Henson #2 – The Dark Crystal (1982)

(Due to some insanity here at Hollywood Projects studio — wrapping a film project AND preparing for a five-day bender — there will only be one update this week. Unable to decide between Tuesday and Thursday, I have split the difference with my wisdom of Solomon and posted on Wednesday. It’s the second film in the Jim Henson Project…)

Intro: The Dark Crystal was a passion project for Jim Henson. Billed as the first live-action feature without human characters, the film took years of effort and mountains of work to bring to life. Even then, it failed. Although Crystal turned a modest profit in theatres, a happy little alien named E.T. stole its audience and dwarfed its achievements, probably all while flipping a glowing middle finger. Henson was devastated, yet, despite the film’s reception and its many flaws, The Dark Crystal has grown in popularity every year. Today, movie theatres acquire prints for midnight screenings, special edition DVDs are everywhere and choked with features, and a sequel (helmed by “Powerpuff Girls” and “Clone Wars” veteran Genndy Tartakovsky) is reportedly on the way. The Dark Crystal has become a stealth classic.

The Story: “Hello, inner monologue. It’s me, Jen, a gelfling. It sure has been a crazy week. Ever since my entire race was wiped out by the horrible Skesis when I was a kid, I’ve been bored, bored, bored. I had nothing to do but play my flute, watch the Mystics throw dust, and tease out my rock star hair. Of course you know all of this already, inner monologue. We talk all the time.

“And for the villains, we have the OH MY GOD, WHAT IS THAT? WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!”

“Anyway, my master, the Mystic leader, called me into his hut to tell me about a Dark Crystal that cracked and threw the whole balance of the world into chaos a long time ago. He was all like, ‘you are the chosen one that must put the Crystal back together when the three suns converge in the Great Conjunction!’ I was like, ‘OMG’, right? Wait, did I tell you all of this, inner monologue?

“In fact, I think I tell you everything. All the time. Why do I do that? If anyone could hear me — like an audience of some kind, maybe — it would be so very annoying. Maybe it’s the fact that my gelfling face is only capable of two emotions, so I have to monologue to explain how I’m feeling? I must remember to have a conversation with myself later to figure it out.

“Oh, back to the story! I journeyed through a bizarre wasteland to the tower of Aughra, a remarkably ugly creature who gave me a shard of the Dark Crystal before the Skesis’ soldiers, the Garthim, came to take her away. I tried to help her by jumping out of a window and running away, but I’m not sure how that worked out. That’s when I met Kira, another gelfling! She’s a female, which makes her body very different from mine. She’s got wings! And three expressions on her face!

If it weren’t for the wings, they’d never figure out which one is the girl.

“I hung out at Kira’s hut with the Podlings that adopted her, but then the Garthim came for them too! I was, like, ‘see ya’, but Kira was like ‘let’s save them!’ I don’t know how she talked me into riding the landstriders to the Skesis’ castle, but the next thing I knew, we were there. This whimpering Skesis called The Chamberlain kidnapped Kira so the Skesis Emporer could steal her “living essence” or whatever, which left only me to actually do something. Can you believe that? I jumped onto the Crystal and fixed it with the shard, just as the Mystics shuffled in behind me. (I know! If they were already coming here anyway, couldn’t they have given me a ride? Right?)

“We must abide by the will of the prophecy, and also you suck.”

“Fixing the Crystal healed the castle and the land, and merged the Skesis and Mystics back into the creatures they were before the Crystal split them. They left me and Kira in charge of the Crystal. I’ve been using it as a mirror to fix my hair. Anyway, gotta stop with the monologue. Kira wants me to make some decisions or something now that we’re king and queen. We’ll talk soon.”

The Scene: Dammit, the Skesis are scary. Part lizard, part bird, and dressed in rotting finery, few critters are better designed to scare the poop into a little kid’s underoos, certainly back in ’82. To set the tone early, Henson threw in a scene where the dying Skesis Emporer crumbles to ash as his subjects look on, each hoping to be the new emporer. Ultimately, it’s the Chamberlain and the General who lunge at the opportunity and make a play for power. They hiss and they posture, but the new emporer must be chosen by trial. A stone lifts from the floor and both Skesis take a hack at it. The General wins the trial by shattering the rock, and the scheming Chamberlain is stripped of his robes and sent into exile, naked and shamed.

That’s right, I used this picture twice because HOLY SHIT.

What the hell, movie?! The Skesis are creepy critters anyway, but the dessicated Emporer clinging to power, the shaming of the Chamberlain… this is intense stuff! The scene does its job, but… it’s just twisted.

The Line: Jen, reading from the wall of a lost gelfling city:

When single shines the triple sun
What was sundered and undone
Shall be made whole, the two made one.
By Gelfling hand, or else by none.

It was only a matter of time before this tool whipped out some poetry.

That’s the prophecy that convinced the Skesis to slaughter all gelflings, and ultimately provides instructions on how to bring the planet Thra back into peace and balance. Every dark fantasy needs at least one prophecy, or else nobody would know how to get anything done. (Honorable mention goes to the Chamberlain’s squeaky whimper, the most quotable part of the film, even though it isn’t actually English.)

The Production: Jim Henson first conceived of The Dark Crystal in the early days of “The Muppet Show,” but the film wouldn’t see release until after the show had ended, a process stretching over 6 long years. Henson’s idea was to create a living fantasy world, so deep and vibrant that human characters wouldn’t be necessary. With a plan like that, the art direction had to carry most of the burden. Henson had a breakthrough when he found the work of British fantasy illustrator, Brian Froud. Seeing that Froud’s art had the necessary magic to bring his project to life, he asked the artist to design the world, from the lead characters down to the plant life, while Henson and writer David Odell collaborated on the screenplay.

“Oh my God, honey, GIVE HIM YOUR TRIX!!!”

Over the six years, the production would move from the United States to England, pass through several different versions, and struggle with both the art and the tech side of the story. A surprisingly large chunk of production was spent simply developing new technology for lifelike puppets, innovations that had a field test when The Dark Crystal team was asked to design and operate Yoda in the Star Wars trilogy. For the Mystics and the Skesis, Henson hired a team of mimes, dancers, and clowns in peak condition, as the operator positions for these critters were extraordinarily taxing. The Mystics, for example, had to be performed completely in a hunched bend, with the right arm permanently up to act as the creature’s face. Henson claimed he could only do the position for 10 seconds or so, and had no idea how the performers kept it together for hours at a time.

With the film finally complete, Henson and Oz must have felt like proud parents, seeing their child walk for the first time… only to stumble. Tests were unanimous disasters, with the film labeled too long, too slow, too violent, and too serious. Henson, desperate to salvage his team’s hard work, cut liberally and dramatically altered his original version of the film. The Skesis, who were planned to speak only in hisses and bits of dead language, were re-dubbed with English dialogue. Aughra’s voice was also re-dubbed to make her more comical. Most importantly, Henson cut large chunks out of the film, including an extended Skesis funeral. This improved the pace and The Dark Crystal finally saw release… but still limped to a slim $40 million take — profitable, but hardly a blockbuster. Henson and Oz reluctantly shelved their plans for a follow-up.

I CAN HAZ SEQUEL?

A Jim Henson Film: So, I’m breaking a rule here. Technically, The Dark Crystal shouldn’t be an eligible film for Jim Henson, as he worked with co-director Frank Oz.

But where’s the fun in that? I decided to count this film because Henson is just too interesting to pass up. Plus, Oz was such a close and frequent contributor to Henson’s work, he very well might have influenced projects that didn’t have his name on them. Also, the overall author credit lists The Dark Crystal as “A Jim Henson Film.” ALSO also, Henson was very clear about their duties on set – he was there for the visuals, Oz was there for the characters and dialogue. So I know who did what.

As for Jim Henson’s trademarks: He goes out of his way to present his puppets as real, using actors for the gelflings in wide shots, and developing the details of the planet Thra, all the way to the finer points of the food chain and ecosystem. The film has no musical numbers or celebrity cameos, but has a fantastic score by Trevor Jones, and a lot of real-world sounds, like flutes and hums to add musical flair. But above all, this is a Jim Henson film because he says it is. In an interview, Henson once stated that this film is the project he was most proud of.

Lasting Impact: Moderate. The film eventually found its audience on video and blossomed into a valuable title for Henson’s company, and is still used as an example of the long life a well-made fantasy film can have. But, honestly, The Dark Crystal is a cult film. For the people it hits, the passion runs very deep. For others? Meh, what’s on Nickelodeon?

Reason For Ranking: I’ve watched The Dark Crystal several times, but I’ve never truly enjoyed it. The film is sluggishly paced and just generally grim and unhappy. Was fun off limits for Henson? Was he concerned that a few laughs here and there would draw unwanted comparisons to the Muppets? The world that Henson, Oz, and Froud developed and slaved over is lush and interesting enough to deserve a better movie. It’s a maddening film that could have been, should have been better than it is. I’ll put it above The Great Muppet Caper due to depth and ambition, but Henson’s next try would finally get the formula right.

The Jim Henson Project

1. ??

2. The Dark Crystal

3. The Great Muppet Caper

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