Friday, December 29, 2017

The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson Productions, Independent Television Service, Universal, Columbia/Tri-Star, 1982, reissued on DVD 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I looked through the DVD backlog last night and came up with The Dark Crystal, the 1982 release produced by Sir Lew Grade’s Independent Television Service and directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz — you know them better as Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, respectively, from the Muppets TV series and film sequence beloved, as the cliché goes, by children of all ages. The Dark Crystal appears to have been an attempt by Jim Henson to show that the technology that had produced the Muppets (which were basically just very elaborate hand puppets — the making-of featurette The World of “The Dark Crystal,” included on the 2003 DVD reissue, shows Henson and his co-star Kathryn Mullen essentially wearing their characters on their right arms) could be used to do a fantasy drama and not just played for comedy. The Dark Crystal was inspired by the fantastic creatures created by children’s book author and illustrator Brian Froud (who isn’t given a writing credit and is listed merely as the film’s costume designer even though, according to the featurette, his role was far more central and more creative than that), which Henson discovered. He sounded out Froud about collaborating on a full-length film using his creature designs, suitably adapted to be realizable as costumes wearable or manipulable by human performers and shaped into forms that could carry a 93-minute film. The odd thing about The Dark Crystal was I had a lot more respect for it after watching the making-of video than I’d had during the film itself, since while watching the featurette I was able to admire the sheer ingenuity of the piece and the commitment of Henson, Oz, their writer (David Odell, who did the script based on a story credited to Henson himself) and their staff to this project over the five years it took to make it (one year longer than it took Stanley Kubrick and his crew to make 2001: A Space Odyssey) instead of finding myself alternately infuriated and just bored by the familiarity of the story.

The Dark Crystal is basically Fantasy Quest 101: the young, naïve protagonist realizes that he’s the chosen hero who’s supposed to retrieve a magical object that will set a thoroughly deranged world right, and despite both dangers and temptations along the way he achieves his goal. This time the object isn’t the Holy Grail, the Ring of the Nibelung or the One Ring of Power (a lot of the reviewers in 1982 made the Tolkien connection) but a shard of the titular Dark Crystal. The story takes place on a planet that orbits three suns, and during the last Grand Convergence in which the suns came together two races were formed, the evil Skeksis, who look like crosses between reptiles and birds — the head of the Skeksis has a face oddly reminiscent of a bald eagle, and I suspect the design reflects the growing consensus among paleontologists that the dinosaurs were more like modern birds than modern reptiles and it is birds that are their lineal descendants today — and the good Mystics. Only, as a sententious third-person narrator tells us in the prologue, both the Skeksis and the Mystics have been so reduced in number there are now only 10 of each left. As the film begins the Emperor of the Skeksis is dying and so is the spiritual leader of the Mystics, who on his deathbed tells the story’s hero, “Gelfling” Jen (Jim Henson), that he needs to go on a quest to fetch the missing shard of the Dark Crystal and do something with it to restore order and justice to the world after hundreds of years of misrule by the Skeksis, who have harnessed the power of the Dark Crystal to control everyone and everything. Alas, he croaks before he tells Jen exactly what he’s supposed to do with the crystal shard, but he does give him the information that the witch Aughrn (Frank Oz) either has the shard herself or can lead him to it. Aughrn is by far the most interesting character in the story; I get the impression that Henson, Oz, Froud and Odell loved the irony of creating a witch who looked like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz but had the morals of Glinda.

Aughrn shows Jen a whole bunch of crystal shards, bamboozling Jen as to which is the “right” one, but he plays a few notes on his Y-shaped pan-pipe (a musical instrument he carries throughout the film) and the right shard lights up with a purple glow. Alas, the meeting between Jen and Aughrn is crashed by a force of Garthim, who look like giant beetles with crab-like arms and are the army of the Skeksis — essentially their Orcs. (The making-of featurette noted that the Garthim costume weighed 75 pounds — it had to be that heavy since Henson and Froud wanted it to look metallic — and it was so excruciatingly uncomfortable to wear that in order to give the poor actors playing Garthim a chance to rest from carrying all that weight, during their breaks they were hoisted off the floor on slings that look like the sorts of things you’d see in an S/M dungeon.) The Garthim also crash a party to which Jen and his girlfriend, fellow Gelfling Kira (Kathryn Mullen), get to lay back and listen to a piece by the film’s composer, Trevor Jones, that sounds like your standard-issue Irish dance folksongs; the scene is totally irrelevant to the plot but it’s also by far the most entertaining part of the movie to that point. One quirk of this movie Dave is that when we first meet Jen, he’s so androgynous, with his long hair and woman’s name, that it’s only until the filmmakers arrange for him to meet and pair with Kira that we’re sure we’re supposed to regard Jen as male — and there’s a nicely humorous meeting scene in which both of them tell each other that their families were victims of anti-Gelfling genocide by the Skeksis and therefore each thought they were the only Gelfling left. (This reminded me of the constant refrain during the pioneering 1970’s documentary about Gays, Word Is Out, in which a lot of the Gay and Lesbian people interviewed said that when they were growing up and realizing they were physically, sexually and romantically attracted to people of their own gender, they thought they were the only one.) The Gelflings also noticeably change appearance during the movie: when we first meet Jen he looks like a missing link, with hairless human-style skin but a protruding jaw that makes him look ape-like, but once he meets Kira the two of them look much more human and their only concession to alien-ness is pointy ears that look like a cross-breed between Gene Roddenberry’s Vulcans and J. R. R. Tolkien’s elves.

At one point during the action Jen and Kira are approached by Fizzgig (Dave Goelz), a former Skeksi who was thrown out of the Skeksi court during the power struggles among the nine remaining Skeksi after the Skeksi Emperor’s death. Now he says he wants to get them into the castle so they can get the Skeksis and the Gelflings to live in peace with each other, and Jen seems tempted to believe him but Kira insists he’s up to no good and Jen should ignore him. Accordingly they drive him away, and then they realize that they need to figure out a way to get to the Skeksis’ dark castle wherein the Dark Crystal resides. “Hey!” I said. “You just drove away the creature who offered to take you there!” Instead they get a ride from two “Landstalkers,” who look like horses with especially elongated legs and were apparently a brainstorm of Jim Henson and one of his stunt people, who when he wasn’t making movies like this did an act as a stilt walker. Henson asked him if he could put stilts on his arms as well as his legs and walk about on all fours, and he said he could even though, when they put the Landstalker costume on him, it weighted him down so much and made him so top-heavy they had to suspend him from the studio ceiling with a cable, then erase the cable from the final film. Ultimately they get to the castle and Jen has his obligatory moment of doubt as to whether he should re-insert the crystal shard into the Dark Crystal, but when he sees Kira die — the victim of a Skeksi procedure in which they use the energy of the Dark Crystal to suck the “essence” out of someone, then drink it to sustain themselves and at least theoretically become immortal (which is why they haven’t totally obliterated the Gelflings — they need their essences to prolong their own lives) — he shoves the shard into the Dark Crystal just as the planet’s three suns are coming together, and the energy thus unleashed transforms both the Skeksis and the Mystics and allows them to merge their bodies. Apparently the original split of the Crystal severed these super-beings and turned them into good and evil, and while the concept of the changeling is as unoriginal as virtually all the plot elements of The Dark Crystal it at least puts something of a different spin even if it smacks of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde meets Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth (about a planet whose two sentient species, the elephant-like Nildoror and the lizard-like Sulidoror, regularly transition into each other).

Indeed, the basic problem with The Dark Crystal is that its story is so familiar, especially now that fantasy is a far more significant film genre than it was in 1982, that I was constantly being reminded of other movies: when Jen was perplexed as to which crystal shard in Aughra’s redoubt was the one he needed, I said, “Use the Force, J- — oops, wrong movie.” There were a lot of “oops, wrong movie” moments in The Dark Crystal, and throughout the film I was frustrated at the gap between the vivid imagination that went into realizing these images and creating the film’s stunning visual “look” and the sheer seen-it-all-before banality of the plot. After I watched the featurette I was more impressed not only at the incredible patience it took to make this film, and in particular to work out how to make the various creatures appear in the pre-CGI era, but the obvious commitment of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and their collaborators to the project. One could regard The Dark Crystal as a sort of road-not-taken in fantasy filmmaking; today a story like this would be done either live-action with heavy CGI (instead of actually having to wear those heavy and excruciatingly uncomfortable costumes before the cameras, today’s actors would have gone through the motions in dot-painted body suits in front of green screens and the costumes would have been added later, digitally) or via computer animation (though I must say I really don’t like the overall blocky look of computer animation; it lacks both the relative realism of live-action and the freedom and artistic appeal of well-done drawn animation. Modern techniques also wouldn’t have put the actors through the weird burdens Kathryn Mullen describes in the featurette, in which she was merely going through the motions of her character while another person manipulated the eyes and a third person dubbed the voice in post-production; Jim Henson himself recalled that he couldn’t just bop through his scenes the way he did when he played Kermit the Frog, but had to manipulate Jen in a way that made him look like a real person walking instead of a puppet. Though the numbers on The Dark Crystal show a respectable gross — $40,577,001 worldwide on a production cost of $15 million — my recollection was that the film was considered a major flop and Henson’s backers basically told him after that, “No more drama. Concentrate on making people laugh.”