Jim Henson is one of the great creative visionaries of the past century. From the long-standing, highly praised educational program Sesame Street, to the wonderful Labyrinth starring the late David Bowie, to the charming cast of The Muppets, who blur the line between fictitious character and real-world celebrity, Jim Henson’s career is truly underappreciated. Though among his body of work, few of his projects are as unique as his 1982 fantasy film, The Dark Crystal, which Jim Henson himself has called the hardest project he ever worked on. Despite being among the least well-known of the Jim Henson properties, the world of The Dark Crystal has inspired a huge cult following, spawning spin-off novels, comic books, and soon a Netflix prequel series. With this much buzz around the film, and a 35th anniversary screening coming to the O Cinema theater in Wynwood later this month, it’s difficult not to be intrigued by an 80s family film deemed ‘too scary for kids’.
The Dark Crystal takes place on an alien world, where the Skeksis, a race of vulture-like reptilian sorcerers, abuse the power of the damaged Dark Crystal to prolong their lives. When a member of the Mystics tells Jen (Stephen Garlick), the last of the elf-like Gelflings, to restore the shattered Dark Crystal, it signals a quest to defeat the Skeksis and prevent the (potential) end of their world. From the start of this film, the most unique aspect is without a doubt the character and set design. Every fictitious race, from the Mystics to the Skeksis and everything in between, is given a great, memorable design, and the sets they inhabit justly fit in with the film’s dark fantasy theme. The puppets created for this project are oozing with detail, and it’s impressive what Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and the other puppeteers were able to get the characters to do without the assistance of CGI. And since there’s not a single human character in the film, the fact the cast and crew could bring these puppets to life in such a big way is a true testament to the power of practical effects. Between the characters, sets, and fantastic score, it’s hard not to get sucked into this strange world.
However, every film has its faults, and The Dark Crystal suffers from two major problems regarding its story. Our main character, Jen, is easily the least interesting of the characters in the film. If you were asked to picture a standard hero archetype, you would likely picture something similar to Jen. In fact, I would argue that Kira (Lisa Maxwell), the only other living Gelfling, is more of a compelling main hero than Jen, and she’s not introduced until later on in the film. The other major problem the story suffers from is the ‘chosen one prophecy’ trope. Maybe this is because this movie is made for kids, or maybe it’s a victim of an overlooked story weakness, but so much of this world is left unexplained, chalking up much of the interesting aspects of the film’s setting to this boring prophecy, or the totally legitimate excuse, ‘because magic’. Sure, it may seem silly to criticize a 35 year old children’s movie as having these aspects that I, an adult, find clichéd, but these are problems that transcend this particular film, and are present throughout all fictitious storytelling.
Despite these criticisms of the main story, The Dark Crystal is worth watching for its unique style, creative world, and impressive puppeteering alone. When asked what makes the film worth revisiting, Marc Ferman of The Film Junkies at the O Cinema in Wynwood, Marc responded, “The Dark Crystal is a wondrous spectacle that needs to be taken in on the big screen. Fantastic creature creations and set design are mixed with a wonderful score by Gary Kurtz and the London Symphony Orchestra,” and I couldn’t agree more. The world constructed by the cast and crew is beyond interesting, and the film left me hungry for more of this magic little world.
The Dark Crystal’s 35th anniversary screening will be on October 26th at 9pm sharp at the O Cinema theater in Wynwood. Tickets are available here.
George Ibarra is a Junior at Florida International University, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English, along with a Certificate in Exile Studies.