A long time ago in a far off world the evil Skexis have ruled for a thousand years, exploiting the land as they have grown twisted and ancient. But now the good Mystics, their equivalent who have kept out of their way all this time, have sent a lone Gelfling called Jen, survivor of a vanished race, to find the shard of the huge crystal that gives the Skexis their power as foretold in the prophecy. If he fails, the Skexis will reign forever...
Although this elaborate fantasy was written by David Odell, from Jim Henson's storyline, the real star as far as the design went was Brian Froud, for it was he who invented the designs for every last aspect of what we saw on the screen. Henson and Frank Oz were keen to tackle something more serious than The Muppet Show, so once they had persuaded Lew Grade to fund it, they offered us this puppet epic that nevetheless comes across as The Muppets Do Tolkien at times. For some, The Dark Crystal is second best to that other Henson fantasy of the eighties, Labyrinth, but they were at such great pains here to make a film that could echo down the ages with the myths of the past that even if they partly succeeded, was an achievement in itself.
The trouble with many of these self contained fantasies is that they don't connect with the viewer, seeming exclusive and over involved with their own painfully detailed mythologies and fanciful backstories. Here is the simple good vs evil quest story decked out with quasi-religious trappings such as prophecies, saviours and mysticism, a mishmash of various legends and beliefs that George Lucas would have envied in its attention to the smallest element. Yet although flawed, The Dark Crystal wins you over with its meticulous and imaginative care and hard work that has gone into its creation, something obvious from the first and every insanely factored frame.
The puppets were generally terrific. The Skexis are petty, decaying and nasty, but at points too cartoonish to be really menacing, though there were nevertheless those who remember being disturbed as children by the apparent callousness of the world they inhabit. The Mystics, their good counterparts, are slow, elderly and wise, and double as a male voice choir, spending most of the movie shuffling towards the Skexis castle which houses the crystal. Jen the Hobbit - er, I mean, Gelfling - makes for a bland, earnest do-gooder of a hero, and is the least satisfying character - maybe a Fraggle would have been better. The best are the "ooh"ing and "aah"ing Chamberlain, a solid villain who is unfortunately thrown away for the anticlimactic ending, and of course, the fanged pom-pom Fizzgig.
As a marvel of design and artistry, largely unique in its approach - a proud boast at the time was its lack of actors as everyone here was a puppet or hidden in complete costume - The Dark Crystal is worth seeing, though how far you took its would-be profundities was a different matter, all that yin and yang business where for every light there is dark, for every old there is young, and for evil there is good to counter it and fashion an equilibrium in the universe. Far out. Then again, you could simply do as many do, and indeed the filmmakers did, and luxuriate in the fantasies and rich visuals it created, watching how every frame features something moving, whether it be flora or fauna. It was certainly more satisfying than, say, Disney's The Black Cauldron, an animated attempt at the same kind of thing from the same era. If this had been the huge hit it was planned to be, it might have truly changed big screen sci-fi. Music by Trevor Jones.
American puppeteer and creator of the Muppets whose career took off when his puppets were used on children's show Sesame Street. The Muppets got their own show in the seventies, which was successful enough to make the jump to the big screen with The Muppet Movie and its sequels.
In the eighties, Henson went on to direct The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, which both featured his puppets extensively, and on television he came up with Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller.