I went to see The Dark Crystal at the cinema when it was first released and recall that it wasn’t entirely what the audience or I was really expecting. It was being promoted as being from Jim Henson, the man behind The Muppets, and as a fantasy tale using puppets and elaborate costumes to disguise the human performers. This it indeed is, but that doesn’t mean it’s a whimsical and folksy story; the clue is in the title. Just how dark parts of this story are must have been a concern to anyone who brought along young children and found them having nightmares about the horrible scaly Skeksis and their violent crab-like minions, the Garthim.
As an adult my take on the story of the urSkeks who became split into the Skeksis and urRu seemed much more engaging than I’d expected. I was also wowed by the brilliance of the Henson puppet shop, which never ceased to amaze me with their ability to obscure the true nature of their creations. In particular, the Landstriders are a work of pure genius, as is all the design work illustrator Brian Froud did for all the characters and extraordinary world they inhabit. The only jarring aspect of the design work I found was the appearance of the newly forged combination of Mystics and Skeksis, which exhibit few obvious evolutions of their source creatures. Given how related the two appeared, the resulting beings of their merger just don’t sell their origins to my eye.
In retrospect, another weakness in presentation that niggles is the lack of neck movement the Gelfling characters exhibit, like they’ve all sustained a bad neck injury. Them having to turn their entire upper body to look behind is awkward and, unsurprisingly, Muppet-like.
Many felt at the time that while puppets could be engaging enough for 30 minutes or more, a 93 minute feature might be an unrealistic expectation. But Dark Crystal proved that it was an entirely practical premise given the immense talent of the Henson people. Without Dark Crystal I also can’t see that productions like Farscape would ever have existed, and it was clearly influential in many fantasy films that came after it, like Return To Oz.
But the big problem The Dark Crystal has is that, while the design work is amazing and the concept high-brow, not much of this translates well into the characters or the plot. Given the running time, relatively little happens in the movie, and even those characters that get the most running time seem woefully underdeveloped.
After watching it again the word that kept retuning to my mind was ‘experimental’, as so much of The Dark Crystal was. I think the mistake was to make so much of it experimental, as the narrative and characters could have been stronger without undermining the fantasy elements. The co-directors Jim Henson and Frank Oz did an acceptable job, but the importance of the visual styling overtook the other important storytelling aspects. As such, the end result is something of a victory for style over substance, but not one that I think was intended to be that way.
So how well does The Dark Crystal transfer to high definition? To be brutal, not that well, because some of it isn’t shot well enough and it came from an era where expensive optical compositions ended up in the movie irrespective of if they worked.
The multi-generation optical are also granular in a way that contrasts the majority of the studio work, making them even more visually disrupting than they were on DVD, for example.
I suspect that this release is about as good as this movie is ever likely to get as I can’t see anyone expending the time and money to recreate the optical effects digitally, even if they did get access to the source negatives. My reaction to the sound is that it’s wonderful in places and somewhat strained in others.
The extras are also something of a disappointment, because they’ve almost all appeared before on the 25th Anniversary Edition DVD and they’re all in standard definition. Most of them are promotional material created at the time, but the best extras are the two documentaries Reflections of the Dark Crystal: “Light on the Path of Creation” & “Shard of Illusion”. These contain more recent interviews with production people, and the thoughts of designer Brian Froud are certainly worth the time to hear. Some items, like the deleted scenes, are in such low quality that they look like they came from an old VHS tape someone kept from the production.
The problem is that until a new chapter in The Dark Crystal chronicles is created, which is supposedly in the works, there isn’t really anything new to say about this movie.
Overall, I enjoyed revisiting The Dark Crystal as it’s some considerable time since I’ve seen it on TV. In many ways it’s a flawed masterpiece, which shows much more imagination than it’s ultimately able to deliver on. Blu-ray technology doesn’t really do it many favours, but then I think that’s true of many movies from the early eighties.
The Dark Crystal will be released on Blu-ray on August 31, 2009.