THE DARK CRYSTAL
The Dark Crystal is the ultimate extension of Muppetry. It is light years from the clumsy wooden marionettes of Gerry Anderson or even of the glove-puppet Kermit the Frog and the technical artistry of showing Kermit ride a bicycle that we saw in The Muppet Movie; it is the creation of a complete, three-dimensional artificial world in incredible, breathtaking detail all sans humans. It was Henson and company not just creating puppets and marionettes but full body suits that are manipulated by multiple puppeteers or radio control, even puppets that were played by performers on stilts (the Landstriders), and a complete world that they live in right down to the flora that inhabits it.
The Dark Crystal is one of the few films that comes anywhere near attaining the complexity of high fantasy as represented by J.R.R. Tolkien, David Eddings, Stephen Donaldson et al in a single film. You can draw an analogy between Henson and Tolkien Tolkien spent years creating a world and detailing its mythological and pseudo-historical backdrop. By the same token, Henson, drawing on illustrations from fantasy artist Brian Froud, creates a dazzling world filled with exotic and original creatures. One scene panning along a riverbank as the flora and fauna come to wriggling, squawking life is amazing. The depth of adult emotions that Henson and co invest the creatures with is remarkable the blank faces of the Gelflings are inexpressive but the violence of Kiras death or the fear shown on the face of the Podlings as they are drained is startling. This is a film that is not afraid to venture into dark places and many people have spoken of how the scenes with the Skeksis and the torture of the Gelflings were nightmare images from their childhoods.
David Odells modest if elementary script trades in many stock tropes of the fantasy genre as informed by Tolkien the hobbit-like little creatures setting forth on a quest into the big outside world; the fantasy McGuffin of the artefact that is sought by all and holds the balance between the supremacy of good or evil in the land; the destined saviour of the world; the evil lords and their brutish orc-like minions but the dazzling texture of the background and often adult tone make for one of the most stunning of modern fantasy films. You only need to compare The Dark Crystal to one of the hack works of epic fantasy and sword and sorcery that were being created around the era see the likes of Hawk the Slayer (1980), The Beastmaster (1982), The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), Krull (1983), Wizards of the Lost Kingdom (1984) and Willow (1988) to see what a complete fantasy that Henson and Oz create here.
The Dark Crystal was not a huge success when it came out, partly because some protested against the quite adult nature of the film the scariness of the Skeksis, the torture of the Podlings partly also because the film came out not long after and was overshadowed by the massive success of Steven Spielbergs E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It has however gained an enormous afterlife since then. If nothing else, The Dark Crystal is worth seeing as an exercise in ranking imagination and its unlimited technical realisation. The depth of detail put into the design of this world and sets is stunning.
In 2006, the Henson company announced plans for a sequel to be entitled The Power of the Dark Crystal, although after passing through several changes of directors this appears to currently be placed on hold.
Without Frank Oz, Jim Henson went on to direct the George Lucas produced Labyrinth (1986), another similar venture into fantasy containing an amazing range of non-human puppet creations. Henson died in 1990 of streptococcal pneumonia, preventing what could well have been a major career as a fantasy director. Henson also produced the animated The Muppet Babies (1984-91); Fraggle Rock (1983-8), another Muppet-styled series concerning a gonzo wainscot society, the live-action tv series The Storyteller (1987) and The Storyteller: The Greek Myths (1990) that used Henson Workshop creations to illustrate tales from myth and fairytale; the short-lived anthology series The Jim Henson Hour (1989); and produced and provided the creatures for Nicolas Roegs film adaptation of Roald Dahls The Witches (1990).
Frank Oz went onto a career as a mainstream comedy director with the likes of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), What About Bob? (1991), HouseSitter (1992), In & Out (1997), Bowfinger (1999), The Score (2001) and Death at a Funeral (2007). Ozs other forays into genre material as director were The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), the killer plant musical Little Shop of Horrors (1986), the excellent childrens film The Indian in the Cupboard (1995) and the remake of The Stepford Wives (2004). He also makes cameo appearances in almost all of John Landiss films and is probably most famous for voicing the role of Yoda in the Star Wars films beginning with The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Screenwriter David Odell stayed with the genre and later wrote the scripts for Supergirl (1984) and Masters of the Universe (1987) and directed Martians Go Home (1990).
Poor quality original theatrical trailer here:-
Much better quality fan-edited trailer here:-