The Dark Crystal (1982) — Proving that muppets can freak kids out

“What was sundered and undone shall be whole – the two made one.”

PoolMan’s rating: Mommy, why does that elf look like he was hit in the face with a shovel?

PoolMan’s review: When Justin decided that it was time for the Mutant Reviewers to celebrate ’80s week, I had a kneejerk reaction. Of course, the first thing that sprang into my mind was to review something “typically ’80s”. You know, those boxes you walk past in the video store featuring half-naked chicks being chased by guys, featuring all kinds of non-PC lines and characters and…

Wait a second… why DIDN’T I rent one of those?!?

Ah well. In any event, I eventually decided to touch on one those oft-forgotten aspects of the ’80s, that being the last attempt at making high fantasy popular. Remember Ladyhawke? Willow? Legend? For whatever reason, the audiences back then seemed to be really into the Tolkein-esque fantasy worlds that would completely drop off the face of the earth in the ’90s (unless you count Dungeons & Dragons, but why would you want to do that?). It wasn’t until 2002’s Fellowship of the Ring that the people decided they really wanted some old guys who cast spells killing orc-like creatures again.

Of course, more often than not, the vision behind fantasy films was far greater than what was attainable given the effects available at the time. The Lord of the Rings trilogy simply wasn’t possible to be filmed back then. It couldn’t have been done. But someone came up with a pretty good idea to try and come with something anyways. Jim Henson and Frank Oz (of Muppets fame) decided to try and create a fantasy film using puppets as the exotic characters that would be required (a formula which would later meet with tremendous success with the TV series Farscape). They piled on Gary Kurtz and some of the best artistic talent he could find at the time (including George Lucas’ Industrial Lights and Magic) and set out to create a whole new world.

And in that aspect, wow, did they ever succeed. The world of The Dark Crystal is a pretty special place. Entirely comprised of the effects technologies of the time, Henson and Oz (co-directing) turned matte paintings, miniatures, gigantic sets, and some of the most amazing puppet technology before or since into something really beautiful. And rather flawed.

The Dark Crystal is set on a foreign planet (with three suns, no less, so bring your SPF 350) at the end of a thousand-year magical cycle. The vulture-like Skeksis have ruled the dying planet since the last convergence of the three suns, while the camelish urRu (or the Mystics) dwell peacefully in a valley far away from the Skeksis castle, practicing their gentle shamanistic magic. There is a prophecy, however, that one of the race of Gelflings will one day bring the Skeksis rule to an end. Of course, given that at the start of the film we’re told there’s only one Gelfling left, you can imagine how long it takes to get to the phrase “Chosen One”.

So our not-so-heroic Gelfling, Jen (snicker… poor guy) sets out to find a shard of the broken Dark Crystal, take it to the Skeksis castle, where the Crystal lies, and repair the damage done to it long ago. Along the way he’ll meet some of the weirdest creatures he’s ever seen, including another of his own kind, a hysterical rampaging oracle, and a furry little creature who’s body is about 14 inches long, and about 12 of those inches are mouth.

Again, the world is beautiful. The backgrounds are wildly varied, filled with odd creatures that could probably only be created using puppets… it just wouldn’t be convincing if it were all CGI. Put it to you this way, if you found Jabba the Hutt to be more convincing in Return of the Jedi than in Phantom Menace, you’ll probably love the great creatures here.

But the big flaw to The Dark Crystal is that it’s slooooooooooow. Slow like Kyle getting out of bed on a Sunday. Everything moves so ponderously. Jen spends the first act of the flick standing still and thinking to himself (which, unfortunately, the audience can hear. I say unfortunately because his inner dialog is as monotone as his outer). There are some neat action sequences where the heroes are attacked by the evil Garthim (think giant coachroach/crab hybrids), and the sequences where they ride the Landstriders are certainly unique, but boy, the rest is slow. That, and you get to thinking maybe Lucas wrote some of the dialog. It’s all stilted, standard fantasy filler.

I can’t tell you how cool it was, though, flashing back to the day when Fizzgig springing out of the bushes scared the living bejeesus out of me. If you remember The Dark Crystal from when you were a kid, you’ll almost certainly get a kick out of seeing it again. If you were (like me) intensely interested in the sheer amount of work that went into the creation of the LotR trilogy, then there’s a lot here for you, too. The movie is a labour of love, and it shows. But for anybody else, it’s going to be a long trek through some mighty cliché elf-related conversations. Enjoy, but… carefully.

Didja notice?

  • Pretty bleak opening! A lot of people “lie dying”
  • Them Mystics are pretty good singers… wonder if they know any barbershop.
  • Oh, the Chamberlain’s “whimpering” noise made me want to smack him through the TV.
  • Look! It’s Yoda’s collapsing death shroud trick!
  • Jen talks to himself. A LOT.
  • Aughra’s eye is pretty cool… but who made the decision to give her visible nipples for the whole flick? Yech!
  • The forest wildlife is very cool and very well done.
  • The awful “cartooning” of the crystal bats? Guess there was no other way to film the scene at the time.
  • Hmmm… podlings = fraggles?
  • Nice cheesy end shot of the castle overlooking the land.
  • Kira’s wings seem to be more good for controlled falling, rather than actual flight.

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