Friday, April 29, 2011

review: The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal (1982, Frank Oz and Jim Henson)

One movie watching habit that has never truly spoken to me is re-visiting films that were parts of my childhood. There is a litany of movies that, as a youngling growing up in my parent’s home, I watched maybe once, twice, thrice and so forth, but in almost each case the last time I saw them was no later than at the age of 8 or 9. I remember loving most, but who knows what the reaction would be now that the author is a full-fledged adult. There are exceptions to that rule, one being the early 80s fantasy film The Dark Crystal, a historic collaboration between legendary puppeteer masters Frank Oz and Jim Henson. If memory serves me well, it was one of the children’s films I had only seen once, until recently of course. What exactly propelled me to re-visit the film a couple of months back I do not recall, but the watching experience was a memorable one, both for nostalgic reasons and others more substantial. 

In the opening minutes of the film viewers are provided a quick history of how where the story takes place and the circumstances under which characters are thrust into action. Our location is the planet Thra, which is similar to Earth in terms of flora and deserts, but quite different in terms of fauna.  One thousand years ago there was a Great Conjunction of the planet’s suns during which a race called the Urskeks, whose purpose was to insure the safety of a giant, power induced crystal known as the Crystal of Truth, broke off a piece of said crystal. The result was that the Urskeks were physically split into two races, the Mystics and the Skekis. The former, tortoise looking, were pacifists and sages, while the latter, a bunch of giant skinny vultures, were power hungry and ruled the land with an iron fist. Our story begins in full when Jen, believed to be the last of the Gelflings, a physically petite humanoid race, is asked by his adoptive Mystic parent to find the lost shard from the now so called Dark Crystal and unite the two before the next Conjuncture. Failure to do so will result in the Skekis gaining even more power than they already have. The adventure begins.

The first remark shared by those who review the picture or recall it from memory is that, for a movie whose target audiences were supposedly families, Frank Oz and Jim Henson concocted something decidedly darker in tone and story than what most recognize as a ‘family film.’ Watching it as an adult and having not seen it in literally close to 20 years allowed for a fresh perspective. The Dark Crystal’s plot liberally takes some pages out of the Lord of the Rings (the books obviously) and Star Wars rule book. The peace loving member of a timid and seemingly extinct race (a mishmash of Hobits and Jedi) must travel great distances with a small but very important object and cast it away in the only possible location: deep in the enemy’s lair (tons of Lord of the Rings). Along the way he encounters a host of quirky and strange characters, among them another Gelfling named Kira (who has a special power revealed late in the story. Jedi!) and Aughra, a solitary old creature who looks absolutely awful but who is wise and fights the good fights by sharing information and wisdom (Yoda. I mean come on, it’s a Frank Oz movie!). Before anybody asks this in the comments section, no, the film does not reveal that the leader of the Skekis is in fact Jen’s father. On a purely analytical level, the story is not the film’s strongest point, certainly not in terms of originality.

There is a blogger whom some of you may know from the joint marathons I do with him. It is Bill from Bill’s Movie Emporium. Our blogger bond actually started over at the Filmspotting message boards (once again readers, have you been there lately?) and I recall him defending the film Avatar tooth and nail. A lot of people lambasted that movie for its lack of originality and predictable story. Bill, while acknowledging those aspects, reminded (or tried to anyways) the message board members that originality is not always a necessity. If the hero’s journey is done well, than the movie can be great. That is, in essence, the argument I make in defence of The Dark Crystal.  There are so many pertinent and worthy little details in the visuals and in the character beats that, despite what on the surface feels like a total rip-off, the end product is bordering on greatness. 

The Dark Crystal  is memorable for far, far more reasons than its overall storyline. First and foremost are the two central Gelfling protagonists, Jen and his new friend Kira. It comes as little surprise that they are the most human-like creatures on the world of Thra, a decision most likely driven by the filmmakers need to create heroes that viewers could associate with easily enough (because a lot of what we see is really weird looking). They are well rounded characters however and possess an easy charm about them instead of being empty vessels. Both Jen and Kira are very easy to support and I found myself emotionally invested in their well being as the danger around them loomed larger and larger. The chemistry between the two characters is also quite remarkable, especially given that these are animatronic puppets, not flesh and blood actors. The other creatures envisioned by the filmmakers all have their identifiable traits, both character wise and in terms of pure visual design. Needless to say, the creature designs make up most of what lingered in my memory after all those years since my previous viewing experience as a child. The Skekis are tall, ancient, dried up and crusty-looking villains, as if their tireless thirst for power is what dried them up. The Garthim, oversized black crabs, serve as the Skekis attack animals and are really pretty terrifying. The lovable Podlings, who, if I understood correctly, were modelled after potatoes, provide a few welcomed moments of reprieve in the middle portion of the film following a series of harrowing escapes. The cleverness on display is impressive, with virtually all the creatures revealed on screen owing their design to objects and animals from our world, but with some very flamboyantly different takes that leave many of the film’s images etched in the viewer’s memory, just as was the case for me for all these years.

If the readers permit, I would like to return to one of the first points mentioned in the review, that is, that Oz’s and Henson’s film is often seen as a darker piece of children’s fiction that most. That much is true, although the source of said ‘darkness’ is not limited to creature design despite that element playing a strong role. In a stupendous move that will make me contradict myself, it is a series of storytelling elements that set it apart from most family friendly films. The very event that must be prevented by Jen and Kira (ultimate power obtained by the Skekis upon the upcoming Great Conjunction of the suns) has nearly apocalyptic in the fashion it is predicted. The physical damage and emotional trauma resulting from the Skekis rule is evident enough, as seen by the desert terrain in the region of the Skekis castle and the flashbacks during which the film reveals how Kira became an orphan. The is also the matter of The Skekis named Chamberlain, who, after losing face during an attempt at usurping power in the chain of command, masquerades as a willing ally for Jen and Kira. It is not difficult to imagine that the true motives behind his desire to help the Gelflings infiltrate Skekis territory are anything but altruistic. The addition of this trickster, double-time traitor, gives the kids watching the movie a little something to think about, especially since Jen and Kira are essentially stand-ins for human children: be careful of certain people because they will take advantage of you even if you are innocent.

Revisiting The Dark Crystal experience was something of a revelation, a true case of watching a movie ‘again for the first time.’ There are plenty of reasons to enjoy the film Frank Oz and Jim Henson gave the world despite whatever script shortcomings may hinder the story. It is most certainly a film I will have my children watch.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I totally agree about the darker tone of this film. I remember seeing it in the theater at six years old, and it was pretty scary. I actually haven't seen it since the mid '80s, and it's definitely on my list to check out again. Nice work.