wars crawl, we learn that there’s a war taking place, and a small rebellion is going up against an evil Empire. They’ve stolen plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon and lead by Princess Leia, the Rebels are now trying to escape capture with said plans in an attempt to restore freedom to the galaxy.
So as the movie begins, we know that the Rebels are the good guys led by Princess Leia, the Galactic Empire are the bad guys, and the Rebels just stole plans and are trying to get away with them. That’s it. We don’t know anything about Darth Vader, nothing about the film’s protagonist Luke Skywalker, no word about the Emperor, or how this entire war even started. Why not? Because that’s all stuff that we’ll learn by watching the movie, because that’s why you go to the movies…to learn about characters and enjoy it as you go.
Now we have the opening novel to The Dark Crystal. From that we learn that a thousand years prior, a crystal cracked and because of this the world that was once green was now covered in darkness. And out of this, two new races appeared in the evil Skeksis and the good Mystics.
We then learn that the castle where the crystal is located was taken over by the Skeksis who rule the land. They use the sacred chamber in the castle where the crystal is located and draw life from the world around them through the power of The Dark Crystal.
Now, that’s already a decent amount of information, and that’s also when the title of the movie appears, so it actually feels like a natural point to move on with the movie and let us learn the rest of what’s going on through natural character introduction, and, you know, a solid plot; but alas, there’s over three more minutes of narration that follows.
From that we learn in redundant fashion (oh, there’s a reason the words and descriptions being used for the Mystics and Skeksis are identical…but it’s all still completely unnecessary to make audiences sit through. Show don’t tell…but instead, this is tell, tell, tell and then tell some more) that both the leader of the Skeksis and the leader of the Mystics are dying, so the Skeksis have to choose a new leader, and the Mystics must call out to the one who must save them.
And now instead of simply letting the audience get introduced to the protagonist Jen from him appearing on camera, then going to talk to his master, we get more narration where we’re told that the Skeksis killed Jen’s parents, and his clan, so Jen is the last remaining Gelfling. And now it’s up to him to begin his journey.
Okay, so now the movie actually begins, and Jen goes to talk to his master, who actually repeats some of what was JUST narrated to us, and tells Jen that he must go and find the missing piece of the Dark Crystal and return it to its rightful place within three days or else the world would fall into darkness forever.
Okay, now if we can continue with the Star Wars comparisons for a moment, when we’re first introduced to Luke, he’s not the most…well, he’s a young man with dreams of fighting for the Rebel Alliance, but he’s also kind of whiny, and feels trapped in his moisture farmer life. So he’s not perfect. He’s not someone we instantly think can save the day, but he’s someone we’re willing to get behind.
With Jen…I mean, I should really stop comparing the two, because they’re just leagues apart; but with Jen, he’s just so clueless. It doesn’t help that screenwriter David Odell gives him lines like, “I’m not ready to go alone…alright, alone then.” That’s an actual line, with a two second hesitation. Why even say that? Who are you talking to?
So on his death bed, his master tells him to follow the sun for a day and find the home of Aughra. Those were his directions, which leaves Jen confused (shocking, I know.) So as he follows the sun, he ponders aloud to himself, “Who is Aughra anyway? Maybe she murders Gelflings.”
Maybe she murders Gelflings? What?
Now, I know this is a review that’s sort of going a bit deeper than usual, but really, what was happening here with the story? Yes Jen, your master told you that you needed to find the broken crystal shard and return it to the crystal in order save the world…but in reality he just sent you to someone who murders Gelflings specifically so that you would die. Makes complete sense for that to be the first place Jen’s mind wanders to.
Okay, that all aside…this movie is supposed to be the tale of Jen’s big quest — fulfilling the prophecy! Returning the shard to the dark crystal in time to save the day is the end game, it’s his goal, but its his growth along the journey in finding this mysterious shard and learning about himself along the way that’s the true story, right?
Jen finds Aughra moments later, she takes him to her house, finds a picnic basket full of crystal shards, dumps it out on the floor and tell him to take the one he needs. That’s literally it. For some reason this couldn’t be done while his master was alive…they couldn’t go with him…they couldn’t prepare Jen for this, or tell Aughra to bring it to them. No, on his death bed, Jen’s master had to fire off some random, ominous clues about the world ending without this shard that was lost thousands of years ago…which apparently has been nice and cozy inside a box at some grumpy woman’s house just down the trail for quite some time.
And that’s what’s so wrong with this movie. Not only did the writer feel the need to just explain everything in an incredibly boring narration off the top, but there’s no challenges for Jen to overcome. I mean, the Skeksis send out some beetles to stop him, and they destroy two places Jen visits simply because Jen’s there; but all that does is make Jen want to give up.
He literally throws the crystal away like a baby. Yes, that’s smart. You having the crystal shard – which, again, the Skeksis never felt the need to hunt down until now. Sure they thought the Gelflings were all dead, but seriously, you have 1000 years…send the beetles out to get this thing and keep it locked up. Bam, you’re set, but I digress – Jen having the crystal shard causes some trouble in two situations with people he’s met, but if he doesn’t return it to the main crystal, the world will forever be ruled in darkness. So yes, throw it away…that’ll stop the destruction.
And this is just the way the movie goes with Jen…he never steps up to the plate. I’d argue that Kira, a female Gelfling Jen meets is more of a hero in the film than Jen. Without her, he would’ve given up and that’d be a wrap on the world. Without her, he would’ve stood idly by as the three suns became one and the Skeksis gained power, because for some reason, Jen just likes standing around and not being someone that anyone can count on.
Now, watching the behind the scenes, I learned that Jim Henson and fantasy illustrator Brian Froud created the puppets and the world before the script had been written. So Odell built the story around these characters that were already made. That said, it’s no real excuse to shove out this incredibly basic plot that hits all the generic notes.
Now, I began this review the way that I did because I’ll never take away the magnificent work done by Henson and the crew, building this entire world and telling the story using only puppets on screen. The puppets look fantastic, as does the world. It’s just absolutely unbelievable the amount of details and love they put into making this land come to life. And for the years and years of work put into it, I have no idea how they thought the script was strong enough to be worthy of the passion put into the animatronic and puppeteering side of the film.
If there’s a reason to watch it, I’d say it’s to see just how breathtaking this puppet-filled world Henson created truly is. That work alone is why this film isn’t getting an abysmal overall rating, but I can’t just give it a great score because it looks good. There’s just so much wrong on the most basic levels of storytelling on film that I see this only as a huge, wasted opportunity. I know there are plenty who won’t agree with me, and that’s absolutely fine.
So if you’re a fan of puppets and can ignore the terrible acting, the unmemorable characters, and actually stay awake during the near seven-minute mind-numbing opening narration, then you’re in luck, because The Dark Crystal is a film of fantastic looking puppets, their superb puppet masters at work – and little else.
The film looks great on Blu-ray, embracing the grainy film look, but also giving the film a nice, clean look on top of it. It basically doesn’t shy away from where it came from, but also looks a lot better than it has previously. The score and digital sound mix are also of great quality, with the score being another plus for the film that the story doesn’t live up to.
So the special features are what I loved about this movie. Getting to see Henson at work in old documentary type footage is just awesome. There’s lots to love here, but only one new thing for those thinking of a double-dip. Well, one new feature as well as the mini-booklet that’s attached to the Blu-ray case, which has various tidbits about the making of the film and such.
The Myth, Magic and Henson Legacy – This is the new feature added to this Blu-ray release. It’s a fun look at Henson at work, being remembered by his daughter, and company president Lisa Henson, and Brian Froud’s son Toby. The two talk about the lasting impact of The Dark Crystal, and everything their father’s did to help bring it to life. It’s definitely worth watching for fan’s of the movie or filmmaking in general.
The World of The Dark Crystal Documentary – I’m putting this second because it’s a beast of a feature, and you get to see Henson and Oz and everyone working on set, building the sets, puppeteering, setting up scenes, rehersing…there’s just so much here and it’s awesome to see. It’s something that I’m sure every production could hire someone to do, and I really think should hire someone to do, even if they don’t use the footage. Because as far as special features go, getting these intimate backstage passes really can’t be beat.
Commentary track with Brian Froud
Picture-in-Picture Storyboard Track
Original Skeksis Language Scenes with Introduction by Screenwriter David Odell – This is where we see the original scenes that test audiences didn’t understand or like. Originally, there was no Skeksis dialogue, and Henson and the team thought that what was happening on screen was self-explanatory. Since it’s barely coherent with dialogue, there’s a reason audiences disliked it even more without.
Reflections of the Dark Crystal: “Light on the Path of Creation” & Shard of Illusion”
Theatrical Teaser & Trailer
Sony Pictures Presents The Dark Crystal. Directed by: Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Written by: David Odell. Starring: Jim Henson, Kathryn Mullen, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz. Running time: 93 Minutes. Rating: PG. Released on Blu-ray: Mar. 6, 2018.
Tags: Jim Henson, The Dark Crystal, The Dark Crystal Anniversary Edition