With the recent showing of Disney’s The Muppets on silver screens across the country, your Managing Editor (moi) thought he would sit down and look at another creation from the Jim Henson brain-trust, this one a tad less light-hearted and much more dark (hence its name).
No, anyone going to see the film The Dark Crystal in 1982 expecting to see the tomfoolery of The Muppet Show was anywhere from sadly disappointed to grossly shocked.
Me? A sci-fi fan? A Tolkein fan? I was nothing but wildly intrigued!
The Dark Crystal, directed by Henson and Frank Oz, used animatronics in the film that were considered groundbreaking at the time. The primary concept artist was fantasy illustrator Brian Froud, famous for his distinctive faerie and dwarf designs. Froud also collaborated with Henson and Oz for their next project, the 1986 film Labyrinth, which was notably more light-hearted than The Dark Crystal.
The atmospheric film makes an attempt to study the nature of good and evil in terms of conscience, destiny and the triune nature of harmony. The Dark Crystal was produced by ITC Entertainment, the British production company responsible for producing The Muppet Show.
A critical and somewhat box office success, The Dark Crystal made $40,577,001 in theaters, with an estimated budget of $15 million. Its limited appeal at the time was partly due to parental concerns about its very dark nature, and partly because it was overshadowed by (of all the luck) E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which was released the same year.
For the uninitiated, The Dark Crystal centers on Jen, the last of the elf-like race called the Gelflings, who lives in the biodiverse planet of Thra. Jen is summoned by his dying master, who reveals that Jen’s destiny is to “heal” a Dark Crystal — formerly called the Crystal of Truth before it was shattered 1,000 years ago by the UrSkeks; this caused the race to be split into urRu, hunchback beings also known as Mystics, and Skeksis, vulture-like tyrants – by finding the shard. skekSo, the Skeksis’ emperor, dies along with Jen’s master, leading to a confrontation between skekSil the Chamberlain and skekUng the General, master of the Garthim, who both desire to succeed him. skekUng becomes emperor and skekSil is exiled. The Skeksis eventually learns of Jen’s existence.
Meanwhile, Jen reaches Aughra, a scholar of an unknown race, and is taken to her observatory. There he discovers the crystal shard, which is hidden among others resembling it, by playing music on his flute to which it resonates. Jen also learns of the upcoming Great Conjunction, but learns little of its connection to the shard before the Garthim destroys the observatory. Jen flees, but Aughra is captured and taken to the Castle of the Crystal. Meanwhile, the Mystics hear the calls of the Crystal and leave their valley to travel to the Castle.
Jen eventually meets Kira, a Gelfling; and Fizzgig, a dog-like pet who steals the show, natch. They stay for a night with the Podlings who raised Kira after the death of her parents. Their respite is short-lived, as a Garthim raiding party attacks the village. Kira, Jen and Fizzgig flee when skekSil prevents one of the Garthim from attacking them. Many Podlings are captured and enslaved. Blaming himself for the Garthim raid, Jen tries to throw away the crystal shard, but Kira reassures him that it was not his fault and recovers it.
The trio eventually discovers a ruined Gelfling city, where Jen reads the prophecy of the Crystal. (“This is writing: words that last,” Jen says in one of the most memorable quotes from the film.) They learn that the shard is part of the Dark Crystal and must be reinserted to restore its integrity.
Kira, Jen and Fizzgig eventually infiltrate the lower parts of the Castle of the Crystal. skekSil confronts them and tries to convince them to make peace; however, Kira is captured and Jen strikes skekSil on his hand using the crystal shard. urZah, one of the Mystics, suffers a spontaneous wound in the corresponding location. Enraged, skekSil seemingly kills Jen and takes Kira to the Castle. For his capture, skekUng restores skekSil to his former position. On the suggestion of the Skeksis scientist, skekTek, the General decides to regain his youth by draining Kira’s life essence, recalling that its potency allows a Skeksis emperor to maintain his youth for longer periods than that of the Podlings on whom they have been forced to rely since the Gelfling genocide.
Thra’s three suns begin to align as the two Gelflings reconvene in the Crystal chamber. The Skeksis arrive to prepare for the immortality that they will gain from the Conjunction if the Crystal is not restored. In the chaos, the High Priest skekZok kills Kira. Jen eventually inserts the shard in its appropriate place, unifying the Crystal just as the Mystics enter the chamber. The Mystics and Skeksis eventually merge back into the UrSkeks, the mystical amalgam of both races.
The leader speaks to Jen of their history — and revives Kira (happy ending at least) — before departing, while Thra rejuvenates itself.
The Skeksis draining the life essence from Podlings are the darkest scenes in the picture, especially since the realistic nature of Jen and Kira and the brilliance of the production makes you forget you are watching sophisticated puppets. Still, one of my faves; a dark blend of sci-fi, Tolkein charm and Henson magic.
There were discussions of a sequel, but it has never seen fruition unfortunately.