30 years later and I still can't connect to it.

30 years later and I still can’t connect to it.

Revisiting Childhood Movies Part VIII:

The Dark Crystal

  • Director:  Jim Henson  /  Frank Oz
  • Writer:  Jim Henson  /  David Odell
  • Producer:  Jim Henson  /  Gary Kurtz
  • Stars:  Jim Henson, Frank Oz  (notable as the “first live action film with no humans”)
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Award Nominations:  BAFTA: Best Visual Effects
  • Length:  93 min
  • Genre:  Fantasy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  17 December 1982
  • Box Office Gross:  $40.57 mil  (#16  –  1982)
  • Ebert Rating:  N/A
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #49  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Notable:  none
  • First Watched:  on HBO when it first came to cable
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  @2 or 3

As a Kid:  There was a lot of anticipation for this film when I was a kid.  The Muppet Show was now off the air.  The Muppet Movie had been brilliant but The Great Muppet Caper was a letdown.  And so this was the next thing from Jim Henson, who, along with George Lucas, was the creative force in my childhood.  There was a lot of build-up and I think it had a big piece in one of the magazines I got as a kid (I always had a magazine subscription as a kid – it was a gift from my grandparents every year).  I don’t think I saw it in the theaters (I certainly have no memory of seeing it in the theater) but I remember seeing it on cable and thinking, “Huh.”

First of all, it was extremely confusing.  Second of all, the hero didn’t seem compelling at all.  He had a Luke Skywalker type quest but he didn’t seem capable of actually doing it.  Then there was the grotesqueness.  Not of the villains, though they were definitely grotesque that’s to be expected; but the character of Aughra, clearly on the side of the good, was so grotesque that it was off-putting as a kid.  I watched it probably two or three times as a kid, could not bring myself to be truly interested in it, and then let it slip away.  I didn’t see it again for over 30 years.

As an Adult:  Going back to the film after all that time I only remembered one thing about it – that the female had wings.  After all that time, it was the only thing that stuck with me.  But as I watched, I suddenly remembered other things (like Aughra) and I suddenly felt the same thing that I felt decades ago – that I somehow don’t connect with this film at all.

I recognize certain things of course.  The Luke Skywalker type quest I saw as a kid is the Joseph Campbell myth, come to life as much through Jim Henson as it had through George Lucas.  But there is one massive difference between Luke and Jen, the hero of The Dark Crystal.  Luke, though overshadowed by Han Solo, is nonetheless a fascinating character with a great quest before him – not only the destruction of the Death Star, but the battle against the Dark Side and the eventual revival of the Jedi.  Jen is incredibly bland.

And it’s not just that Jen is so bland (though he is – he never actually does much in the film that he is ostensibly the hero of – most of the heroic actions in the film come from Kira, the female that he runs into halfway through the film).  It’s that I think he represents an artistic mistake that Henson made in the film.  There are the evil creatures, the Skeksis, and they are suitably grotesque, a great embodiment of evil.  Then there are the Mystics, the good half (it becomes clear about halfway through the film that they are, in fact, halves of the same whole – one of the better things in the film) and they aren’t as well developed, either as characters, or as puppets, but they are interesting.  Then there is Jen, the Gelfling (a terrible name).  He looks more like a marionette.  The puppet lacks any ability to project emotion – something that was so brilliant about the Muppets (one of the best things about Muppets Most Wanted is that you can always tell Kermit and Constantine apart even if they’re not talking because the ability of the Kermit puppet to convey emotions and the talent of the puppeteers makes it easy to see which is which).  The combination of a bland hero, of one who never really does anything, and who is unable to convey any sort of emotional state, leaves a blank hole right in the center of the film.

This is a problematic concern for any film, but especially so for a Kids film.  Which then begs the question: is this a Kids film?  It was certainly marketed as such (which may have been why it wasn’t a huge box office success (it made more than Caper, but considerably less than The Muppet Movie)).  But it always seemed off-putting to me as a kid, and watching the film again now, it seems to be a bit too dark, a bit too fantastical to qualify and I have changed it to a Fantasy film.

In the end, I watched the film and I could understand how some people love it (Veronica has a lot of friends from college who do).  It creates a fantastical new world and it has some great villains and some other interesting creatures (including what I referred to as the as “the most ferocious Tribble ever”).  The puppet work is simply amazing (and what category to put that in for my awards? – I went with Visual Effects, but the Art Direction is also very impressive).  But in the end, I look at the quest, I look at some of the characters along the way, and I’ll end with what I said to Veronica while we were watching it: “This is basically Willow, except without the cool factor of Val Kilmer and without the sexiness of Joanne Whalley.”

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