Saturday, August 31, 2019

Silver Screen Stories: The Dark Crystal

With this property's sudden resurgence in interest, I think it's high time I talked in depth about one of my favorite movies of all time, and in my humble opinion, one of the best films ever made.

In December, 1982, a movie quietly released that, while it made money, was not a big financial success, and certainly not a blockbuster hit. And yet, it was arguably the most unique display ever put to film, presenting arguably the most distinctive and inspiring cinematic world ever crafted. This was all done before the age of CGI and cheap movie tricks. This was done with a lot of grueling work and determined effort, led by a mad visionary and his merry gang. That man was Jim Henson, and that movie, was what I (and I believe he) consider to be his master work, The Dark Crystal.

Doing it the hard way. The right way.

Coming off of the raging success and cultural phenomenon that was The Muppet Show, not to mention teaching and inspiring entire generations with his contributions to Sesame Street, Jim Henson was a man suddenly finding himself wielding a certain amount of power and creative capital. With the additional success of his first film (though he didn't direct, a fact he later lamented), 1979's The Muppet Movie, and deciding to end his famous Muppet TV hit after only five seasons, while he felt they were still on top, he was ready to finally realize a project he'd been slowly crafting for years. Jim had always felt, even when he was first doing TV spots in the 60s, and then the early Sesame days on PBS, that puppetry wasn't "just for kids". In fact he was insulted by the notion. He took it not only as an affront, but also as a challenge, to prove that no, in fact, puppetry could be, and should be, for everyone. He realized that in a big way with his smash success, The Muppet Show, a show centered around cute and funny puppets, that aired on "Prime Time" TV, and appealed to people of all ages. He had already proven his point in spades, but to a creative madman like Mr. Henson, that was simply not enough.

He believed that puppetry could evolve. That it could, and should, go even further. And to fully illustrate and actualize his vision, he had just the project in mind. He had been thinking for years, of a story, grand in concept and adventure, set on an entirely alien world, yet embodying incredibly familiar and pertinent elements for we sordid humans here on Earth. Jim was the kind of guy who literally wanted to change the world, and in some small way, I think his most complex, most challenging, and at least as far as I'm concerned, his greatest work, achieved that.

Fantasy made real.

The remarkable thing about The Dark Crystal, is not just that it features (even by today's standards) super complex and advanced puppetry, and animatronic work that for the time was very bleeding edge and groundbreaking. It also isn't the excellent cinematography work or memorable, sweeping score. It isn't even the charming, frightening, and universally excellent characters the story presents. The MOST remarkable thing, if you ask me, is the fact that this movie creates an entirely original, unique, alien world, Earth-like enough to not be jarring, and yet very much not of this world. They didn't skimp when making this movie, even though they made it on a "paltry" budget of $25 million dollars. They squeezed every last drop out of that budget and their production time, and practically broke their backs creating and filming what, as far as I'm concerned, is the most lush, most vivid, most organic, and most fully realized fantasy/sci fi world ever put to film. And all of this while not having a single, regular human character, purely puppetry, animatronics, and a few long-shots of actors for fluid movement.

They went the extra mile and then some, probably in large part because of Jim's drive and obsessiveness to detail. He had a lot of collaboration and help making his dream a reality, but make no mistake, The Dark Crystal was Jim's vision and his baby. He wanted to craft an entirely foreign world, and while the film does feature some beautiful location shots as well, the vast majority of the film features just that: a living, breathing world that they built from scratch. And they didn't do the bare minimum, or even a great job. They did a fantastic job, probably even going overboard in the world-building department. Every rock, every weird alien plant, and curious little creature, from a spooky bog, to a dense jungle, and even soaring mountaintops, are all beautifully crafted and realized. Every single set, from the "Earth Mother" Aughra's mountain observatory, to the rustic Podling village, to the dusty Gelfling ruins, and of course the dark and daunting Crystal Palace, not a single square inch is left unattended. They weren't lazy with even the tiniest, most easily hidable corner of any set. This movie isn't just a water mark for puppetry, animatronics and special effects, it should be required viewing for set design and production as well.

Jen's teacher and father figure, urSu the Mystic.

Kira's family, the people who raised her, the Podlings.

As a child in the 80s, I can rightly say that this was indeed one of the movies I "grew up with". Even in the years before we owned a VCR, this must have played on TV, because I know I saw it several times. I have heard many people say that this movie "scared the shit out of them as a kid". But I honestly did not have that experience, and feel like most who say that are exaggerating. Yes, it has some scary parts, certainly the monster Garthim, which definitely did scare me as a kid a bit. But my memories of this movie are not of being "traumatized", as some hyperbollically claim. Rather, my memories of it are fond, happy ones. This world, and these characters really delighted and inspired kid me, so much so that it became one of my favorite movies of all time, and remains so to this day.

One of the film's many iconic moments.

Story-wise, at its heart, beyond the obvious themes of "Good vs. Evil", things coming full circle, and in a way, redemption, to me, the story is about the two main characters, Gelflings Jen and Kira. Both orphaned at a very young age, because of the Skeksis ordered extermination of their people, neither grew up knowing much at all about themselves or their own culture. In fact, before Fate had them meet as the story unfolds, they each had come to believe they were the very last of their kind. Jen and Kira are awesome to me, beyond just being the movie's heroes. They are also, in a way, "Soul Mates", and they lean on each other and come to each other's aid, throughout the tale once they're together.

Jen is, pragmatically speaking, the central protagonist of the tale, as he is who you meet first, he is the one given a quest by his dying master, and it is technically he who Destiny seems to have tasked with healing the eponymous "Dark Crystal", to save their world. But having grown up sheltered by the wise and gentle Mystics, while he did commendably make his way, alone, to grumpy Aughra's mountain, Jen is largely naive to the greater outside world. It is arguable that without meeting Kira and receiving her aid, he might not have completed his quest. Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say, that much like the concept of "Soul Mates", the two of them really do compliment and complete each other in the tale. Jen with his higher learning and sense of purpose, and Kira with her knowledge of the natural world and seemingly endless compassion. They work together from the moment they meet, Kira joining him without a second thought, as if they belonged together, which honestly they did. And ultimately, without spoiling too much, it takes them both to meet their journey's end.

The Gelflings confronted for the first time by a Skeksis.

I've actually covered this film a bit in the past, in the second part of my "Top Favorite Movies" piece. In that article, I somewhat arbitrarily listed it at "Number 10", which isn't really accurate to where it should stand on my list of favorite movies of all time. This is legitimately one of those films that I almost never get tired of. I would likely get sick of seeing it for a bit if I saw it too frequently, but it is one of those movies that I can pop on almost "anytime", and still feel like watching it and enjoy it. Most movies, even many I adore, I have to be in a mood to sit and watch. This is one of those very rare films where that isn't so much the case. Having said that, if I were to "officially" say where this movie belongs on that list, I would at least say the Top Five. It's damn hard to think about pushing out the likes of Ghostbusters, Big Trouble in Little China, or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. But in all honesty, when I really give it serious consideration, this probably belongs as my #3, or even arguably #2, behind only my TOP favorite of all time, the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated The Hobbit.

The Ritual of the Suns.

Seeing as I spoke at length about this movie in that aforementioned article, I think I might as well quote some of what I said there, as I don't mind saying it was pretty decent stuff:

"The ultimate end product, wound up being quite possibly the most dense, organic, living and vibrant fantasy world ever put to film, and that is including all of the massive-budget CGI films of the modern day. With a sweeping, majestic musical score, a dark but endearing story that Henson himself wanted to reflect the original, darker Grimm's Fairy Tales type material, a lot of deep spirituality and philosophy hidden in subtle layers throughout the film's world, and characters that were not only visually stunning and lifelike, but genuinely memorable. I remember seeing this movie as a young child, and having it evoke so many things from me at such a young age: fear, wonder, excitement, inspiration, you name it. I truly don't think this movie gets nearly the recognition it deserves, both for the almost impossible, monumental achievement it's even getting made and coming out like it did represents, but also for just genuinely being an amazing piece of film. And to think that the studios producing this master-work, were going to gimp it and give it minimal advertising, basically sending it out to die, because they "didn't get it". Thankfully, Jim cared so much about his baby, that he bought it back from the studio, and funded it's release himself, just to make sure it got a fair shake."

That last part is absolutely true. Jim not only wanted creative control of his vision, but he also wanted to avoid a situation that many great films (such as Big Trouble in Little China) suffered at the hands of Hollywood. That being the sheer idiocy of a major studio putting millions of dollars into a film, only to effectively "send it out to die" by releasing it at a bad time, and/or giving it next to no actual promotion, ensuring it will fail the box office. And again, while it was no mega-hit, Jim's shrewd and risky move paid off, as the film was a financial success, even if at the same time it somehow also got semi-ignored. It did, of course, go on to become a cult hit on VHS and TV showings, where I first encountered it, as I'm sure many other 80s (and perhaps even 90s) kids did.

Another great thing about this movie was the fantastic art it generated. You can already see some at the top of this article, but here are a few more:

A European poster, I believe.

Simply stunning detail.

Excellent "Good and Evil" contrast.

The simplest, and my personal favorite.

As I'm writing this, a new prequel series on Netflix now exists, and is available to watch. The movie itself has also, to Netflix's credit, been on their streaming service (as well as available to rent physically), for some time now as well. I won't speak too much on the series, though I've watched a few episodes so far, except to say that while it definitely has a few of its details wrong, which I feared, it does seem to have its heart in the right place, and is mostly pretty well done. The biggest criticism I'll lay at it before I move on, is to say, of course, that while the production crew should absolutely be commended for mostly sticking to the style of the original movie, as the vast majority of characters and creatures are still puppetry or animatronics, and there are no human actor characters, I STILL feel the show utilizes FAR too much CGI for my taste. The original masterpiece created an entire living fantasy world without it, I think outside of a few little flourished here and there, this new crew could have and should have as well.

Interestingly enough, this series was technically born out of an idea for a sequel film, called "The Power of the Dark Crystal", which was for decades stuck in what is known as "development hell", where it simply found no backing and gained no real traction. That concept, taking place years after the movie's events, was eventually turned into a twelve issue comic book series, released in 2017, which I still need to read. I had been somewhat excited by the idea of a sequel, and yet, frankly, much like this well-meaning prequel series, while it might have been cool, nothing can ever top, or even truly match, the original.

The one of a kind Aughra.

As far as this man's concerned, The Dark Crystal was and remains a singular cinematic experience, the likes of which had never been done before, and I do not earnestly believe will ever truly be done again. Of all the many incredible things that Jim Henson brought to life over his career, I really do feel like this movie was his "Magnum Opus", and from what I've gathered, Jim felt that way himself. I think he wanted to keep going, to try and do even more and go even further with puppetry, which to a limited effect he tried with the movie "Labyrinth", but while exceptionally well done, it just wasn't on the same level. I don't think any of his other works were, even as great as they were. To me, this movie embodied not only what he worked for and believed in as a creator, but I also feel it embodies Jim Henson the person. As if this movie, more than any other work, is his creative fingerprint. It certainly was his most unique, and probably the hardest thing he ever made. But he loved it, and so do I.

I genuinely feel bad for any person, especially any child, who has never seen this movie. Because I really do believe it is one of those "have to see before you die" type of films. I also think that it's difficult as numbed and jaded adults, to get the fully experience as (sadly) only a child can. My childhood sucked big time in a lot of ways, but I was fortunate in the respect that I got to experience movies like these when I was raw, open, and innocent. And if I had to say that any three words most represented what I feel Jim Henson tried to present to people with his works, it would be those three: raw, open, and innocent. I certainly think that was probably what he wanted to make us "big kids" be able to feel again, even if only for a few fleeting moments.

So as I often say with these pieces, if you've somehow never seen this movie, then please go watch it. If you haven't seen it in a long time? Give it another whirl. And for the love of all that's good and pure in the world, if you happen to have kids, MAKE sure they watch it too. Take care, and brace yourselves for the coming spooky season...