Thursday, July 26, 2012

REVIEW: The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal
Director: Jim Henson & Frank Oz
Year 1982
The Dark Crystal is a magical fantasy film born from the minds of Jim Henson, David Odell, and Frank Oz. Featuring an entire cast of puppets and a fabricated fictional world, this outlandish production brought to life a vivid realm in which movie lovers had never seen before and unfortunately have yet to witness again. With an ambitious mindset and a dedicated and passionate crew, Jim Henson was able to realize a dream through this film, allowing the way we create and view movies to change in the most dramatic and beautiful of ways. The Dark Crystal is a wonder of achievement as it opens our eyes to a plain of existence that only exists inside the celluloid frame of a true visionary’s sprawling masterpiece come to life. Jim Henson…. You’re the man!
In another world, in another time, in the age of wonder, a young Gelfling named Jen must embark on a most perilous journey, in order to restore the balance of the universe. His mission is to restore the Dark Crystal, a power source for his planet, which was cracked by the reigning race of bird-like lizard creatures called the Skeksis. Armed with the missing shard from the crystal and naïve in the ways of the world, Jen sets out to repair the Dark Crystal, and in the process, finds out that the world is a much bigger place than he first realized. Across bounding landscapes and through extraordinary countrysides, Jen comes into contact with various inhabitants of this savage yet breathtaking realm as he comes to realize his true destiny and purpose among such wondrous things. As the dying planet comes closer to the end of its life-cycle, can Jen defeat the Skeksis and reclaim this decaying world for all that is good? Time will tell in this epic tale of good versus evil, but I have a hunch that Jen is going to come out on top. Do it you beautiful little Gelfling bastard!

The central characters in this imaginative little yarn come in the form of small, sprite-like beings named Jen and Kira. These two Gelflings, thought to be the last of their race, are pitted against an overwhelming amount of opposition, yet Jim Henson and his puppeteers make them feel like living-breathing, flesh and blood characters to the point that you really believe that they can press through the turmoil and conquer their collective obstacles. The designs of these creatures are simplistic, yet exceptionally crafted, taking inspiration from the traditional physical appearances of fairies and other iterations of that ilk. What is most noticeable about the race of Gelflings is that they are one with nature in both their physical appearances as well as their tendency to live in harmony with their surroundings. This tree hugging aspect of their characters is heartwarming, especially when you juxtapose them against the beliefs and lifestyles of the Skeksis.
In the same love and care that went into creating Jen and Kira, Jim Henson and company went above and beyond in creating a believable array of creatures and beings to inhabit the world that they set up. First and foremost we have the two races of creatures that nurture both Jen and Kira from infancy. The wise and mysterious race known as the Mystics, are the ones who cared for Jen, while the Podlings, a gentle race of “earth-people” are the beings that take Kira in as their own. The design work on the Mystics is just astounding as these creatures really look like believable beings. The movements they make have a sense of weight to them, and you instantly take it as fact that they inhabit this world and are a direct connection with the life that inhabits this film. With their extra appendages, dinosaur like features, and mesmerizing motions, the Mystics are a highlight of the movie. While not as visually impressive as the Mystics, the Podlings are a more energetic race of creatures, mirroring the spirit and fun of the Fraggles, yet in Doozer size forms. The peaceful way in which these Podlings live their lives is lovingly portrayed by Henson and crew, and the family bonds that these lively puppets possess between each other in the film is quite endearing and perfectly executed. Each upbringing, be that by Mystics or Podlings, are totally different in appearance, yet similar in their underlying theme which is to treat the earth and its creatures with respect while living in harmony with nature. That creed is beautifully recreated in the design work that went into creating these memorable creatures.
Aside from Jen, Kira, and the races of Mystics and Podlings, there is one more memorable do-gooder in the film, who though ambiguous in nature, leans more towards the side of good more so than evil. Aughra the Keeper of Secrets, is a wildly zany character that honestly scared the shit out of me as a kid and till this day still gives me the creeps. With horns like a ram and one single eye that she can pop out and gross people out with, Aughra is a character that you won’t soon forget. With a sassy personality and a tendency to impersonate the illogical dialogue structure of master Yoda, Aughra gives Jen and the audience their first taste of the strange beings that inhabit this unusual new world. I love the odd nature of her character and the fact that she pops in and out of the narrative at the most curious of times, makes her appearances that much more spontaneous and enjoyable. Aughra is definitely a Henson creation that brings that spark of imagination to full fruition. 

The enchanting creature creations don’t stop there, no far from it. On the flip side of the coin we have the darker side of this world represented by the evil race of Skeksis. These grotesque beasts are scavengers at heart, resembling a disgusting hybrid of bird and lizard, and with a vulture’s disposition. The race of Skeksis is an opportunistic lot, always vying for power and constantly devouring everything around them. When we are first introduced to this vile bunch, they are at the end of their reign with their power waning because of the slowly diminishing Dark Crystal. Henson holds nothing back in showcasing just how terrible these creatures truly are by giving us some rather disturbing series of scenes that emphasize the chaotic nature of living under a Skeksis regime.
One moment in particular displays the hierarchy of their race. In this telling scene we learn that they are ruled over by one king who holds control over the entire group. The king in their case is a dying old crone who has all the appearances of a walking corpse. Like vultures circling dying prey, the group watch in bated breathe as the king succumbs to his inevitable demise. As soon as the king passes, each member of the council begins to announce his desire to rule and individually they begin vying for position to take the throne. We come to find, in a very intense scene, that the only way to determine who will be ruler is through a physical test called Trial by Stone. In this situation, two combatants must each take a sword and attempt to embed the biggest mark they can in a slab of granite in order to prove their worth. The attention to detail and historical significance that this event relays to the audience is ingenious, and Henson does a wonderful job in guiding us through this cultural awakening that allows us to witness this rite of passage between the Skeksis. I find it fascinating that Henson and crew went into such detail to flesh out their story and bring this whole fictitious world to life. Needless to say that this isn’t the only example on how the filmmakers managed to inject a sense of validity to their work, and we see this time and time again as the rest of the world and its inhabitants are opened up to us.
Aside from the imaginative creatures of the film, the world of The Dark Crystal is equally as animated as its inhabitants. From the sprawling vistas that reach for miles around to the intimate nooks and crannies of the thick forests of this planet, we come to find that this ecosystem is a thriving metropolis of vegetation and unimaginable living things. The landscapes are truly breathtaking in their presentation and Henson and company do a magnificent job in bringing this all to stark life using some of the most practical of effects to achieve their wonderful vision. From mountain formations, to deep valleys, this film world has a great breadth of visual panache and it’s all executed to perfection. Not only that, but the miniature work on this movie is astoundingly good and extremely detailed. One in particular is the depiction of the Skeksis’ fortress, replicated with that twisted and contorted mindset that perfectly captures the personalities of those loathsome creatures that dwell within.
Another splendid aspect of the production is the inclusion of some of the most wonderfully reconstructed sets that I’ve seen this side of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Take Aughra’s observatory for instance. The scale and scope of her home is mind-boggling, and the planetary mechanism that dominates the center of her abode is impressive to say the least. Out of all the architectural structures in this film, I’ve always been rather fond of Aughra’s place, and the level of care that went into constructing that intricate set can be felt with extreme effectiveness while viewing the film. All in all, the entire production seems to be a labor of love for all that was involved with the creation of this magical film. Henson and his team of visionaries took a chance on a movie that probably seemed unfilmable to anyone outside their circle. I’m glad they took the gamble, because their hard work paid off in full. Thanks to them we have this wonderful fantasy tale to revisit again and again, hopefully sparking the imaginations of coming generations as they begin crafting their own fictional works of art. 

The Dark Crystal is one of the most imaginative and potent pieces of work to ever come out of the fantasy genre, marking a milestone for cinema as a whole and delivering a film that will be cherished by those who dare to dream along with its creators. With a heavy emphasis on world creating and a loving touch when designing the countless iterations of creatures and inhabitants, the film is a shining example on how to make a living-breathing cinematic experience that never feels artificial and always aims to absorb the viewer into its proceedings. From Gelflings, to Mystics, to Podlings, to Skeksis, the movie encapsulates us in its history and never forgets to pay the satisfactory respect to its individual races and creatures.
On top of the excellent creature work, the filmmakers provide an awe-inspiring backdrop for all of these creations to thrive upon. The lush surroundings of this world are displayed in sensory driven excellence as they visually pop from the screen in inviting presentation and vivid detail. Most likely your jaw will drop from some of the mesmerizing landscape shots that depict this fictional world in all of its glory. The scale of this production is epic, yet the way the filmmakers tackle the material provides for an intimate portrayal of good and its trials and tribulations on conquering evil. This fantasy tale is bathed in a production aesthetic that is anything but routine, and for this hard work ethic and strict attention to detail, I have to give a salute to Henson and his crew for making such a wonderful world for our imaginations to run wild in.
With the heart and soul that they put into this film, you’d be hard pressed not to be swept up in its magic and splendor. If you’ve never seen this movie before, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. There has been nothing as potent and eye-opening as this film within the genre and the practical way in which the filmmakers approached the material gives the production a sense of validity and authenticity that is really hard to come by in this medium. Gone are the days of practical cinema, but those special moments still live on through the hard work of all that dedicated their lives to bringing something special to the screen. The Dark Crystal is one of those films and if you love fantasy films as much as me, then you should get a real kick out of this one. This movie is simply put a…..

These Mystics love to sing.

Jen put some clothes on you little pervert!

Waiter there's a crystal shard in my soup.

This is what nightmares are made of.

These Mystics also like to huddle.

What are you looking at weirdo?

Look me in my good eye motherfucker!

Aughra really knows how to crash a party.

Get down little freaky bro!

Oh shit! There goes the neighborhood.

Awwww! What a cute little fuzzy creature.

Awwww! Looks like someone likes to cuddle.

Jen! This is no time to cop a feel!

Probably the creepiest creations of the film. They give me the willies.

Damn is that beautiful!

Now that's one hell of a barbershop quartet!

Do it Jen you beautiful little bastard! Do it!

Well things just got a whole hell of a lot weirder.

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