Aug 9, 2013

[Movies] The Dark Crystal (1982)

Continuing my series of movie reviews for flicks released in the year of my birth, today's feature is the most unusual fantasy film, The Dark Crystal. I almost tagged this as a children's movie, but that's certainly not the case given the movie's titular dark nature. If anything, it's a true fantasy movie that certainly takes some effort to fully appreciate.

I think part of the "confusion" over the nature of this movie has to do with the false impression that since it was a Jim Henson project, then it was a children's movie. But the involvement of puppets as the "actors" in the film are hardly a guarantee that the movie is meant for all agents. And in this regard we have to give the movie credit for tackling such complex narrative concepts through "proxy actors" of a sort with these beautifully crafted puppets.

And this is perfectly reasonable. The world has a long history of using puppets in a creative manner to tell all sorts of stories long before television came along. This movie just marries that concept with our silver screen experience, resulting in a story that is quite brilliant but at the same time quite traumatizing for young children.

And yes, I can be counted as part of the "traumatized" statistic.

Synopsis: The Dark Crystal is a 1982 American-British fantasy movie directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz with a screenplay by David Odell using Henson's core story. It surprises me that this movie did not receive any major awards despite how brilliant it is.

On some unnamed planet, we learn that a magical crystal was cracked over a thousand years ago, leading to the creation of two major races. On the one hand we have the reptilian or perhaps avian Skeksis, who control the larger fragment now known as the Dark Crystal. They are able to use its powers to replenish themselves and generally stay alive. On the other side we have the Mystics, who are a much more benevolent race who are not very overt in their use of their magical powers.

We then meet Jen, a Gelfling (some sort of an elf?) who was adopted by the mystics after his people were killed. His master tells him about the need to find the missing shard from the Dark Crystal and the importance of restoring the crystal to its true nature. Failure to do so before the three suns align will mean that the Skeksis will become immortal and rule forever. And with time running out, the respective leaders of the Mystics and the Skeksis die simultaneously for no known reason as the prophecy moves forward.

Let me get this out of the way immediately - the Skeksis gave me nightmares. Seriously. The sight of these foul creatures is not exactly something you plan out for a kid and they were just the stuff of nightmares from beginning to end. They just looked so alien and watching them screech at one another as they shambled across the room was a captivating and yet disturbing sight. And one could not begin to understand their costumes either since they seemed to be attempting to look more important with rather ornate garments with all these additional accessories and such. However when you slapped all those fabrics and ruffles and things on those clunky yet skeletal bodies, the resulting image was just strange bordering on disgusting.

And all that just proves how amazing and brilliant the puppets were and how much credit needs to be give to Jim Henson and his team. You can always argue that his happier Muppet creations are pretty simple puppets but seeing what they did here really pushes one's respect for what these people can do. They really know how puppets worked and the amazing disparity between the vile Skeksis and the light, elfin Gelflings just shows the diverse range of their talents and skills.

And the story at the heart of this movie is no less amazing. As you can see in the synopsis, it's fairly complicated from the get-go - this movie is more than just the mono-myth in yet another form. Instead this is quite a daring struggle for survival as the Jen and eventually Kira endeavor to find the crystal shard and eventually get past the Skeksis to reach the Dark Crystal itself. It's an arduous and perilous journey that has you seriously doubting the ability of these two little creatures to stand up to the Skeksis and their massive Garthim warriors.

Yes, the Dark Crystal involves a similarly dark story set in a bleak and seemingly dying world. The mission that Jen endeavors on is one that seems almost on the whims of an old man with little fact to back it up. It's a task that may save their entire civilization or perhaps do nothing in the end. And yet taking up that mantle of the hero and facing all these odds is precisely why this movie is such a triumph for hero characters everywhere.

But the ending is what surprises most. We all sort of expect the Gelflings to succeed, but how does one define success? Is restoring the crystal really the best thing for all races on this planet? Will the Skeksis ever stop being the vile, selfish creatures that they are? Can the world survive much more of their manipulations? And the final solution to things and how all the plot threads resolve certainly caught me off-guard and it took me a few years before I finally understood what it all might mean - and perhaps some time more to accept it.

The Dark Crystal is an amazing fantasy movie that I really hope more people take the time to watch, appreciate and enjoy. Take it seriously and don't let the fact that Jim Henson was involved distract you. In the end you'll be blown away by what they accomplished here. Thus I can firmly rate the movie as 4.5 strange puppet creatures out of a possible 5.

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