The late Jim Henson called The Dark Crystal his greatest accomplishment, and while one may quibble with the assessment, there’s no denying the ambition involved. Henson wanted to elevate his chosen art form: shedding all sense of cloying cuteness or fluffy children’s stories to deliver a true fantasy epic. He used no live actors. Even his brilliant Labyrinth had David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly to fall back on, whereas this one sank or swam on puppetry alone. And he never resorted to tongue-in-cheek self-satire or winked at the camera the way he did so wonderfully with his Muppets. This was serious business… and it resulted in the most unique work of his career.
The Dark Crystal embraced full-bore fantasy at a time when such movies were anything but a sure bet. Along with co-conspirator Brian Froud, Henson created an entire planet full of mysticism and wonder, then set out to tell his own version of the Hero’s Journey with it. He imbued it with a suitable sense of grandeur, as well as the personal vision that helped us access it easily. The Crystal of the title has fractured, splitting a race of immortals into two separate beings. The gentle urRu live hermit-like lives of kindness and contemplation, while the vulture-like Skeksis jockey for power and position. A prophecy holds that the Gelfling race – small elfin creatures with an affinity for nature – can restore the fractured crystal, but the Skeksis have all but wiped them out. Only one, Jen, remains, kept safe in the care of the urRu but now facing the reality of his destiny. So he sets out towards the Crystal – held in the Skeksis’ sinister palace – with nothing but his wits to guide him.
The simplicity of the equation forms part of the film’s strength. Henson invests considerable effort in developing his world, then sits back and lets it function without a lot of embellishment. The characters embody typical archetypes, but that acts in the film’s favor since we don’t need a lot of backstory to clutter things up. Jen’s quest involves all the expected tropes, from an escalating series of obstacles to new friends and allies who come to his aid. Henson delivers them all with imagination and verve. We don’t roll our eyes as he trundles out yet another Prophecy of the Chosen One; we admire the elegance with which he deploys it, and the emotional truths it holds at its core.
The puppetry does wonders to sell us on this world as well. As with Kermit and the gang, the characters here live and breathe. We instantly stop seeing them as mesh and fabric creations, and accept them as real without hesitation. Once we buy into the universe, the story clicks as a matter of course.
Henson also taps into real darkness with his tale. The Skeksis and their minions are legitimately frightening – even as adults, we still find them intensely creepy – and The Dark Crystal doesn’t sugar coat their horrific deeds. Shades of genocide and human experimentation run close beneath the surface, and even the film’s lighter moments are tinged with sadness. Jenn's mission adopts a surprisingly Eastern viewpoint, where victory comes not with vanquishing evil, but with harmonizing a spiritual conflict. And Henson does it without ever seeming preachy or self-important.
Is it his best work? That's hard to say. The self-seriousness causes it to drag at points, and we occasionally miss the ebullience of the Muppets and their ilk. Put a gun to my head and I'll likely opt for Labyrinth every time. But The Dark Crystal demonstrates a surprising maturity for a medium generally regarded as kids' stuff. It also showed Henson's depths as a storyteller, as well as his willingness to push the boundaries as far as they would go. Had he not died well before his time, who knows what additional wonders he may have produced? As it stands, we still have The Dark Crystal to remind us of his brilliance, and the fact that the Muppets were only a small part of what he had to show us.