Jim Henson’s darkest but favorite work, ‘The Dark Crystal,’ is rich in both visual storytelling and philosophical messaging.
The Dark Crystal came to theaters at an odd time for moviegoers. The world knew Jim Henson from the playful puppetry that made The Muppet Show such a hit. He was regarded as a genius and, especially, a kids’ comedy success story. Thing is, The Dark Crystal was Henson’s most shadowy work. He told the story of good versus evil with some harrowing scenes showing torture, soul-sucking and stabbings that wouldn’t be regarded as Henson-esque.
Despite The Dark Crystal scaring away parents who thought the film was too horrific for their kids, the film soon rocketed to cult classic fame.
Let’s get the nitty-gritty out of the way: The Dark Crystal tells the story of the wondrous land of Thra, taking place 1,000 years after a magical crystal cracked and split one race into two. The gentle and knowledgeable Mystics contrasted heavily from the evil Skeskis, who use the crystal to replenish themselves and kidnap other creatures to make them their slaves.
A soft-spoken Gelfling (think Elf-hobbit combo) named Jen is tasked with finding the crystal shard that could make the broken crystal whole again, reunite the two races into one and avoid years of plunder and Skeskis chaos.
Along the way Jen partners with another Gelfling, Kira, who can control animals with a melody or two. She sports wings, as do all female Gelflings.
This film was the first puppet production that didn’t feature any humans. While some puppets required six people to operate them, other creatures, like small rodents, were simply wind-up toys set to scurry across the forest floor.
What elevated The Dark Crystal wasn’t only its horror-tinged tale but also the visual beauty and stunning artwork of the creatures in Thra. From giant but friendly fish to lobster-beetle soldiers, the puppets boasted a complexity in their physique and movements. These were no Muppets.
Henson and director Frank Oz pulled off expressive facial movements, displayed by Jen, for example, that truly felt as human as a flesh-and-blood actor. The fight scenes might look clunky compared to today’s CGI smoothness, but 35 years ago The Dark Crystal must have dropped jaws for its puppet choreography.
While the film offers a familiar tale, almost akin to Frodo’s fraught journey in The Lord of the Rings, its themes were as layered as Tolkien’s work. A deeper read into the film and some sideline research reveal that Henson may have wanted to criticize his own industry with The Dark Crystal.
His daughter Cheryl Henson wrote in the foreword to The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History about the relationship between Mystics and Skeskis mirroring her father’s own inner turmoil navigating the aggressive world of entertainment: “Sometimes people forget how difficult it is to make it in television, film and advertising. There’s a lot of cutthroat behavior. My dad thrived in that environment, but he was also a soft, gentle artist who would have, as he used to say, been just as happy walking across America with a stick with a point on the end picking up garbage. For me, the relationship of Mystics and the Skeskis also represented the dualism he was dealing with as an artist and a businessman. Part of him would have loved to be a Mystic and leave his responsibilities behind, but he had five children to support and a company to keep afloat. He couldn’t just check out.”
In interviews, Henson said The Dark Crystal was his favorite film out of the many projects he brought to the public. That passion comes through in the fleshed-out characters and the compelling story.
The live-action fantasy adventure was dripping with hidden clues to how characters were shaped. For example, Henson based the Skeskis on the seven deadly sins, and you’ll likely spot the gluttonous one mowing down on plates of food during a memorable eating scene.
Also, the wise old woman Aughra (voiced by Frank Oz) is based on the Stygian Witches in Greek mythology, who know almost everything but the future, are blind and see through a shared mystical eye.
Will we revisit Aughra, and will Frank Oz reprise the role? Will we learn about her origins in the upcoming prequel, which takes place years before The Dark Crystal’s quest? What about the Emperor Skeskis, who dies in the first several minutes? Please tell me we’ll be treated to a companion character as cute as Kira’s Fizzgig!
What we do know is that the 10-episode The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance will follow three Gelflings as they “discover the horrifying secret behind the Skeksis’ power” and “set out on an epic journey to ignite the fires of rebellion and save their world.” The series will star an ensemble of state-of-the-art creatures created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and Brian Froud, the original feature’s conceptual designer.
Beyond that vague description, fans are left to wonder how deep into the Thra mythos the story will venture. What is heartening to learn is that puppetry will once again form the basis of the film, as opposed to special effects or any CGI hybrid with actors. Seeing the Henson Company’s creatures will once again have us feeling nostalgic for those years of filmmaking that had us oooohing and ahhhing at the craftsmanship before our eyes.
No matter which characters emerge from Age of Resistance, we can rest easy knowing they are in the skilled hands of Henson Company puppeteers and Froud. The original film wanted to be a darker Grimm’s fairy tale, and the deft hands of Henson and Oz gave us that wild story in a well-paced 90 minutes. In a much lengthier project we can now venture deeper into Thra’s many magical communities, perhaps gaining insight into the motivations behind the Skeskis and Mystics from the 1982 classic.
Want to relive the magic? The Dark Crystal returns to select U.S. theaters February 25 and 28!