Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Dark Crystal (1982)

Title: The Dark Crystal (1982)

Directors: Jim Henson and Frank Oz


Fantasy films of the 80's how I love thee, let me count the ways. The Dark Crystal, a fantasy film written and directed by the creative duo of Jim Henson and Frank Oz, is a very special movie for me and not just for me, but for many fantasy lovers out there as well.  Along with Willow (1988), Legend (1985) and Labyrinth (1986), The Dark Crystal was one of those fantasy films I grew up with. I consider myself lucky to have grown up with these fantastic fantasy films; everytime I re-watch any of these films I get the feeling that "they just don't make them like that anymore" And to tell you the truth, in retrospect, the 80's produced some of the best fantasy films out there, films that are still remembered and cherished to this day. They had that that magical feeling you get when everything just clicks to perfection, the music, the art direction, the story. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the folks involved in making the film: Jim Henson and Frank Oz, two true lovers of fantasy. Technically speaking, whenever Jim Henson decided to make a fantasy film, you could bet your sweet ass he was going to give it his best;  the guy truly knew what he was doing. If you don't believe me, just watch Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal back to back, you'll get the sense that these films were not easy films to make, that they took more of an effort to make than your regular picture. You see, Henson didn't just want to make any old movie. Oh no, he loved making films entirely populated by puppets, this was something that he would continue doing through the years in whatever medium possible. Cable specials, various television shows and films. But his first attempt at it was with The Dark Crystal, a film that was being hailed as the first live action motion picture with absolutely no humans on screen. This alone makes The Dark Crystal worth a watch, but honestly, once you've visited the world of The Dark Crystal you'll no doubt want to revisit it again and again, its a really wonderful world to go back to; so complex, so detailed, my hats down to Jim Henson, a truly talent was lost the day he died.

Jim Henson, filming Labyrinth

But what makes a good fantasy film? In my opinion, it has to effectively whisk me away to another land, another place, another time, and it has to make me believe it; and in the end, good has to triumph over evil. I've often cited Ridley Scott's Legend as a good example of the perfect fantasy film. It has unicorns, elves, demons, fairies, gnomes and witches, but the way the film was made makes you feel like the world of Legend exists. With fantasy films like the ones I've mentioned, you'll never feel like you are watching actors act in front of a green screen; which I feel is the problem with many fantasy films of today. They've gone and replaced creating a world through the use of sets, miniatures and props with creating a world in a computer. True, when CGI is done right it can work, but that is a rare occasion in Hollywood. Truth is, the differences between CGI overload and films that used practical on camera effects are palpable when you watch the final product. For example, I am a lover of fantasy films, but I was totally disconnected from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010). Why? Because it just didnt feel real to me. I applaud directors who still actively believe in practical effects, guys like Ridley Scott, who recently demonstrated the perfect balance between practical and computer generated effects with Prometheus (2012). Another director that knows how to balance the two is Guillermo del Toro, for a good example of this check out Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). The problem is that with most fantasy films of today, you can't help but get that feeling that only the actors are real. This is something that never happened with fantasy films before the invention of CGI. Before CGI, filmmakers actually built sets! Go figure! But I guess this is something we have to get used to, apparently, this is the way films are going to be made from now on.  This is one of the reasons why I love The Dark Crystal so much, every nook and cranny of this world was made specifically for this film. You feel the love and the hard work put on this one, the result is so engulfing and absorbing, you can't help but get pulled in.

Don't know if you've noticed, but I tend to pay lots of attention to the people behind the cameras on my reviews, I'm the kind of guy who wants to know who's responsible. I love for example the whole dynamic that goes on between conceptual artists and film directors. That wonderful cynergy that occurs at the very early moments of a production, when the world is just starting to take shape. Case in point, Brian Froud, the conceptual artist responsible for designing both Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Froud's a wonderful fantasy artist and one of the best conceptual artists for film; period. He alone is responsible for the entire look of these two amazing films. The puppets look the way they do because Froud drew them that way; reportedly, the designs for The Dark Crystal took five years out of Froud's life, that's how you know this is a truly special film.  I love it when a film brings so many truly creative people together to make something that's going to be amazing and a delight to watch. The people behind The Dark Crystal weren't just anybodies, these were true lovers of fantasy; true artists and performers. These were guys who lived and breathed art; artists who thrive on creation.

Brian Froud's conceptual artwork for The Dark Crystal

But aside from the technical aspects, I love the themes that this film talks about. This film can be categorized as a childrens film, but like many childrens films, this is one that touches upon very adult themes. The world of The Dark Crystal has been divided into two ruling classes, the evil 'Skeksis' and the benevolent and peace loving 'Mystics'. Thousands of years ago, a magical crystal that brought balance to the land was broken, a piece of it, a shard, is missing. Because of this, their world is slowly dying, according to the films opening voice over, the Skeksis are creatures living in a dying land. But fear not, there is a prophecy that a creature known as a 'Gelfling' would unite the crystal once again and make it whole and destroy the evil Skeksis. The young Gelfling know as Jen is the chosen one for this task, and so he goes on a quest to find the missing shard and make the crystal whole again. To me, the whole film is talking about the ever continuing class struggle. The rich and the poor, the ruling class and the working class. The crystal is humanities soul, which has been broken and brought back together, to heal humanity so we can all live in peace. Jen and Kira are the rebellious youth, looking to change things, looking to make things right again They are even willing to sacrifice themselves for this important task. So yeah, this is a childrens film, but one with a lot to say and an interesting message to the newer generations. Like many films before it, The Dark Crystal is asking young people to take matters into their own hands and change things. "You are the chosen one, and you haven't got much time" Jen's Mystic master tells him. 

So yes my friends, The Dark Crystal is a true fantasy classic. The art direction and puppets should keep you glued to the screen, there's so much to absorb on this film. There are these magical moments when Henson and Oz simply focus on the world, and the strange creatures that inhabit it, the strange plants and animal life. You could see a real effort being made to make this world real. The puppets are nothing short of wondrous. My favorite being The Mystics; these huge snail like creatures that move and talk very slowly, but are wise in their ways. Like our elderly, they posses a lot of wisdom if we but listen. I loved how Jen listened to his Mystic master who lay on his dying bed. I also enjoyed how it was a story about loss of a loved one, and having to face the world on your own. At one point Jen says "Im not ready to go out there all alone.."  but then quickly takes control of his life and says "alright...alone then!" and on his way he goes, to fulfill his destiny. This is a beautiful film to show your kids, it will teach them a lot about the importance of change; about how if we don't like the way things are in the world, we don't have to simply sit back and accept things, we can change them, make them better. 

Rating: 5 out of 5


venoms5 said...

Excellent review, Fran! I saw this in the theater and even then, thought it was a bit strong for a kids flick, lol.

I remember the following year in 1983, there was an ad in the newspaper for a showing of a movie whose title was a big secret. Strangely enough, there was a photo of one of the Skeksis in the ad. Nobody thought much about it since THE DARK CRYSTAL had come out the year before. Well, with the theater full of school kids, the movie began and sure enough it was THE DARK CRYSTAL. As soon as it started, the whole theater does this 'Siiiiigggghhhh' all at the same time, lol. It was good seeing it again just the same.

There has been talk of a sequel for years now and supposedly they were working on it. Not heard much else about it lately.

Franco Macabro said...

True about it being a bit strong for kids, that sequence where they are sucking the life out of some of the slaves offered up some downright spooky imagery...that little slave looked pretty scary for a kids movie.

Yeah, that sequel was going to be called The Power of the Dark Crystal, Brian Froud also whipped up some interesting looking concept sketches, unfortunately, the film was lost in development hell. At one point, Michael and Peter Spierig (the guys behind the Australian zombie flick Undead) were going to direct...unfortunately that fell through and the project is still on hold...hopefully at some point it will be brought back to life by the right creative team.

Jack Thursby said...

The 80s were such a great time for fantasy films. This, along with Return to Oz, were definitely the most disturbing. The bit where all the Skeksis pluck all the clothing of a lone skeksi is really dark and vicious for a kids film.

Was really hoping the sequel would come together. Genndy Tarakovsky was working on it at one point but he walked away. Shame, he would have been perfect.

Franco Macabro said...

I've never seen any of Tarakovsky's work, he's done mostly cartoon stuff, like the Star Wars clone Wars and Samurai Jack. He is currently about to release Hotel Transylvania in the coming months. It does sound like he could have done a great job with it though, The Power of the Dark Crystal was going to mix puppets with CGI environments, so thats probably why he was being considered for the project.

The Power of the Dark Crystal is going to end up being a very different film than the original one, which did everything practically, on camera; which I personally prefer. But I guess we just gotta go with the flow on that one, the filmmaking techniques they are a changing...

Jack Thursby said...

I think what I like about Tarakovksky is he's an artist with a distinctive style and I think that's what a sequel to Dark Crystal would need. Someone who cares deeply about how stuff looks and feels. Let's face it Ridley Scott would be ideal but it's way beneath him.

Also, don't know if you knew but they made two spin-off comics a few years back called Legends of the Dark Crystal.

Franco Macabro said...

Never heard of those comics. But they sound cool, I wouldn't mind checking them out, I collect comics too!


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