Jim Henson had nothing to prove when he did The dark crystal. In fact, over the years, his was already astounding. At this point in his career, having been the creative force behind Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and the always magic The Muppet movie, Henson came across as Walt Disney’s most cuddly and wildest. Henson’s work encouraged not only support for children’s education, but also the notion of empathy and a sense of humor towards oneself.
As the start of the surprisingly dark Henson years of creation The dark crystal in 1982 seemed to him a change of pace, it was also a master’s thesis on his ability to tell stories and to characterize by the puppet. Many 80s kids look back The dark crystal like a frightening and intimidating work, and, in the richest sense of the word, it is.
In a world submerged in oppressive darkness, the grotesque vulture-like Skeksis reigns supreme, controlling the almighty crystal of the title. Despite their use of spider / crab / nightmare inducing monsters called the Garthim to do their dirty work, the Skeksis fear a prophecy that a pure being, called Gelfling, will overthrow their world domination and bring light to their preferably dull existence.
The screenplay is inspired by Tolkien but uses The Lord of the Rings as a creative starting point rather than an outright outline or copy. While willow (1988) was George Lucas’ blend of Star wars and Tolkien is something completely different. Henson actually applies the optimism of the Flower Power movement and its contrast to cynicism and corrupt government. While the Gelfings look like Hobbits and seek to alter a sinister force that oppresses their world, it is really a story of earthly and spiritual hippies taking on the ruthless and indifferent bureaucrats.
If you’re ready to surrender to its gradual pace and vast strangeness, you are in a treasure chest of Jim Henson magic. The puppet is extraordinary and the characters exhibit quirks and emotion. Henson and co-director Frank Oz, along with dozens of talented puppeteers, were working at the top of their game.
Like any great fantasy or bedtime fairy tale, villains are everything. Skeksis are conceited, stupid, belligerent, withered and funny. There’s a hilarious and gruesome deathbed scene where old Skeksis greedily clings to his scepter, struggling feebly to stay alive, declaring, “Mine! As a political allegory, the Skeksis are still a powerful substitute for any group of greedy and indifferent old tyrants in power.
Four years later, Henson made Labyrinth, another puppet-infused fantasy, starring a then-unknown Jennifer Connelly and rock legend David Bowie. Inspired by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth has musical numbers, a lot of British humor and is a much more accessible work than The dark crystal.
Arriving in a decade rich in fantasy that not only included Labyrinth and willow but powerful contenders like Legend, Back to Oz, Dragon hunter and The never-ending storyHenson’s film has the advantage that everything we watch is handmade and articulated by invisible artists. There are certainly optical effects and matte paints, but really, Henson’s literal and thematic fingerprints are all over this one.
The imagery is often powerful: note the sad, stripped down, and pathetic Skekis Lord Chamberlin, curled up in a corner. There’s also the astonishing Aughra Globe Room, the moving flashback of Mystic-raised protagonist Jen, and the John Ford-like photo of the Mystics walking against the sunset. Then there’s the thrilling finale, which is both bizarre and emotionally satisfying.
Trevor Jones’ majestic score adds an extra layer of wonder and excitement. This may be too much for those expecting the fancy of Fozzie the Bear and not a good choice for little fry. But if you and your keiki are old enough for Harry Potter, the works of Tolkien and never miss a movie about The Force, then this is a movie to live and savor.
The dark crystal plays at the Maui Mall Megaplex on Sunday, February 25 and Wednesday, February 28 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.