The Dark Crystal: A Reluctant Review (Part 2)

Welcome back for Part 2 of my The Dark Crystal review. Last week, I discussed a few key points I had been pondering about the story, most of which were unfortunately negative. But today, let’s take a closer look at the film’s key strengths, of course being the visuals and soundtrack. This is a Jim Henson Company film after all.

I’ve heard many fans and reviewers call this film a ’20 million-dollar art project’ (the film actually cost 15 million, but who’s counting?) and I must agree with this, but only on a certain level. Something incredibly important to understand is that Thra was created before a plot was even considered, which unfortunately left the story lacking depth in the final product. But I’ve already discussed that, so let’s push it aside. When Jim first met with renowned faerie artist Brian Froud in 1977, his ambition was to use Brian’s illustrations as a basis for creating and advancing puppetry in a way that had never been done before. It was as much about creating a new way to imagine as it was embracing a new way of film-making.

For an in-depth recount of the history, I recommend Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones or the up-and-coming The Dark Crystal: Ultimate Visual History by Caseen Gains, currently available for pre-order.

The Technology:

In the years of pre-production, Faz Fazakas and the team that would become the newly established Creature Shop pushed the technology of the day to the limit. The Dark Crystal certainly wasn’t the first film to advance animatronics, but it did create new, highly effective techniques to bring complex creatures to life, most of which have been refined as time goes on. Unfortunately, there is no sound for this video and no date is given, but here is some incredible footage of several of the characters in their earlier stages. You can already see the development of new techniques in puppetry and it’s amazing to think of what these Creatures started as and what they ended up becoming.



Take a look at this photo, which I believe is a behind-the-scenes shot of SkekTek being driven towards his death by the trapped animals and Podlings in the Chamber of Life. It’s a great example of just how many performers were needed for any given scene, along with demonstrating how traditional and technological puppetry were mixed throughout the film. When you pull back the camera and see what’s happening underneath, it gives you a greater appreciation for the final result.

For a quick character study, I’ll use SkekTek. I could use Chamberlain, but SkekTek is less prominent, which will help to demonstrate my point. Going back and watching the film multiple times, I can’t help but notice more of SkekTek’s quirks and mannerisms. The other Skeksis are certainly interesting to watch as well, but after finding out about SkekTek’s mechanical leg on the official website, I was stunned to see him limping around the Castle. His leg is never mentioned in the film, but if you watch him closely, SkekTek is dragging one of his legs, which is accompanied by the sound of metallic scraping. The level of detail placed on these characters is ridiculous, but they did it anyway. From the costuming, to the metallic arm and tubes running around where his jugular should be, SkekTek is a character with untapped potential who could star in his own story.

(It’s not like I’m hoping for SkekTek to be the main antagonist in Age of Resistance or anything….right?)

creatureshop_darkcrystal_02_139351618602 mak_tl_ver_event_14@2x

Allow me to touch on the conclusion I made at the end of my Age of Resistance article; in the end, it all comes back to the people who put this together. Creatures like the Landstriders wouldn’t have been created without the performers, Creature Shop builders and Brian Froud coming together to collaborate. What we are left with in the end are out-of-this world creatures who look and feel believable, some of which you wish were in fact real.

Because, come on, as if you wouldn’t want to attend a Podling party!

Thra as a Living World

Why talk about the world-building when it is much more effective to show you? Just to throw another video your way, watch this short clip of the camera panning through what I think is meant to be Sog, based on what is described in Shadows of the Dark Crystal. 

There is a distinct sense of everything in Thra being alive in this scene. What looks solid may be squeezable and what seems still will jump and move at the first sight of danger. This plays to a recurring theme in Henson productions, where the universe and everything in it plays an integral role. If one element were to disappear, even the most seemingly insignificant aspect, there could be dire consequences. Fraggle Rock, which came almost directly after this film, broke this idea down and silently explained it to the point where even the most stupid of us could understand it. My hope with Age of Resistance coming up is that they incorporate the idea into Thra in a more obvious way.

Dark Crystal BR3

If you were to show this screenshot to someone who has never seen The Dark Crystal before and ask them how the background was created, how do you think they would answer? Give them no context, don’t tell them when the film is made or that all the characters are puppets. There’s a good chance they’ll say CGI, not matte paintings forced into perspective on camera. The backdrops are gorgeous throughout the film, creating a similar environment that was achieved by filming the Narnia films in New Zealand, yet completely different.

The Soundtrack:

Is haunting, brooding and truly otherworldly. I’m by no means a music buff, but even I can detect genius as it reaches my ears. Trevor Jones has tragically been left in the dust as far as fair recognition is concerned. From the very first tremble of the Overture, the music clutches onto your hand with a sharp-nailed grip and leads you into Thra whether you want to or not. Much like a Skeksis holding onto a reluctant Gelfling.

Take a listen for yourself :

A decent soundtrack is capable of complimenting the visuals, but in The Dark Crystal’s case, Trevor Jones’ masterpiece enhances it. Not that the visuals need much peppering-up, but the music seems to fill the occasional lack of emotional stimulus. Only the sometimes-weak dialogue seems to clash, taking away what the music is trying to accomplish. For instance, Jen’s moment of self-reassurance before he leaves the safety of the valley. This isn’t a huge issue, just something I can’t help but nit-pick every time I watch it.

So, what do we all take from this? The Dark Crystal is stuck between two categories and doesn’t have the pull necessary to comfortably place itself into either. It can’t settle down into the ‘under-appreciated brilliant films with a compelling story’ category, because the story itself is weak, but it doesn’t fall into the ‘films that are so bad, they’re good’ section due to the final product being so incredible. I’m willing to give the film its own little niche, the ‘Yeah, the story is terrible, but look what they accomplished!’ section.

Despite all my nit-picking and whining, this is still in my Top 5 films of all time, a place I can’t see it being bumped out of anytime soon.

4 1/2 Crystal of Truths out of 5

Film Reviews Henson Articles

Marni Hill View All →

Muppet Enthusiast, Film Lover, Book Adorer. No one original, but (hopefully) providing brand new perspectives for the world to process. Currently a Bachelor of Arts undergraduate at Deakin University.

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Your take on this film is interesting. I’ve only seen Dark Crystal once – it scared the crap out of me the first time I saw it, and I haven’t watched it since – but I may have to go back and re-watch it again. My appreciation of it is primarily due to the behind-the-scenes artistry and creativity, so we are definitely kindred spirits in that respect! Your comment about weak dialogue taking away from the musical score brought up something that I read a while back, possibly in Jim Henson’s biography (which I’m sure means you’ve read it as well): initially, the movie did not have any dialogue in English, only the made-up languages of each species. It tested so poorly with initial audiences that they had to go back and re-dub English dialogue so that people knew what the heck was going on in the film. Which brings up two additional thoughts: 1) I imagine the musical score enhanced the film primarily b/c it HAD to, given the initial lack of English, and 2) File this under “What Might Have Been”, but I wonder how much stronger the storyline would be if they had started with a script that had solid dialogue. Can you imagine the guy that had to go back and write intelligible sentences that fit not only the storyline and tone, but also the already-filmed mouth movements of the characters? Craziness…


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