On another planet in the distant past, a Gelfling embarks on a quest to find the missing shard of a magical crystal, and so restore order to his world.
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Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” is truly one-of-a-kind, so much so that even twenty-seven years later, there hasn’t been anything else like it. Featuring an all-puppet cast, it draws us into a complex world of cruelty and goodness, and shows us the struggle between those two forces.
The prologue tells of an ancient race which drew its power from a magic crystal, but whose squabbling caused that crystal to crack. As a result, this once peaceful species split into two different races: the corrupt Skeksis and the kindly Mystics. The rest of the story takes place a thousand years later, when both races have all but died out. In an effort to right the wrong, the wisest Mystic sends out his adopted son Jen, himself the supposed last survivor of the Gelfling species, on a quest to heal the crystal. On the way, Jen learns the history of the schism, the reasons behind the Gelfling genocide, and finds that he is not as alone as he once believed.
“The Dark Crystal” is a visual marvel, offering us a seemingly endless parade of imaginative creatures and landscapes. Interestingly, the character designs (provided by Brian Froud, who later worked on “Labyrinth”) veer more toward the ugly than the beautiful. Yet somehow, the grotesqueness of the cast makes for a more interesting viewing experience. Bizarre critters like the Podlings are still charming in their way, and the insect-like Garthim are as fascinating as they are frightening. Even the Skeksis, looking like vultures gone wrong, are somewhat sympathetic in their hideousness. It’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for such pathetic, decrepit characters. On the other end of the scale, the delicate Gelflings are the most humanlike of all the creatures, but they still have an otherworldly quality about them.
Trailing always at Kira’s heels is another fantasy staple: the fuzzy animal sidekick, here called Fizzgig. However, perhaps because he does not speak, he never becomes irritating. He is actually one of the only creatures that could be classified as “cute,” and his loyalty is quite endearing. Other standout characters are the Chamberlain, a power-hungry Skeksis with a wonderfully expressive sneer, and the manic wise-woman Aughra.
A glorious score by Trevor Jones emphasizes the mythic quality of the story, adding some real majesty to the adventure. Of course, the music has its quieter moments: an impromptu duet between the Gelflings makes for a simple, serene moment in the midst of all the danger.
Another interesting aspect of this film is its ending. While most fantasy films would send their villains to oblivion, “The Dark Crystal” does things differently, further avoiding the clichés of the genre. Jen’s goal is not the destruction of the Skeksis; rather, it is their redemption. The scene in which the Skeksis and Mystics reunite is one of the most poignant moments in the film, when we realize that the “villains” were as in need of saving as the rest of their world. Everything builds to a beautiful, almost dreamlike finale that promises hope without tying things up too neatly.
It’s a shame more films haven’t followed in the footsteps of this one. “The Dark Crystal” is ambitious in its use of puppets to tell an epic tale, but due to the commitment of the filmmakers, the risk pays off. Through the creativity of its design and the enthusiasm of its performers, “The Dark Crystal” is a fantasy like no other.