Winter of '82: The Dark Crystal -

Winter of '82: The Dark Crystal

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  • Starring: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, and Billie Whitelaw
  • Written by: Jim Henson and David Odell
  • Directed by: Jim Henson and Frank Oz
  • Studio: Universal Pictures
  • Rating: PG
  • Run Time: 93 minutes
  • Series:

Winter of '82: The Dark Crystal

We end our 1982 retrospective with Jim Henson's masterpiece

By Rob Vaux     December 17, 2012

 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. 


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SmokingFrog77 12/17/2012 4:26:55 AM

Love this movie. Was not allowed to see it when it came out and I was a kid, but had a storybook of the film that was beautifully illustrated. Saw it years later and all the pictures were brought to life. When it was released on DVD for some reason it was really expensive, but a friend of mine who was managing a dvd store at the time gave me a discount :)  I will treasure it always!

eelbonjack 12/17/2012 4:35:14 AM

 I saw this in the theater when it first came out (I was 7) and it did affect me a lot like you said. I wish that "The Power of the Dark Crystal" could have been made, but it looks like that's been cancelled, unfortunately. I hope eventually the project could be revived. If done right, it could be great, in the right hands. Unlike other franchises that had more recent entries. 

SarcasticCaveman 12/17/2012 5:03:17 AM

 Used to watch it all the time on HBO when I was a kid...the scene where Jen falls into the dark pit inside the castle and then realizes he's surrounded by Garthem scared the PISS outta me!  Still love the movie.

goldeneyez 12/17/2012 5:49:14 AM

 I was disappointed to hear "The Power of the Dark Crystal" was put on hiatus and now to hear that it's cancelled.  I love The Dark Crystal growing up and it's one of my favorite movies.  I actually think I liked The Dark Crystal more than I liked Labyrinth, but I can't put my finger on why.  Maybe I just was more of a fan of full out fantasy, where Labyrinth was still rooted in our reality.

SarcasticCaveman 12/17/2012 6:00:28 AM

 I agree, goldeneyez...well, and The Dark Crystal didn't subject us to Bowie's package.

TheSilentKiller 12/17/2012 6:18:15 AM

 SmokingFrog - that was my experience too. It took me over 20 years to see this movie - not by choice.

Iridan 12/17/2012 6:30:53 AM

Love the movie, and I love the art of puppetry. Give me a Yoda puppet over CGI anytime.

SarcasticCaveman 12/17/2012 6:38:12 AM

 Give me an EMPIRE or JEDI Yoda puppet anytime...sorry, Iridan, the puppet in Phantom Menace looked awful, IMO.

steppingrazor66 12/17/2012 8:04:53 AM

 I've enjoyed this film for a long time. Some puppetery movie don't really stand up to time, but I feel that Dark Crystal is one of those rare moments where I absolute believe that these characters are living and breathing somewhere..


Wiseguy 12/17/2012 9:00:22 AM

Love this film but I don't watch it as often as other films from this era which leads me to think that perhaps "like" better describes how I feel about it.

And come on now I know it's hip to hate on everything new but cgi Yoda trumps puppet Yoda every time the time

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