The Dark Crystal debuted in 1982, wedged somewhat oddly between The Great Muppet Caper and the premiere of Fraggle Rock in the Great Muppet Time Line. In terms of Jim Henson’s career, placing the film chronologically is easy; figuring out how it fits into his development as an artist is a bit more complicated. The project that eventually became The Dark Crystal actually began several years earlier when Henson fell madly in love with the work of fantasy illustrator Brian Froud; they became friends, and Froud began collaborating with Henson and Frank Oz. With the help of David Odell, a former staff writer for The Muppet Show, they eventually produced the first live-action film to feature no human actors, only puppets and animatronic creatures.
The film was groundbreaking in many ways, and yet it was not considered a financial success upon release, and is often described as something of a “near classic” even by its fans. I’ve always harbored slightly mixed feelings toward The Dark Crystal; even as a kid, I remember having the sense that there were so many incredible aspects of the movie that worked well…but somehow all those amazing parts never seemed to come together, in the end. And so, in the leadup to Netflix’s 10-episode prequel series (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) premiering this week, I decided to take another look at a film that both puzzled and fascinated me, but continues to stand as an epic work of fantasy quite unlike any other…
The basic plot of The Dark Crystal centers around Jen who believes himself to be the last of the peaceful Gelflings; Jen looks a bit like an elf and acts a lot like a hobbit as he’s ripped from his comfort zone and sent upon the quest to fulfill his destiny. He’s fairly brave, but also clueless, and has a tendency to whine about not knowing what he’s doing. The audience knows the score, however, thanks to the helpful narration that opens the movie—a thousand years ago, everything was great until the titular Crystal cracked, and two new races appeared. The corrupt and evil Skeksis took over, while the wise and gentle Mystics went off to practice their “natural wizardry” in a delightfully mellow commune far from the buzz-harshing Skeksis empire.
The movie begins with the simultaneous deaths of the Skeksis emperor and his counterpart among the Mystics, who has raised the orphaned Jen. On his deathbed, Jen’s beloved Master reveals that the young Gelfling is destined to fulfill an ancient prophecy, find the missing shard and heal the Crystal before the planet’s three suns align in the sky—otherwise, the world will descend into eternal darkness. Confused and doubtful, Jen resigns himself to his fate and sets out on his journey….
So far, so good, right? I will say that the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie seem even darker and more violent than I’d remembered—how many family movies kick things off with two deathbed scenes, followed immediately by a brutal battle for power between rival Skeksis? Featuring giant axes, and a lot of shrieking. It’s intense. So, maybe this isn’t a movie for the faint of heart, but at least we know where the story’s going, and we can settle in for a classic quest narrative….
Unfortunately, during the first two-thirds of the movie, tagging along on Jen’s journey means slogging through A LOT of exposition, a good deal of which seems unnecessary thanks to that opening narration. Perhaps I wouldn’t mind if Jen were less of a milquetoast, but in Muppet terms, he’s kind of like an emo Kermit the Frog, if Kermit were robbed of any detectable sense of humor or gumption, wringing his hands and kvetching (or whatever the Gelfling equivalent of kvetching is), from one scene to the next. Luckily, he soon encounters a couple of far more interesting characters in the form of Aughra, the scholar who supplies him with the missing crystal shard, and Kira, a fellow Gelfling.
Aughra, it must be said, is pretty amazing. She’s vaguely terrifying, brilliant, no-nonsense, forceful and fearless in the face of the Skeksis and their huge, crustacean-like henchmen (hench-creatures?), the Garthim. Plus, her observatory is one of the most magnificent set pieces in a film brimming with magnificent visuals—it’s absolutely breathtaking. I remember being slightly frightened by Aughra as a little kid, but also really liking her, and I stand by that reaction; she’s a bit of a benevolent bully, but Jen desperately needs a bit of bullying to send him on his way.
After Aughra is attacked and captured by the Skeksis, Jen is lost again until he meets up with Kira. A much more dynamic character than Jen, Kira is savvier, more adventurous and self-reliant. The movie also makes a point of playing up the fact that she’s a female, which is intriguing given the non-gendered appearances of most of the other creatures in the movie—Kira uses her wings to carry Jen to safety in one scene, much to Jen’s surprise: “Wings! I don’t have wings!” he exclaims; “Of course not,” Kira answers, “You’re a boy.” Kira is fearless and committed to the quest; she’s everything that Jen is not, in other words, and only through her eventual sacrifice is he able to finally reach the Crystal and do what needs to be done. The gender politics of the film are certainly interesting… and while it would be nice if The Dark Crystal offered interesting gender politics AND a genuinely interesting protagonist, at least the film’s supporting characters are ready, able, and willing to steal the show.
For all my own kvetching, as I mentioned in the beginning, what this movie does well, it does spectacularly well. Henson and Froud managed to create amazingly detailed, lush, gorgeous settings and populate those settings with creatures that look like nothing on earth—utterly fantastic, but also somehow believable. (As far as I’m concerned, the real star of the movie is Kira’s pet monster Fizzgig; I wanted to adopt the little furball back when I was six, and absolutely nothing has changed since then. One Fizzgig, please.) When designing the various characters and concept art, Froud avoided modeling his creatures after existing, real-world animals, so what we see on the screen is essentially the artist’s imagination brought to life through the skill and technical innovations of Oz and Henson.
Even if the movie had been completely silent (or had featured a constructed language, as Henson had originally planned for the Skeksis’ scenes), the film would still rank as a major cinematic and technical milestone, even in a career as brilliant as Jim Henson’s. As a narrative, it might have a few flaws, but as work of fantasy art and a triumph of puppetry, animatronics, and the sheer force of talent and imagination, there’s no denying the power of The Dark Crystal.
An earlier version of this article was published in November, 2011 as part of Tor.com’s Muppet Week series.
Bridget McGovern really needs to share this early deleted scene featuring Frank Oz performing the voice of Aughra. You haven’t really lived until you’ve heard the voice of Fozzie, Grover, Bert, Yoda, and Miss Piggy casually discussing the coming apocalypse. Either I need a drink, or Aughra needs an exorcism. Probably both.