Friday, January 7, 2011

Second Age Reviews: The Dark Crystal

1982 was a good year for movies, but not a good year to be those movies. We had scores of worthwhile movies, some of them great (The Dark Crystal, The Thing, Blade Runner) some of them good (Poltergeist, Conan the Barbarian, Tron) some of them kind of silly, but a lot of fun (Creepshow, The Beastmaster, Cat People). But in the end it didn't matter because, with a couple exceptions, they all got swallowed at the box office by E.T. With that in mind, here is The Dark Crystal the magnum opus of technical wizard Jim Henson, best known for creating the Muppets and an unfortunate box office disappointment.

The story is concerned with a Gelfling named Jen, living in a fantasy world. 1000 years earlier the titular dark crystal was damaged, creating the gentle Mystics and the evil Skeksis, and rather jerkily, putting the Skeksis in charge. As his master lies dying, he tells Jen that he must fulfill a prophecy; find the missing shard of the crystal and return it to the crystal, before the 3 suns align or else the Skeksis will rule the world forever.

So the plot amounts to the rather well worn fantasy story of 'Take magical object A to location B and everything will be fixed,” with the 3 suns thing adding a timer. But it's well worn for a reason and the alterations to the formula keeps things fresh, with a unique world and well written characters.

That world part is one of the primary draws of the film. The entire world, from characters, to animals to a good portion of the sets themselves are realized entirely through puppetry. No human once appears on screen, despite some creatures reportedly requiring 5 to move them. The level of detail on each individual puppet is astounding, as is the sheer amount of care and attention put into making sure they moved smoothly and realistically. And the environments and animals are realized with such uniqueness and detail that it would make Avatar blush and leave the room.

The story is fairly straightforward but it's well written and well paced. The dialogue is mostly well done, with a couple of exceptions, and all the characters have richly detailed personalities. It takes a lot of work to make puppets have physical ticks but The Dark Crystal does it. The hints at the larger worlds and cultures surrounding the main story add a sense of depth rarely seen in movies like this.

It's not quite a perfect movie. Two of the more important races, the Podlings and the Mystics, don't really get a whole lot of detail, some of the Skeksis and Mystics abilities are kind of vaguely defined (I'm still not sure if they have actual magic or what), a couple action sequences are confusingly cut and it starts to feel a bit rushed near the middle. But somehow all of that ceases to matter when you're actually watching it, as it lets you get lost in the story and the universe it inhabits.

So that begs the question; Why was it a disappointment at the box office when it's so good? Well, the primary reason for so many good movies being box office disappointments or outright failures in 1982 had a lot to do with E.T. which swallowed a lot of movies at the box office (some of which, like The Dark Crystal are much better than E.T.). But with Dark Crystal I think the problem runs deeper.

At the time Henson was, and still is frankly, primarily known for creating the Muppets, but as the speaker at this showing said, he had always wanted to graduate to being a director, like his associate Frank Oz has done to great success. But because of the attachment to the Muppets, many people assumed this would be a kids movie, but were disappointed to find this darker fantasy story in it's place. Oh and on that note; No it's not a kids movie. It's not inappropriate for kids (no movie which has something like Fizzgig can be) but it's a little darker than the usual kid's movie. You can show it to them, but don't expect The Muppet Movie.

At the end of the day, minor annoyances aside, The Dark Crystal is an incredible technical and artistic achievement and if you haven't seen it before you really should. So you do that, and I'll see you next time.

Next time on Second Age Reviews: The Thing

Elessar is a 20 year old Alaskan born cinephile and his desire for a pet Fizzgig is second only to his desire for a pet Tribble.

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