Two Cents Bows Before the Original THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982)

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

There’s nothing quite like The Dark Crystal.

Even now that there is a big epic continuation of the film’s world on Netflix, Age of Resistance, there’s still nothing quite like The Dark Crystal.

The film was borne out of puppet-lord Jim Henson’s desire to do more with his artform than just make children laugh at Muppet hijinks. Henson believed that fear was as important to developing minds as laughter, and so with fantasy illustrator Brian Froud, screenwriter David Odell, and longtime collaborator and eventual co-director Frank Oz, Henson began crafting a sober, at times nightmarish adventure film that owes more to the original Brothers Grimm stories than it does to the squeaky clean versions we usually share with children.

Set in the dying world of Thra, The Dark Crystal is the story of Jen, (voiced by Stephen Garlick) the last of a race of people known as the “Gelflings”. Jen’s cool just hanging out naked by a river playing his flute, but one day his dying master calls him up to undergo one of those fantasy quests they got in movies like this. It seems that a thousand years ago, a piece of the planet-powering dark crystal was shattered and lost, and with its disappearance came the evil, powerful race of Skeksis, and Thra’s slow descent into death and tyranny. Jen must now fulfill an ancient prophecy and reunite the broken shard with the rest of the crystal, and restore balance to his world.

On his journey, Jen encounters bizarre races ranging from the gentle Podlings to the bug-like Garthim, and people including the one-eyed witch Aughra (voiced by Billie “FASCIST!” “Hag.” Whitelaw) to fellow lost Gelfling Kira (Lisa Maxwell) and her pet Fizzgig (a furball with multiple rows of teeth).

The Dark Crystal was a minor financial success when it was released, but it baffled Muppet-loving audiences with its dour tone, oppressive visuals, and focus on spiritual concerns rather than narrative ones. Perhaps it was because audiences were so wary after this film that Labyrinth bombed to the degree that it did.

If mainstream audiences weren’t fully ready for The Dark Crystal when it came out, the selected audience for whom the film did speak have made their voices heard. The Dark Crystal (along with Labyrinth) remains a massive cult favorite, so much so that Netflix bet big this year on a massive, 8-part prequel series with a star-studded cast bringing new life to the world of Thra.

But before the movie stars and dense mythologies, there was a strange, talented man who greatly enjoyed puppets, and his dream of a world of magic and monsters. So join us as we return once more to The Dark Crystal

Next Week’s Pick:

Starting with Rocky Balboa (which was just barely edged out as our next pick) in 2006 and closely followed by 2008’s Rambo and more recently the Creed films, Sylvester Stallone has been returning to the seemingly dormant franchises of his “big 2” most iconic characters. And every time, what seemed like a risky grab for diminishing returns has not only been well-received, but among the best films of each respective franchise. The climactically titled Last Blood is the latest in this tradition, and in its honor we’re checking out the inspired but lesser known coming-of-age comedy Son Of Rambow starring a very young Will Poulter (Maze Runner, Midsommar), which follows the tale of two dissimilar boys who bond over making a DIY Rambo style movie together.

The film is available streaming on Tubi — we know a lot of you may not be familiar with that platform but it’s free, has tons of incredible content and apps for virtually every major device, and doesn’t even require an account. So please join us for Son of Rambow! 

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests

Sharon Shaw:

I have loved The Dark Crystal since I was little, and it sits in the category of Formative Fantasy of My Childhood. The appeal of the film, for me, is not so much in the plot or the character interaction (Willow, Return of the Jedi and Labyrinth are much better in that regard), but in the themes and philosophy.

The Dark Crystal feels to me like a more epic, serious version of Fraggle Rock, but they both instilled in me a love of stories about the interactions between various types of people who have to live in a given world, without really applying any judgement about who should or shouldn’t be there. They are both cautionary tales about the dangers of being the powerful — whether in stature, knowledge or access to resources — if you don’t consider how your actions impact on those around you. If you view them as no more than resources.

Already a huge fan of the Crone archetype, I was positively inspired by the cackling neutrality and ironic observational nature of Aughra. I have a Funko Pop of her in my bedroom which reminds me that since I was a little girl, what I really wanted to be when I grew up was an old woman who sees, and knows, far more than people give her credit for.

The innocence and naivety of the Gelfling, their beauty and creativity and the fact that this doesn’t save them was heartbreaking to me, but I loved the way Jen and Kira are so determined to keep trying — it taught me that it was possible to live in a threatening world and still be good, no matter what. And this was backed up by my admiration for the frankly Hobbit-like resourcefulness and non-malevolence of the Podlings, their ability to live with the earth and do their own thing, and how unfair it was that they were used so cruelly.

And at the end, the blending of the urRu (Mystics) and the Skeksis blew my tiny mind. The implications, as I frantically reverse-engineered this to the original division of the urSkeks (although I had no access to the wider mythology at this point), allowed me to start categorising the qualities of humans; how we carried elements of a peaceful but passive urRu and an aggressive but active Skeksis. How both were necessary in order to live in the world, and how we had to try and find the right balance in order to progress in a way that allowed all the people — no matter their size, no matter their nature — to live their true potential.

And for the record, yes, I am one of those people who loved the Synthesis ending of Mass Effect. You can blame Jim Henson for that. (@Cai_Boxer)

Sharon is the co-host of the excellent School of Movies podcast, and the owner of just the one (1) Funko Pop.

Husain Sumra:

For the life of me, I can’t remember ever watching The Dark Crystal or what it’s about. I do remember an overwhelming sense of, “How’d they do that?”

That’s a feeling that carries over to now. I still find myself wondering how they pulled some of this movie off, but that’s just about all that interests me here. The world building is pretty good, but it’s so hard to care about any of it.

Jen is just not that interesting of a character, and he comes across as someone who just kind of wafts through the first half. He doesn’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing, he just does it and is kind of eh about it all. Kira is far more interesting, but she plays second fiddle. (@hsumra)

Austin Wilden:

To get this out of the way first, my biggest problem with The Dark Crystal is Jen. There’s not enough to him that elevates his characterization from the basic audience POV of the movie’s world he’s meant to provide. He’s the requisite Chosen One of the obligatory Prophecy and that’s about it. From what little skill he demonstrates over the course of the movie, it doesn’t feel like the Mystics that raised him took preparing him for the quest to restore the Crystal too seriously (or they were overly assured that the Prophecy being fulfilled was a bygone conclusion as long as there was a living Gelfling and they didn’t know Kira existed). Jen’s internal monologue compounds this issue, because we find out very little of how he reacts to his quest beyond restating the obvious.

Just about everything else in The Dark Crystal speaks to its nature as Jim Henson’s passion project. The direction of Frank Oz and Jim Henson with Oswald Morris’s cinematography tows the line perfectly between showing how much Henson’s company could do in camera with their puppetry and keeping the eye of the camera focused. Best shown in the Skeksis’ castle, the meetings of their court demonstrate the distinct behaviors among them, particularly in the sneering Chamberlain. The most impressive individual set is Aughra’s clockwork observatory, a feat of design and engineering I can’t recall many films even attempting to match.

While I’ve stated my major issue with The Dark Crystal, the technical quality of the production has earned its status as a cult classic and monument to Henson’s ambitions at their highest. I haven’t checked out Age of Resistance yet, but what I’ve heard about it so far and seeing the source of the legacy its building on has me prepared to dive in. (@WC_Wit)

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

I can’t really argue with anyone who says that The Dark Crystal is not a good movie. I loved it with every muppet-adoring fiber of my being, and even I can’t overlook things like Jen being a kinda nothing character (even as far as Chosen Once of Destiny fantasy stock goes) or the molasses-like pacing (that opening narration is. . .a lot). But as a visual experience/mood piece?

Friends and neighbors, that shit is unmatched. I’d give minor appendages to see the absolutely alienating version of this film with alien languages and full subtitles, but even with the absurdly broad strokes and awkward narrative, there’s so much of this film that’s burned into my brain (they put stuff like the death of the emperor in a kid’s movie, like that’s just ok to do!), and even if it weren’t for the astounding design by Brian Froud, the feat of production would still make this something worth seeking out.

As it is, I’m incredibly glad that Netflix’s (fantastic) prequel series will bring new viewers to this cult classic. The elements that cause some to bounce off of this only make me stick to it in fascination and fondness, and if nothing else, now’s a really good time to portray greedy parasitic wealth-hoarders as the ugly, cruel vultures they truly are. (@BLCAgnew)

Adrian Torres:

For the longest time The Dark Crystal was the great outlier, in a few careers. For Jim Henson, for Frank Oz, as well as a legion of talented puppeteers. At a point in the ‘80s where traditional animation studios were in a rut and the average filmgoer was used to more normal puppets, the project was rather audacious. In a way, it still is today. Even though it’s something of a mixed bag, from a story execution standpoint. That’s partially due the basic “hero’s journey” and a protagonist that’s a wet blanket, at best. Visually, it’s an absolute stunner. A marvel of craftsmanship and technical wizardry. There’s images here that sear themselves into your brain. Not to mention are made all the better by the fantastic new prequel on Netflix. Regardless of the end result, one thing remains timeless: those damn Skeksis are pure nightmare fuel. (@YoAdrianTorres)

The Team

Ed Travis:

There’s a purity to The Dark Crystal that I absolutely adore. The quest set out upon by Jim Henson and crew is a noble one: a richly detailed high fantasy tale depicted entirely through puppetry. It seems the crew understood some of the limitations of their puppets fundamentally when writing the story, such that this high fantasy never really veers anywhere close to an action film. Our villains the Skesis are frightening and cruel, towering over our heroes the Gelflings. But nevertheless they’re plodding and awkward… as puppets tend to be. The villainy and control they exert has more to do with necromancy and preoccupation with eternal life than a physical domination. And our beloved Gelflings (the last ones on the planet Thra, presumably) Jen and Kira, make Hobbits look like registered lethal weapons. This all adds to the charm for me, though it is a limitation as well. What’s clear is that the worldbuilding of the script (David Odell and Jim Henson) is marvelous, and the end result is something unlike anyone had really ever seen before or since until prequel series Age Of Resistance dropped.

I found my revisit of the film (something I’d grown up with but hadn’t seen since the 1980s) to be highly satisfying, but also completely inextricable from the experience of viewing the Age Of Resistance prequel series on Netflix before said revisit. The entire experience made me feel privileged to be the recipient of such dedicated and pure work that the Jim Henson workshop put forth for us. While Age Of Resistance probably could have been trimmed down in length, it’s absolutely a fantastic extension of the world built in the original film. Despite the gargantuan task it was to recreate this world for a series, it almost feels like it was inevitable, or that the rich mythology it presents was simply always there waiting to be told to us to deepen and enrich the original film.(@Ed_Travis)

Brendan Foley

There may be no movie I have tried to love as much as The Dark Crystal. Every few years I sit down with it again, hoping that this will be the time when Henson and Oz’s world comes to life before me, where the film’s spiritual conceits and technical prowess, both of which I adore, are enough to overcome my other hesitations.

Alas, it never quite takes.

As with all the other times, I last about a half hour and then the boredom starts to set in, the otherworldly brilliance of the puppetry and designs swallowed by just how drab and unengaging the rest of it is. Jen and Kira are boring, vanilla protagonists even by the standards of epic fantasy, which dabbles frequently in boring, vanilla protagonists, and because of the limitations of puppet motion, you spend a lot of the film’s short runtime watching them do very little. As bold and admirable a choice it was to do an epic fantasy movie with no humans on screen, the result is shockingly cold and alien for a Henson production. This dude made googly eyes attached to his mother’s fur coat one of the most indelible characters in all of entertainment, yet here he trips face-first into the Uncanny Valley and just wallows down there.

Even the more colorful supporting characters like Aughra and the various Skeksis are pitched at such levels of loud weirdness that there’s very little to hold onto there are well. The Dark Crystal ends up working best as a series of screengrabs, gorgeous and emotive art that I can study and admire but never wholly love.(@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw

With a dense mythology, adventurous but perilous tone, and amazingly realized visuals, set design, and puppetry, The Dark Crystal is quite unlike anything before or since — truly a singular achievement of imagination.

My comrades rightfully criticize the bland protagonists, but I think that, a bit like the earlier Disney princesses who lacked any depth whatsoever, these characters are designed mainly as a conduit for viewers (especially the younger set) to try to place themselves in the story. I offered the movie to my kids, who declined, put off by its grotesquery, but when I pressed Play that reluctance immediately evaporated and they were as transfixed as with their favorites like Frozen or Moana.

The most telling thing I can say about The Dark Crystal is that I’d seen it only once, about a quarter-century ago, but remembered a lot of it quite vividly. It represents, along with Labyrinth, the height of what Henson & crew could achieve with a darker and more realistically rendered style of puppetry and filmmaking. Tragically, Henson passed away in 1990 (shortly after the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which while not his own personal creation, represents the final realization of this more dark and realistic film crafting) so we never got to see the continuation of this throughline beyond those two or three films, each now a treasured and beloved classic. But I like to ponder the future that may have been, and Netflix’s new Age of Resistance series presents a peek at that world of possibility. @VforVashaw)

Next week’s pick:

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