Director: im Henson, Frank Oz
Cast: Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell
Watch The Dark Crystal online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal was a hard sell on its initial release in the early 1980s. Affection for Henson, awe at its all-puppet cast and spectacular world-building and the rising tide of nostalgia have since sealed its status as a bonafide cult movie. But is it actually any good?
In truth, The Dark Crystal is a genuinely transportative experience, if arguably in spite of itself.
There’s a story from the early years of cinema that, while likely a complete fabrication, tells us an important truth about the movies. According to legend, the first audience to see the Lumiere Bros’ film of a train arriving at La Ciotat station jumped from their chairs and ran. They were terrified that the approaching locomotive was somehow going to transcend the screen and plough into them.
Moving pictures are an especially powerful storytelling medium in no small part because they create believable worlds. When a movie is really working, it’s not even that the screen becomes an opening onto a new reality, it’s that everything outside of the movie just goes away.
The Dark Crystal draws us deeply into the wonderful world of Thra, a whole new universe with its own intricate ecology, history, politics and aesthetics – though, crucially, entirely familiar and relatable morality and psychology, which means we can invest in the characters and feel the ‘lessons’ of the story.
This new reality is an all-but tangible creation, elaborately realised through the technical mastery of vast matte paintings and brilliantly appointed soundstages. It’s a world that’s rich enough to reward multiple rewatches with its depths of detail.
Unfortunately, Thra is also the stage for a lot of wavering, rough-edged storytelling.
The set-up is simple and familiar: a meek member of a humble species undertakes a quest to fulfil a prophecy, carry a magical artefact across an epic landscape and restore mystical balance to the order of things. It’s not a Hobbit this time but a Gelfling, although the similarities are obvious. We’ve seen quest journeys like this a hundred times before, sometimes delivered with powerful efficiency and clarity. Just think of The Wizard of Oz. If only The Dark Crystal had managed the same directness and lucidity amid its impressively layered sophistication.
Jim Henson, his co-director Frank Oz and co-writer David Odell definitely cared passionately about the characters of The Dark Crystal and the messages woven into their mythmaking. It isn’t for lack of sincerity and ambition that their story sometimes loses momentum. The problems are largely only structural. There’s a sequence that rushes, then another that drags a little, or a set of stakes that are pushed too hard followed by another that doesn’t read quite clearly enough.
And yet because of the charismatic creatures on screen, the extremely adept, nuanced performances that drive their motions, the immersive design and lighting, the purity, imaginativeness and honesty of the fable that Henson wanted to tell his audience, and because you almost feel like you’ve been to Thra and that it’s a living, breathing place, The Dark Crystal is an essential film.
In many ways, the movie is the perfect candidate for a Netflix spin-off series (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance premieres on 30th August). It makes absolute sense to expand the same world, hem close to the original designs and build on the craftsmanship, but bring us fresh story and new storytelling.
There’s always a good time to be had from stepping back into Thra through the original film. The prospect of taking an all-new route in, and being guided by a story that might this time live up to the sheer magic of the landscape and characters, is absolutely thrilling.
The Dark Crystal is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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