Although my sisters and I were massive fans of Labyrinth when we were kids (I was later shocked to find out that David Bowie was some kind of rock star!) and can still sing every word to ever song, The Dark Crystal was never on our radar. But it recently popped up on Netflix (not randomly: they’re actually making a series), so Sean and I thought we’d better give it a go.
And honestly, my life would have been better off without it. I was almost instantly confused, and I was utterly unprepared to be confounded by the complexities of a muppet movie. I told Twitter about my problem, and of the 43 people up at 2am and willing to commiserate, plenty of them simply made fun of me for how high I was (though honestly: doesn’t it seem like the kind of movie IMPROVED by weed???), but lots of them declared that this was among their favourite movies. And I was like: what the heck???
First, a synopsis as told by a lady (me. I’m the lady.) who did not understand the movie for any five second stretch. Some dark crystal was damaged a long time ago and bad things have been happening ever since. For like 1000 years or something, so it’s weird they even remember the precipitating event at this point. Their little felt thumbs don’t look all that opposable but I guess they must be stellar record keepers. The Skeksis are so ugly you just know they’re the villains. They’ve been the evil overloads of their planet ever since. But our hero, Jen, has been raised by peaceful wizards. Jen is not like them though. He’s a Gelfling, the only one – or so he thought, until he meets a second, very pretty Gelfling named Kira, and she helps him on a quest to find the broken piece of the dark crystal, which would restore the universe’s balance.
Jim Henson clearly believed that being scared was a healthy emotion for kids to deal with. The Dark Crystal is a very dark fantasy, with little of Labyrinth’s signature levity. There’s a lot of peril encountered and a lot of responsibility on Jen’s shoulders, and let’s face it: there are lots of scary-looking creatures hatching evil plans. And there are also some drawn-out deaths, like depressing old age shit that most kids movies stay away from.
Conceptual designer Brian Froud dedicated 5 years of his life to the look and feel of this movie, and almost all of it, from the design of the creatures to the world they inhabit, stemmed from his mind. In fact, he ended up changing a major aspect of the film when he came back to Jim Henson with designs that left him perplexed. Henson had intended to call the film The Dark Chrysalis, but Froud misheard and had developed the The Dark Crystal instead, and Henson was so enamoured with those first concept designs that they just went with it.
This movie came out in 1982, the same weekend as E.T., in fact, and went on to be the highest grossing film of the year in both France and Japan. It obviously has its share of fans, and perhaps a bit of a cult following. And I do see the incredible world-building undertaken by Jim Henson and Frank Oz; the ingenuity evident in the different sets and the creativity poured into each creature’s development. I just find that the characters in Labyrinth are friendly entry points into their universe, while the laborious time spent with both the wizards and the villainous Skeksis felt more arduous and less compelling. The Dark Crystal is a fascinating tour of the creature workshop, but I didn’t feel invested in a single character, whereas Labyrinth still feels like a group of childhood friends.
Aside from the fact that I legitimately could not maintain a grasp on the story, The Dark Crystal just feels less colourful, less humourous, less memorable than its counterpart. I get that Henson wanted to just drop us into this strange land, and immerse us in it through showing rather than telling, but it made me feel alienated and cold. We hardly come to know the characters, except through what they’re doing. It just doesn’t speak to me or particularly engage me, but the one thing I’m impressed by is the lack of dumbing down for kids. Not a single fart joke in sight. Jim Henson really trusted his audience to make the leap along with him. Did you make the leap? Do you love the film? Help me understand why – leave comments down below.
The new Netflix series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, will be a prequel, focusing on a lost Gelfling civilization. It will look very familiar to fans of the original as Brian Froud is back, and he’s not a lone. A nifty detail: Brain met a puppet designer on the set of The Dark Crystal named Wendy. They married and had a son, Toby, who went on to play little baby brother Toby in Labyrinth. All three of them are credited in the series. It’s got a LOT of major voice talent: Alicia Vikander, Andy Samberg, Simon Pegg, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keegan-Michael Key, Mark Hamill, Taron Egerton, and a lot more besides. It’ll be available on Netflix August 30.