If only astounding production design were all that were required for a four-star movie, Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal would take the cake. Well, as the saying goes, if "if"s and "but"s were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas. As it is, The Dark Crystal is an extraordinary, often mesmerizing achievement of design and performance that's held back by an underdeveloped script and a milquetoast leading character. Despite its limitations, the film will forever endure as a mind-blowing experience for children.
With every passing year, it becomes increasingly evident that Henson was an artistic genius, and his ambition peaked in 1982 with The Dark Crystal. Though everything seen on screen is, of course, performed by humans-and extraordinarily talented ones, at that--they remain entirely hidden under highly detailed puppets or inside costumes that utterly transform the human shapes within them. Set in "Another World. Another Time. In the Age of Wonder," as a narrator intones, The Dark Crystal is utterly transportive. Clever location work and dazzling sets take us to this other world, and one sequence includes astonishingly lush and diverse plant life--all fabricated in Henson workshops.
The mythic story posits a world divided into good and evil: "the cruel Skeksis" are skeletal buzzards devouring each other with ambition and generally wasting away, and "the gentle Mystics," who evoke Native Americans in their rituals, lope along slowly on their last legs. These wrinkled, hunched mentors know the end of their world is imminent, timed to something called the Great Conjunction of the planet's three suns. They place their last hope in Jen (performed by Henson; voiced by Stephen Garlick), ostensibly the last of the Gelfling race following a genocide enacted by the Skeksis.
Hastily established as a generic boy-to-man hero, Jen embarks on a quest to find and restore the missing shard of the dark crystal, on which the health of the planet depends. Along the way, Jen meets eccentric scientist Aughra (performed by Frank Oz; voiced by Billie Whitelaw), a crone with a removable eye. Jen also discovers his female counterpart, Kira (performed by Kathryn Mullen; voiced by Lisa Maxwell), who's not only helpful in the journey but also walking hope of deliverance from extinction. Rounding out the group of heroes is Fizzgig (performed by Dave Goelz), a loyal furball with pronounced teeth. Unfortunately for our heroes, the Skeksis have their own muscle: the fearsome Garthim, which could be the offspring of a beetle and a crab.
Henson co-directed the picture with Oz, and they have their hands full bringing to life the various species conceived by artist Brian Froud (apple-headed Podlings and stilt-legged Landstriders add to the spectacle). Indeed, the beautiful designs are beautifully realized, and Henson and Oz leave their cheery Muppet work in the dust with impressively realized dread (Jen's line "I don't think anywhere is safe anymore" resonates in a fear-driven, post-9/11 America). Though the film is earnest, there's also mild comedy in the Skeksis' at-odds ambition and the incongruity of the fanged Fizzgig.
The film's primary disappointment is the vacuity of the Gelflings. Despite the best efforts of Henson and Mullen, the Gelfling puppets have a stiff, wooden appearance that makes them remote and creepy (at least to adult eyes); more damagingly, the dopey voice-over work by Maxwell and, in particular, Garlick, plays down to kids instead of helping Henson in his goal of keeping it real.
The film's meditation on good and evil is intriguing, though the Jungian notion that good and evil are necessary components of intelligent life washes out somewhat in the late-breaking revelation that a supposed balance of good and evil resembles godly, white-robed peaceniks with nary a trace of the Skeksis' disquieting intimidation. Such misgivings shouldn't prevent families from sitting down together to experience an incomparable cinematic adventure that earns the appellation "a feast for the eyes."
Better yet, the set is full of bonus features, beginning with a brand-new commentary by Brian Froud detailing his recollections of his fruitful collaborations with Henson, the development of the film's design elements, and his charmed experience of creative freedom. Disc Two leads off with the well-made, vintage doc "The World of The Dark Crystal" (57:23), produced by the Henson outfit. Interviewees include directors Henson and Oz, Froud, Gelfling supervisor Wendy Widener Froud, producer Gary Kurtz, Skesis co-supervisor Lyle Conway, Garthim supervisor Fred Nihda, and performer Kathryn Mullen (Kira). The doc provides looks at design art, test footage, and storyboards, as well as an all-access pass to the Creature Shop and the astounding rehearsal areas and active sets of the production.
Helping to justify a new DVD edition are two very nice, newly-produced, anamorphic featurettes. "Reflections of The Dark Crystal: Light on the Path of Creation" (20:24) gathers Froud, Brian Henson, screenwriter David Odell, David Goelz, Mullen, and puppet designer/builder Jane Gootnick. They return for further observations on "Reflections of The Dark Crystal: Shard of Illusion" (16:18).
As on previous editions, Sony includes "Deleted Funeral Scenes" (3:49) in non-anamorphic video workprint quality, and "Original Language Workprint Scenes" that reveal the original plan of having the Skesis speak their own, subtitled language, and also allow us to hear Frank Oz's vocal take on Aughra before the part was dubbed by Billie Whitelaw: "Emperor's Deathbed" (1:55), "The New Emperor" (5:00), "Aughra & Jen" (5:32), "Podling Village" (:51), "Aughra & the Skeksis" (1:52), "Fountain of Youth" (3:24), and "Presenting Kira" (2:02). lastly, we get eight "Character Illustrations" each of the Skeksis and the Ur-Ru. Unlike previous editions, this one inexplicably doesn't include the film's theatrical trailer.
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