Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Aging Poorly: The Dark Crystal Does Not Hold Up!

The Good: Good puppet work, Decent voice acting, Elements of the story
The Bad: A ton of exposition, Minimal character development, Pacing
The Basics: Hardly audacious or even interesting, The Dark Crystal is a tough sell these days!

One of my wife’s favorite films of all time is Labyrinth (reviewed here!) and the circles she travels in in fantasy geekdom seem somewhat surprisingly (to me, at least) divided into two camps: those who love Labyrinth and those who have an affection for The Dark Crystal. Personally, I think that comes down to positive childhood memories for either camp, but rather than dispute it, we figured it was time to rewatch The Dark Crystal. Both my wife and I had seen The Dark Crystal only once, in our respective childhoods and neither of us had been grabbed by it or remembered it particularly well. In fact, all I truly recalled about it was the end and the liquefying of the “soul” (“essence”) of characters, which made them into slaves.

Having now watched The Dark Crystal as an adult, I have to say I am proud of my younger self and my current self; both of us managed to stay awake the entire movie (which is not something my wife may honestly say about the experience!). The Dark Crystal is unfortunately boring, heavy on exposition to explain the setting and characters and suffers from a number of problems unrelated to the early 1980’s special effects.

On an alien world, inhabited by magical creatures and budding scientists, there is a schism between the power-hungry Skeksis and the docile Mystics. A thousand years ago, during the Great Convergence of the planet’s three suns, the Dark Crystal shattered and the Skeksis came to power. Following their exile, the Mystics kept to themselves while the Skeksis brutalized their planet. But now, both the Mystics and the Skeksis are down to only nine of their kind. When the Skeksis Emperor and the Great Mystic die simultaneously, it appears a prophecy is about to be fulfilled.

The prophecy declares that a Gelfling will restore the Dark Crystal and, in the process, reunite the Skeksis and Mystics and restore the planet. Jen is, to his knowledge, the last of the Gelflings (the Skeksis having killed off almost all of the rest of the Gelflings to prevent the prophecy from coming true) and the Great Mystic sends him to Aughra to get the shard. After the Great Mystic dies and disappears, Jen’s quest begins and he travels to Aughra’s observatory where he manages to find the Shard. Unfortunately, the Skeksis power vacuum has led to a struggle for the throne and the discredited Chamberlain sees Jen and the prophecy as his best chance to seize power. As the Mystics journey to the Dark Crystal’s location at the Skeksis’s castle, Jen and his new companion, Kira (another Gelfling who believes herself to be the last of her kind) must evade the Chamberlain, the Skeksis’s army of monstrous Garthim, and attempts to draw out their everlasting essence to be in the right place at the right time to execute the prophecy and save the world.

The Dark Crystal is one of those troubling films that does not seem to have any sense of audience. Far too simplistic for adults, The Dark Crystal nevertheless includes adult political elements and monstrous character designs for the Garthim and Skeksis. The film is a bit cerebral for children and the pacing is so slow it might only keep children awake based on their own sense of wonder at the film’s spectacle. In fact, The Dark Crystal has such a linear narrative that it is almost surprising that it ever developed such a fanbase (Jen walks the prescribed three days to Aughra’s in such an uneventful sequence that it had to have the Skeksis politics cut into it in order to illustrate the passage of time and actually have something happen!).

A vehicle of directors Jim Henson and Frank Oz, The Dark Crystal is notable for its use of puppets. Unlike the movies that feature the Muppets and have a blending of puppets and live-action characters interacting in the real world, The Dark Crystal is an almost entirely virtual setting populated by puppets. The world of The Dark Crystal is imaginative and (outside the animated exterior painting shots that look incredibly dated) has a realism that is very easy to get into. The look of the various races is distinct and the film was clearly created with a sense of wonder to it.

Unfortunately, that sense of visual wonder was not developed with a strong story in mind. In fact, the movie is one of the most bland, thematically-simplistic, fantasy films of all time. Lacking in any distinctive or iconic quotes, The Dark Crystal is a painfully uncomplicated hero journey where the film belabors establishing the tenants of the world it depicts as opposed to allowing the viewer to truly become immersed in it. There is no joy to be had in how formulaic the film is and The Dark Crystal does not so much develop characters as much as it simply resolves its own plot points.

The result is a film that is virtually impossible to go back to; it did not captivate my wife or me . . . but then, we’re Labyrinth people.

For other fantasy films, please visit my reviews of:
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen
Oz The Great And Powerful


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for a listing of movie reviews from Best To Worst!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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