Retro Review: THE DARK CRYSTAL: Returning to “Another World, Another Time – in the Age of Wonder” at the Plaza

By Geoff Slade
Contributing Blogger

Art Opening & A Movie Presents THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982); Dir: Jim Henson and Frank Oz; Conceptual Designer: Brian Froud; Starring Jim Henson, Kathryn Mullen, Franz Oz; “The Small Game of Revilo”art exhibition featuring works by Brian Colin; also appearing will be Heidi Arnhold, artist, LEGENDS OF THE DARK CRYSTAL. Tues. June 7, opening reception 8-11 PM with movie at 9:30 pm; Fri. June 10 at MIDNIGHT; Sun. June 12 at 3 PM; Plaza TheatreTrailer here.

Jim Henson was at his creative peak when THE DARK CRYSTAL first hit theaters the week before Christmas in 1982. His Muppets were already firmly established cultural icons thanks to over a decade on SESAME STREET, five seasons of THE MUPPET SHOW, numerous television specials and two feature films. The song “Rubber Duckie” (sung by Henson as Ernie from SESAME STREET) had spent seven weeks in the Billboard Top 40 in 1970. Kermit the Frog had even filled in for Johnny Carson as guest host of THE TONIGHT SHOW in 1979, for God’s sake. And despite the mass-market, multigenerational appeal of the Muppets, Henson’s bearded genius was still, and always would be, artistically sound. This is likely because he never considered what he did as an entertainment exclusively for children. The original producers of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE agreed and featured “adult” Muppets in their own skits during the show’s inaugural season.

Jen the Gelfling pauses in a beautiful place on his quest to restore THE DARK CRYSTAL. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

There would be additional triumphs on television and in film before his unexpected death in 1991, but THE DARK CRYSTAL stands as Henson’s greatest achievement. The movie tells the story of Jen, the world’s last hope to end a thousand-year reign of evil and bring harmony back to the universe by returning a lost shard to the cracked Dark Crystal. “Of all projects that I’ve ever worked on, it’s the one that I’m the most proud of,” he said at the time.  Sure, he probably said something similar at LABYRINTH press junkets four years later, but THE DARK CRYSTAL achieves more without the benefit of a single human performance on-screen. Not to mention the charisma of David Bowie.

Jen, performed by Henson himself, is a Gelfling, a dying race of humanoid creatures that sort of look like the Olsen twins. He was raised and is guided by the gentle Mystics, a dying race of manatee-like, slow-moving hippie types. The cruel Skeksis are a race, also dying, of monsters resembling vultures with crocodile features and a Victorian style of dress. There are many other creatures, some only on screen for a moment.

The Skeksis, an evil vulture-like race, are the villains of THE DARK CRYSTAL. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

It took a crew of around 60 people to make all the puppets and the complicated mechanisms used to control them. In addition to the regular “Muppeteers,” an entire cast of performance artists (including dancers and acrobats) was recruited to bring the characters to life. Special sets were designed to allow the actors room to perform as well as control their puppets, some of which took three people to operate. All told, it took over five years to make THE DARK CRYSTAL. Henson enlisted British illustrator Brian Froud early on as the film’s conceptual designer to create the look of his detailed fantasy world and its inhabitants.

A voiceover succinctly describes the film’s setting: “Another world, another time – in the age of wonder.” Taken slightly less literally, this is also a fitting description for the era of its release nearly 30 years ago. With digital effects the standard of the day, bemoaning the disappearance of puppetry and animatronics from blockbuster movies is like preaching the “warmth” of vinyl.  But there seems to be something to that argument. Maybe it’s in the nuances of the characters’ expressions and movement or the laws of perspective, but many movies seem less tangible or “real” in the CGI era.

E.T. was released the same year as THE DARK CRYSTAL and soon became the biggest movie of its time. Now AVATAR holds that title. I think I know what E.T. feels like to the touch (warm, leathery but soft when healthy; cold, dry and ashy when ill), but not the non-humans in AVATAR (rubber?).  It’s why the second STAR WARS trilogy underwhelmed so many fans of the first three, at least partially.* But thankfully it was way back “in the age of wonder” of 1982 when Henson released his masterpiece.

Anyone interested in Henson’s legacy and a close-up look at many of his company’s famous creations should visit the Center for Puppetry Arts at 1404 Spring Street. Among the collection is a Skeksis, specifically the Garthim Master puppet. (He’s the one named new Emperor after winning the sword contest.)

*Speaking of STAR WARS, see how many similarities you can spot in THE DARK CRYSTAL.

And don’t forget to read ATLRetro’s interview with LEGENDS OF THE DARK CRYSTAL artist Heidi Arnhold here.


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