Reviews of The Dark Crystal (1982) and related work

The Dark Crystal (1982Moving picture, 93 minutes)

Ten evil creatures rule from a dark fortress, while ten great mystics survive in exile, rehearsing half-remembered rituals for the day when a prophecy will be fulfilled and the world will end and begin, a thousand years after it chipped.

A human-free fantasy adventure by Jim “The Muppets” Henson, Frank “Yoda” Oz and Brian “Brian Froud” Froud, shot in real time and mostly in camera, using puppets. The target audience is unclear: typical children’s-film elements are mixed with brilliantly executed scenes of soul extraction and other horrors.

The technical imperfections are mostly endearing. The moral dichotomy, always the greatest flaw of fairy tales from my jaded adult perspective, is quite effectively undermined because, in the natural state of the universe, good and evil are united. The romantic sub-plot (love the mind-meld sequence!) is similarly shaken by the wonderful “Of course not.” Cute scenes of “ecology” too.

References here: The Black Cauldron (1985), Totoro Was Not Made as a Nostalgia Piece” (1988), “Ostrich: A Life on the Run” (2015), “Swarm” (2022).

moving picture fiction

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (2019Moving picture, 10 hours)

Seen in 2019.

The invention of draining under the dying Emperor’s rule, proceeding up to the creation of the first Garthim.

Though the plot does not come right up to the beginning of the film, this production is relatively well motivated, as prequels go. Ten more hours of the film’s human-free world are welcome. It helps that it’s probably the biggest puppet production in history, and they pulled it off.

The traditional in-camera effects are skillfully boosted by modern animatronics and complemented by CGI, including post-production facial enhancements. The handiwork is amazing, though it does not peak quite as high as the original. In particular, the depiction of draining is a little more kid-friendly in this version. The use of puppetry is obviously a point of pride, and rightly so, though the Skeksis puppets look slightly simplified with less soft material like hair, perhaps for continuity. There are at least two reflective references to puppetry as a medium: The Heretic and the Wanderer illustrate the history of the world through a puppet show within the show (including hand puppet work by Barnaby Dixon), and the Hunter is eventually strung up like a puppet.

The faces are not very expressive, but I have no problem with this. As in the film, the plot is formulaic to the point that feelings can be inferred from its patterns. The acting is above average, and that certainly helps: There’s a heap of Game of Thrones (2011) alumni and Simon Pegg, Eddie Izzard, Alicia Vikander, Keegan-Michael Key and Mark Hamill, plus even a few good actors like Jason Isaacs, many of whom are puppeteers. The sheer level of baroque and distancing artistry in the presentation is a good substitute for immediate verisimilitude, as in the best ningyō jōruri.

The runtime offers many more such luxuries. Though the sets are understandably still few and small, and the number of characters on set is limited, the ecology is further developed, with more consistency. The armaligs, living wagon wheels, are particulary good as weird and dark fantasy creatures, whose mode of locomotion is consistent with a number of creatures in the film. The creatures are all good: A multi-species symbiotic hive mind, the Scientist’s bizarro kakapo with eyes on stalks, the magical locksnake, Morrowind-style improvements on the striders and all the lovely forest creatures, etc.

It’s appropriately silly. The moral dichotomy remains in place, for the most part, but there are a few cracks. The Heretic isn’t evil, the Arathim turn out to be morally grey despite being invasive mental puppeteers, and Aughra is good fun throughout. The massively expanded screentime of the Skeksis—the plural of which ought to have been skekses—does allow for a great deal of character and personality, but the show does not betray its childish roots or its slavery to genre with complications. Like Cowboy Bebop (1998), it sets the comic-relief character (Hup! Hup!) aside for the showdown’s puppet combat.

moving picture prequel fiction series

‣‣ The Crystal Calls — Making the Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (2019Moving picture, 82 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

moving picture document non-fiction