The Dark Crystal
As the last of his race, the orphan Jen must take a broken crystal shard back to the Dark Crystal before the evil creatures known as the Skelksis can stop him.
1 hour 33 minutes
December 17, 1982
Director: Jim Henson & Frank Oz
Writers: Jim Henson, David Odell
Starring: Jim Henson, Kathryn Mullen, Frank Oz
As a movie from the 80s made with puppets, The Dark Crystal will evoke memories of The Labyrinth and The Neverending Story. It’s an ambitious film with a richly imagined world and some good minds at the helm, but epic fantasy seems unlikely to translate well into puppet form.
Violence/Scary Images: Giant crab-like creatures attack the characters on several occasions. There’s a relatively gruesome sequence where an unnamed character has their “living essence” drained, which leaves their body a mindless slave (Editor’s Note: As a young kid this was very disturbing to me). A race of evil bird-like creatures fight among themselves several times. Blood is shown on a character’s hand.
Language/Crude Humor: None.
Drug/Alcohol Use: One character drinks the “living essence” of another, and it temporarily makes him appear younger.
Spiritual Content: The film’s two dominant races each have sets of rituals that seem somewhat religious, though nothing is made clear. One race acts very similarly to a cult, while the other is reminiscent of monks in a monastery.
Sexual Content: The main character, Jen, is naked in the first scene he appears in, though given that all the characters are puppets, nothing explicit is shown.
Other Negative Content: Jen often flees from danger rather than try to help those around him and never really faces any consequences for it.
Positive Content: There is a somewhat deeply-buried theme about the dangers of arrogance and corruption, though it doesn’t come through all that well.
Not much happens.
…Wait, what’s that, Esteemed Editor? I need to add more words? 600 of them?!
There were several things about this movie that left me with a sour taste in my mouth, so before I shift into movie-bashing mode, I do want to highlight how incredible the puppetry and visual effects are in The Dark Crystal. The level of effort and attention to detail that is present throughout all of the costumes, sets, and character designs are surreal. Rather than concentrating on merely stringing its viewers through a narrative, the movie is meant to immerse its viewers in another world. If nothing else, it’s at least worth watching for the smorgasbord of visual originality it offers. As the creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson is no stranger to working with puppets, and he showcases his skill here.
The plot itself is incredibly basic: the main character, Jen, must take a broken crystal shard and reunite it with the Dark Crystal. Meanwhile, the creatures who control the Crystal, an evil race known as the Skelksis, try to stop him. This is about as formulaic as a fantasy tale can get, so it’s very easy to follow what’s going on in the story.
The problem, however, is that while the story takes place in a supremely imaginative world, we don’t really get to see all that much of it, and we aren’t given very much context–if any–for the things we do see. Since the plot is quite narrow and the characters are…well…pretty dull, there’s very little opportunity for the story and its world to intersect. It feels as though the viewers are shown the surface of an incredibly rich and unique setting but are then barred from exploring or understanding it any deeper. With the characters’ relation to and knowledge about their world largely left unexplained, many of their reasons for doing things are ambiguous at best and completely nonsensical at worst, which makes it difficult to stay engaged for any length of time.
My biggest gripe, though, is that we’re never given any clear reasons as to why any of the things in the story are happening. We’re told that Jen needs to repair the Crystal, but there’s barely any mention of what the Crystal is, why it broke in the first place, or what will happen if Jen fails. The opening conversation between Jen and his mentor, who sends him on the quest, could be summed up like this:
Mentor: You must find the crystal shard and fulfill the plot, Jen. The prophecy said you will be the main character.
Jen: Can’t argue with that.
And so Jen sets out, with no real idea what he’s supposed to accomplish, hardly any real motivation, and a complete lack of any interesting character traits. For the rest of the movie, he remains equally bland, only ever doing what he’s told and essentially riding everyone else’s coattails. While there are a couple of major characters who are somewhat interesting, the film’s staunch refusal to show any actual character development reduces everyone to mere placeholders who are there only to make sure the story keeps moving. With no character depth and a weak, predictable plotline, The Dark Crystal sacrifices any and all narrative strength it might have had.
Not only was the overall plot predictable, but many of the individual sections were as well, simply because hardly anything happens in any given scene. Large portions of each shot aren’t even focused on the characters. The camera often pans away once a plot point has concluded, instead focusing on the surrounding world and background for a while before lazily drifting into the next scene.
Despite the fact that it aided the movie’s inability to get across any interesting information, I actually thought that this technique worked extremely well: as I mentioned above, the goal of the film is to immerse viewers in the story’s world and its atmosphere, and the constant slow pans and fade cuts really works to evoke the feeling of a hollow and dying world. But for all the movie’s visual and conceptual strengths, it fails to establish any meaningful stakes for its characters or their story, and the world it creates becomes less poignant as a result.
The Dark Crystal‘s universe has gotten some much more fleshed out worldbuilding through a series of comic books, which, from what I understand, are designed to fill in many of the holes and unanswered questions left by the movie. As a standalone film, however, it simply fails. Despite its visual appeal, The Dark Crystal demonstrates that if storytelling and worldbuilding aren’t constantly working together, both will suffer.
+ Beautiful designs
+ Strong atmosphere
- Bland Characters
- Predictable Plot
- Difficult to engage with the story world