When I was a kid, The Dark Crystal scared the ever-livin' shit out of me. That is one scary movie. I mean, I know back then, everyone was like, "Oh, it's from Jim Henson! The Muppet guy! So of course it'll be a fun little Muppet romp!" I'm sorry, but the entire film is people in monster suits. I first remember seeing it on TV, on CBC one night, during Disney. And it terrified me. Next time I saw it was in the first grade. We were having movie day in class. I spent most of the class hiding under my desk.
Much like when I reminisced about the Indiana Jones films, I seem to remember certain images...the most violent and striking ones sticking out in my mind. I remember that Skeksis scientist using the power of the Dark Crystal to drain the life essence out of people. I remember the Skeksis emperor dying and crumbling to dust. I remember Augrah with her removable eyes, and using that skill to get a closer look at things. I remember the Mystics and their haunting singing. It just...bah! So many eerie images.
God, I even have fuzzy memories of encountering it in the theatre. I was visiting relatives down in the Lacome/Red Deer area, and we all went to see a movie. If I remember correctly, me, my Mom, and us younger kids went to see the Disney western The Man from Snowy River. The older kids went with my Uncle Rob to see the Dark Crystal. And I remember my Uncle Rob coming out of it and saying it was weird as hell.
Anyway, ever since college, I've been threatening to go back and watch it again, now that I'm old enough to handle it. When I picked up Labyrinth a few weeks ago, it was in a 2-pack with The Dark Crystal, and I figured, "Now's my chance."
A long time ago, on a planet far, far away, the land was ruled by two warring races: the cruel and warlike Skeksis, and the gentle and peaceful Mystics. The Skeksis worship and draw power from a massive Dark Crystal. Our hero is Jen, a Gelfling. Jen's family were killed by the Skeksis, and he was raised by the Mystics. But now, the three suns are aligning, and Jen must fulfill his destiny. For you see, Jen is the chosen one. Many years ago, the Dark Crystal was fractured, and a shard was chipped off. It is Jen's destiny to return the shard to the Dark Crystal, heal the crystal, and thus, the world.
And so, Jen is off on his quest. He encounters the wise woman Augrah, who directs him to the shard. He's soon assisted by Kira, the first female of his kind he's ever seen, and the race that raised her, the Podlings. They're pursued by an exiled Skeksis, plus all variety of Skeksis troops to prevent the prophecy from coming true.
Of course, what makes this film so memorable is its look. Very rarely are the puppets thrown out into the real world, and exist solely on manufactured environments. And the worlds they create look so alien. It's George Lucas's dream of the alien environments he created in the Star Wars prequels, only 20 years earlier, and with latex and foam instead of CGI. It should be much of a surprise then that the producer was Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz.
Watching it again after all these years, though, you can't help but notice that it does drag on a bit. There's one scene of a Skeksis banquet that you know is just in there to showcase the amazing puppetry. And like Kevin Smith's famous complaint about The Lord of the Rings, a lot of it has to do with people just walking. And Jen does a lot of his walking on his own, which means there's a lot of internal monologuing.
And as amazing as the puppetry is, you can see a few cracks in the proceedings. Jen is a Muppet in the classic sense, in that all we ever see is his torso. But then, for shots of him running across the landscape, they switch to a guy in a suit. The guy in the suit moves so much differently than the Muppet that the contrast is jarring.
Anyway, now that I'm finally old enough to handle it, I find The Dark Crystal to be a pretty OK fantasy film. It is kind of formulaic for such a thing, but of course, the visuals are the true stars. I respect it for its technical achievement. So much artistry on display.
Now that I find it not so scary, I think it's...just OK.
But, before I go, a cartoon. I guess the CBC knew how much it would freak me out when I first saw it, and immediately after they showed it, they followed it up with the National Film Board short film Blackberry Subway Jam. The two films are now forever linked in my mind, so after watching The Dark Crystal tonight, I had to watch Blackberry Subway Jam. And you can do that, too, thanks to the NFB website.