Hello, everyone! One of my mother’s favorite films is The Dark Crystal, a nightmare devised to frighten small children by forcing them to watch a dystopian world filled with human-sized puppets. I can’t speak for the people who first watched this movie as an adult, but I can speak for the children, a.k.a me, who were introduced to this movie at a tender age and have never gotten over that one group of puppets who like skeletal bird crocodiles, and that other puppet who can take her eye out! The Dark Crystal has haunted my dreams for decades, so I decided to finally confront my fears and watch this movie again to see if it still scares me as a 23-year-old adult woman. The answer: yes, yes it does.
Synopsis: Long ago, the Dark Crystal was shattered, and the evil Skeksis took over the land of Thra, transforming it from a verdant paradise into a barren hellscape. After a prophecy predicted that a Gelfling, a gentle elf-like creature, would one day heal the Crystal, the Skeksis wiped out the Gelflings. Only Jen, who escaped to live with the wise Mystics, was saved. Now the three suns of Thra are aligning in The Great Conjunction, and Jen is sent out on a quest to find the missing shard and heal the Dark Crystal. Along the way he meets Kira, another Gelfling, whose adventurous spirit and combat skills are instrumental in helping Jen complete his quest.
My thoughts: The Dark Crystal is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Henson, genius puppet master behind The Muppets, and Frank Oz, the voice behind Miss Piggy and Yoda, joined forces to co-direct a movie that combines intricate puppets and gorgeous set design with a depressing plot full of miserable creatures. In a Disney-fied world where everything is pretty and shiny, maybe a movie full of ugliness is a special thing, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed watching it as a three-year-old and I didn’t enjoy watching it now.
Frank Oz reportedly said that when it came to creating The Dark Crystal, “Henson’s intention was to ‘get back to the darkness of the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales“, as he believed that it was unhealthy for children to never be afraid.’ ” So the man’s express goal was to scare children, and he did a fantastic job at it. First off, the Skeksis are some of the most revolting fantasy villains that I’ve ever seen in a movie, especially in a children’s movie. Their design, while ingenius in construction, is revolting to look at: skeletal bird faces, stringy flesh, a bony spine that sticks out like spikes from their clothing. They eat cute fuzzy animals while they’re still alive, extract the living essence from helpless creatures like the Podlings and the Gelflings (more on that later) so that they can drink it for immortality, and send out the horrifying lobster/pillbug/cockroach Garthim to raid villages and commit genocide against those they deem threatening. They are on par with fantasy monsters like orcs when it comes to destruction, and on par with Nazis when it comes to the indiscriminate killings of an unwanted people.
One of this movie’s main weaknesses is that the script is vague on important details, and the nature of puppetry means that emotionally weighted statements are delivered in a stilted manner. For example, there is a scene when Jen and Kira meet for the first time and start “dream fasting,” meaning that they can see each-other’s memories. During this dream fasting, both characters learn that their parents were killed in a genocidal campaign to rid the world of Gelflings, and their reaction is completely underwhelming. Jen says “I was sad,” and Kira says, “I was also sad,” and that’s basically it. This huge important fact, namely that all the Gelflings were killed in a genocide, is never really brought up again. This presents a problem for the narrative because the stakes that these characters face never seem to be a real deterrent to their quest. The script drops bits and pieces of information to the viewer, such as the fact that the Gelflings were all murdered, and the fact that the Skeksis are notorious for oppressing the other creatures of Thra by spying on them, enslaving them, sucking out their life essence, or killing them, but Jen and Kira continue on their adventure as if it’s all fun and games. They act like they’re in a children’s movie, while the Skeksis are right out of a horror movie. It’s a bizarre clash of tones because the viewer is constantly switching between being scared of the Skeksis in one scene, and watching Jen and Kira gallivant about in another scene, with no real link between the two.
The movie’s characterization is equally weak, with Jen playing the role of “idiot chosen one,” and Kira having to literally drag him through the whole movie because he’s too stupid to make any decisions. Why couldn’t Kira be the chosen one? She does all the work. She can fly! She’s the Hermione to Jen’s Harry, and the only reward she gets is being stabbed by a Skeksi during the film’s “climax.” I put quotes around that word because Jen’s indecision drags out the climax to an interminable length where the viewer is screaming at Jen to just HEAL THE DAMN CRYSTAL ALREADY YOU BLITHERING IDIOT and he’s looking around in puppet-like confusion.
While the Skeksis are nightmarish, the rest of the characters aren’t exactly gentle on the eyes. The wise Mystics look like decaying alligators in cloaks, the prophet Augrah frequently pulls out her own eye to use as a horrifying periscope, and the Podlings look like lifeless cabbage patch dolls. The only remotely pleasant looking creatures are Jen, Kira, and Fizzgig the dog, but they are inherently creepy because they’re puppets. As a child, I was terrified by all of them equally, and as an adult, I was less terrified, but only because I grew accustomed to how they looked by the end of the movie. However, since the visual balance of the film is weighted so heavily towards the grotesque, I’m not inclined to watch it again after this viewing. Watching this movie feels like a punishment.
I got used to how most of the characters look in this movie, but the one aspect of this film I CANNOT get past is the part where the Skeksis strap the Podlings into a special device that drains them of their life essence and transforms them into vacant-eyed slaves. I have had that image burned into my brain for the past two decades and I will never understand how this part ended up in the movie. The Dark Crystal is already dark enough with the whole genocide thing, but the murder in this film is abstract, while the life-draining is depicted on screen. Yeah it’s just puppets, but to me that concept is viscerally horrifying.
The fact that this scene still disturbs me as a twenty-something is a testament to Henson’s skill as puppeteer. I can watch horror movies without flinching, but this supposed children’s movie chills me to the core. Maybe it’s the fact the world itself is so bleak, or that the Skeksis are so merciless, or that the dialogue is so wooden, but the movie left me feeling cold and removed. Unlike other fantasy worlds like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Lewis’ Narnia, there is no humanity in Thra, and Henson’s characters provide nothing warm nor living to latch onto. In creating a world revolving around the bizarre and the grotesque, Henson ultimately created a fantasy world that’s inaccessible to the viewer. As a film buff, I’m impressed by Henson’s creativity and artistry, but as a viewer, I never want to sit through this movie again. Overall, The Dark Crystal is a successful piece of experimental art, but an unsuccessful attempt at creating a watchable film.