Review by C.J. Bunce
From the voiceover that introduces the new world of The Dark Crystal, like Cecil B. DeMille’s voice narrating some biblical film from the Golden Age of Hollywood, audiences instantly understand this story is going to be epic in scope. Like Hiyao Miyazaki would create two years later in his Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, The Dark Crystal is unique in its creation of a fantasy that can’t be tied to Tolkien or Grimm or Baum or White. If it’s at all derivative its source is the stuff of real-world ancient druids and mythologies outside the Western, Greco-Roman tradition. The word classic is tied to The Dark Crystal. It is that, the first and only film of its kind, devoid of humans or their interests, with a cast entirely of fantastical character creations.
Even if you’ve seen Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal on home video recently, you’re likely to notice the detail and awe of the film much better on the big screen. It returned to theaters Sunday with only five more screenings left as part of the Fathom Events series, showing at 700 theaters nationwide this week and next. The sound is stunning in a new theater–much better for audiences with modern digital sound systems compared to its initial run back at the end of the year 1982–and the sound effects and sound editing are critical to the believability of these creations. The music will pull you into this world. From composer Trevor Jones, who would later create the music for Labyrinth, Sea of Love, Arachnophobia, Last of the Mohicans, Brassed Off, Dark City, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we’re treated to an emotional journey split cleanly in two, with mirrored bleak darkness and fear on the one side, and tranquil hillsides, spiritual communities, and idyllic, pastoral, quiet places on the other. Jones’s score takes us through both the horrors of greed and gluttony with the Skeksis, and the sweeping, heroic journey of a hero and a prophecy.
Co-directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the film demonstrates what a crew of like-minded creative artists can make. Dozens of performers were required to operate even a few of the characters at a time, and many scenes feature the wide screen simply filled with characters, like the pantheon of ten Skeksis at the deathbed of the Emperor, or the journey of the nine Mystics to the Castle of the Crystal, to the celebrating village of dozens of Podlings, and the finale filled with members of all races, including the over-sized beetles called the Garthim. The set for Aughra’s beautiful pinnacle of set pieces–the location of that mechanical wonder that is the Orrery–showcases a fantasy creation that has yet to be matched in any film. Henson and Oz introduce the hero Jen to the room housing this device much like Dorothy’s first glimpse into the other Land of Oz. An obvious precursor to steampunk, the Orrery is magnificent, and the stuff of true wonder.
As with other theatrical re-releases, a film will always surprise audiences after the lapse of time. As with the forgotten hilarity of C-3PO on a re-watch of the original Star Wars trilogy in the theater in the 1990s, the laugh-out-loud antics of Fizzgig are surprising, welcome, and engaging. He is critical to Jen’s journey, a contrast to this dark world, he is also the commonality that draws in the viewer amid this unfamiliar world, and its strange characters and animals. So familiar like a nervous yippy small dog or a teeth-bearing shy housecat, Fizzgig truly comes alive as a real character we simply must care about and cheer for.
For 35 years Aughra has defined the film. She fits in so well along with the other shaman, mystic, medicine men, or wizards of fantasy. Her quirky, humorous mannerisms have much in common with Yoda, as she was created by Frank Oz at the same time he was performing Yoda for The Empire Strikes Back. And even more so than Jen, it is Kira who carries forward most of the sacrifices and heroism to save her adopted peoples, the Podlings, the only other Gelfling, Jen, and her companion Fizzgig. The transformation of Kira and the Podlings as they are forced to stare into the power of the Dark Crystal is so incredibly believable, second only to the subtle facial tics in the opening credits as the Mystics perform their spiritual ceremony.
The Muppets of television and comedy films are real and beloved by so many, yet the characters in The Dark Crystal aren’t formed from the soft felts and bright colors. And in a very different way they are just as real if not more so. On the big screen even the smallest detail of embroidery can be seen on the clothing of Jen’s mentor. The tattered remnants of what once were expensive silks and velvets can be glimpsed at on each of the decrepit and disturbing Skeksis.
It is a classic fantasy film for all ages, completely accessible by modern audiences, and written specifically for kids despite its scarier bits by Jim Henson, the master of visual fantasy.
The Dark Crystal is in theaters Wednesday, February 28, 2018, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. local time, Saturday, March 3, 2018, at 2 p.m. and Tuesday, March 6, 2018, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., featuring an exclusive interview with Lisa Henson. Then The Dark Crystal will debut on 4K Ultra HD and return to Blu-ray and Digital editions March 6, 2018, from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. You can pre-order it at a discount rate now here at Amazon.
Check out the Fathom Events website here for updates, locations, and to get tickets before it’s sold out.
And don’t forget Caseen Gaines’ The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History, a new deep-dive into the film reviewed here at borg.com. According to Henson’s daughter Cheryl Henson, The Dark Crystal was Jim Henson’s most personal work. This is a great time to have The Dark Crystal fresh in our memory, as we expect to see a 10-episode Netflix follow-on series hopefully by the end of 2018. The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance does not yet have a release date.