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It’s been years since I’ve seen The Dark Crystal. It’s also been weeks since I’ve last tackled one of our retro reviews. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I decided to rewatch this 1982 fantasy extravaganza. A fever dream featuring puppets should have been high on my list.
For clarity’s sake—and for those of you who haven’t seen this film yet—The Dark Crystal is a standalone movie directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. It follows a young creature named Jen as he faces off against the murderous Skeksis that controls his world through a magical crystal.
Jen is the last of his kind—the tiny, fairy-like gelflings. When his master dies and he’s called upon to fix this crystal, he feels wholly unprepared for the task.
This sort of plot is pretty standard when it comes to fantasy tropes, and it very much follow’s the archetypal narrative laid out in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. It’s always a pleasure to see it play out on film.
The big difference in this movie? The entire cast is made up of puppets. The movie is also incredibly dark—like, uncomfortably so for something that was made for children.
It should go without saying that the puppetry in this movie is amazing. Even now, years later, it still holds up. Jen’s narrative arc is also strong from start to finish, and I really got into it, even though I know how it ends by now.
I loved the creature design of the gelflings—the small, winged species to which Jen belongs. Fizzgig, the little cat-dog pet of another main character, made me cry tears of joy with its antics. The Skeksis are as revolting as I remember, and they made perfect villains for a children’s movie. I still find them unnerving as an adult.
Another lovely aspect of this film was the cohesive, imaginative, and in-depth worldbuiling that it displayed. You can tell that everything in this fantasy landscape was carefully laid out and planned.
From the mythology that infused it, to the individual customs of each in-world society, to the visual designs of the smallest creatures and plants—nothing was disregarded or left to chance. The world of The Dark Crystal felt lived in, and it didn’t feel like a Lord of the Rings clone either. This is harder to achieve than it might appear, and it’s the sort of creative worldbuilding that I crave on a regular basis.
It’s also something that’s getting harder to find these days, now that Hollywood has taken to doing remakes and franchise tie-ins.
While I appreciate how dark this film is, the movie was originally marketed as age-appropriate for children. This is questionable when the movie explicitly deals with human experimentation, slavery, and genocide.
All the characters in the film are puppets, of course, and these topics are definitely worthy of discussion with an adult audience. However, the genuinely terrible things that happen to these creatures might be difficult for children to process. This is especially true if the children watching it don’t have the words or mental fortitude to describe what injustice is on a systemic level. I know that as a child I found The Dark Crystal to be upsetting for this reason.
The primary concept artist for this film was Brian Froud, who also collaborated with Jim Henson on the 1986 cult classic Labyrinth. The Dark Crystal is also getting a sequel this year, which will air on Netflix sometime in 2019. I can’t wait.