Taken For Granted – The Dark Crystal
I didn’t have anything penciled in for this week since, let’s be honest; The Power Rangers Movie isn’t something I can cover on this column. But after watching Labyrinth with Michael Ornelas, I was definitely in the mood for more dark fantasy from Jim Henson.
Welcome to Taken For Granted; a column where I analyze films that are almost universally considered classics. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.
The Dark Crystal
Wide Release Date: December 17, 1982
Directed By: Jim Henson and Frank Oz
Written By: David Odell
Produced By: Jim Henson and Gary Kurtz
Cinematography By: Oswald Morris
Edited By: Ralph Kemplen
Music By: Trevor Jones
Production Company: Henson Associates and ITC Entertainment
Distributed By: Universal Pictures
What Do We All Know?
The works of Jim Henson and his crew of talented puppeteers were well established pop culture icons by 1982. A generation of children had grown up with Sesame Street, while The Muppets had become a huge part of late night TV. They were so popular that there were two financially successful films by the time The Dark Crystal was released, with a third on the way. With Disney Animation in one of its lulls, they were arguably the premiere brand of family entertainment.
But The Dark Crystal was a massive departure, with Jim Henson and Frank Oz seeing the potential of puppets to bring the fantasy genre to life. Despite critical praise, the film never really caught on with viewers, being decidedly too simple for many adults and too dark for a lot of parents to let their kids watch. It’s since become a cult classic, and it’s a film that I’ve loved since childhood.
What Went Right?
First and foremost, The Dark Crystal benefits from its groundbreaking and outstanding puppetry. Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Kathryn Mullen, Dave Goelz and others were all working with top of the line puppets and animatronics. Brian Froud was the concept artist, and it’s his style that makes The Dark Crystal stand out so much. This is a masterclass in creating a world, and I imagine young directors like Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro probably felt encouraged if they saw this movie. The striking visual design of the Skeksis, Mystics, podlings, the Garthim and Aughra all feel fully unique to this world. Even the Gelflings, which are supposed to be the most human, stand out.
Making a memorable visual experience is one thing, but the real genius is that Henson and Oz knew how to present the material. This is an unapologetic fairy tale, presented as an epic myth. All of the characters are arch and simple so the focus is on the journey. The opening narration enforces the idea that this is an ancient story passed down from generation to generation, even though it’s new. It’s the kind of thing that captures the imaginations of children and invites adults to view it as such.
What Went Wrong?
Financially, The Dark Crystal was not a huge success. Jim Henson believed that it’s appropriate for kids to get scared, but that isn’t a view that all parents share. My introduction to this was on television, something like ABC or the Disney Channel. I found my DVD copy in a bargain bin at Wal-Mart. So yeah, this is more of a hidden gem that a flat out classic.
But I think the more important thing is; this is an unapologetic fairy tale with characters that are arch and simple. Perhaps the worst victim of this is Jen, the main hero who is kind of the hero by default and isn’t particularly interesting. This isn’t an easily accessible movie, appealing to a niche audience yet still being decidedly average in terms of script and character development. This isn’t style over substance; this is style as substance.
What Went Really Right?
The Dark Crystal was ahead of its time in some ways. Dark, slightly edgy kids movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline were quite successful in their respective times. On the flip side, films like Pan’s Labyrinth have shown that darker fantasy can appeal to adults as well. The Dark Crystal is unique and memorable, and when I’m in the mood to watch something similar to it, there isn’t a whole lot else that will satisfy the itch.
I don’t know if The Dark Crystal can be considered an all-time great movie, but it’s a damn good one and I’d like to see more people see it. The creativity on display is fascinating and played a huge part in shaping my interest in the fantasy genre as a kid. Hopefully, it can continue to inspire people today.
Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week, we covered another Jim Henson classic: Labyrinth. This week, Michael and I tackle the incredible brilliance of Rick & Morty.
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