I never grew up watching fantasy movies. Back then, if I was going to watch a TV show or movie aimed for kids, I was more interested in sci-fi properties than I was fantasy ones. Shows like Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, Digimon, Power Rangers, and movies like The Iron Giant and Treasure Planet was what I gravitated towards. Fantasy movies just seemed too dense for me to wrap my head around. I could understand what aliens and monsters were, but learning specific terminology for how a world worked and operated? Clearly that was only associated with fantasy movies and sci-fi movies never have had complex mythologies whatsoever.
Alright, so it’s pretty clear that I didn’t have the most subtle of opinions as a kid, but I would eventually grow out of my stigma against fantasy movies as I got older. That being said, I still don’t really gravitate towards fantasy movies unless I have to, though this time it isn’t due to my unfamiliarity with the genre and more that I’m just not interested in the style. And that’s okay. We all have our preferences and tastes, with fantasy being a taste I’m not particularly fond of.
So why am I doing a Deep Analysis of Jim Henson’s 1982 classic The Dark Crystal? Well a prequel series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, just released on Netflix. That in and of itself isn’t that big of a surprise. Netflix reviving a classic property to get a second lease on life and try to build up their library before Disney completely destroys them, so what? But why Dark Crystal? The original movie released in 1982 and while it did do fairly well commercially, critically the results were mixed. And yet here it is, revived for the modern age. Was there something special about this movie that people didn’t see originally?
As a passion project by puppeteer extraordinaire Jim Henson, Dark Crystal was a movie that had a rich and developed lore even before a single frame of the movie was shot, which is very evident in the final product. The movie begins not with a whimsical shot of nature, or even the dark crystal itself, but of a bleak and dark wasteland. Dark clouds and lightning dot the horizon with a monstrous castle looming in the distance. A grim narrator describes the history of this world, Thra, and how the evil Skeksis came to rule it with the power of the Dark Crystal. We then cut to those lumbering, monstrous birds gathering around the Crystal and draining it of its essence, killing the planet as a ominous chord emanates though the castle.
So let’s talk about tone!
It’s not a secret saying that Dark Crystal is… well dark. Thra is a dying world where creatures are drained of their life energy and turned into mere slaves. The Skeksis rule is built on the genocide of a race called Gelflings and there’s a healthy amount of death throughout the film, and that’s not even mentioning just how nightmarish the Skeksis are. Withering old birds that use robes to hide their malformed bodies, unable to fly due to years of corruption. Dark Crystal was originally marketed as a family film, and on the surface with good reason. This was Jim Henson after all! This was the man who made such beloved characters like Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, so of course all of his movies would be kid friendly and not feature any nightmare fuel at all. Except that Henson always intended the movie to be darker than his previous films and the marketing completely misled audiences.
Because of this, most people that saw the movie growing up were completely terrified by it. I asked the Flixist writers if anyone that saw Dark Crystal growing up was terrified by it with an overwhelming amount of the writers saying they were scared of the movie as a kid. And yet the movie was rated PG. Granted, this was during a time when giving a PG rating actually meant something. Nowadays most kids movies are rated PG due to a naughty word here or there. Maybe a sex joke too, or my personal favorite, “mild peril.”
There’s been a debate going for years about how the PG rating is essentially meaningless. Frozen and Hunchback of Notre Dame have the exact same rating, with only one movie featuring a man singing about how he’s lusting for a woman that he will gladly murder if he can’t love her while the other movie’s darkest moment is maybe some parents being killed off screen. Kind of a disparity between the two. PG rated movies used to mean something, and Dark Crystal undeniably earns its PG rating with violence, dark imagery, and a bleak tone that strikes you more than any of the major plot points of the movie. Even looking back on it, Dark Crystal feels like a product of its time, where it was okay to present dark ideas and themes to kids as long as they were done in a mature and smart way. The style of Dark Crystal is far more memorable than the actual plot of Dark Crystal.
Which kind of leads me to a point that I didn’t want to make. I knew that it was going to happen eventually, but I might as well come out and say it; I don’t think Dark Crystal is all that good. It’s fine enough, but what struck me the most about watching Dark Crystal wasn’t the high fantasy or the deep lore of the world. Quite the contrary actually. My main takeaway was how simple the movie was.
Now I’m not talking about how simple it was from a technical perspective. The amount of work that Henson, co-director Frank Oz, and illustrator Brian Froud put into creating the world of Thra is clear, especially when it comes to the puppet technology, which was revolutionary for the time and still holds up well nearly 40 years later. However, from a narrative perspective, Dark Crystal is basic. It’s meant to be simple because the intended audience is children, but I can only follow that train of thought for so long before I find myself bored.
The biggest gripe I have comes from the script. Most of the script is easy to understand but lacks any and all depth. Take our two Gelfling protagonists, Jen and Kira, who’s dialogue feels like something out of a middle school play. They repeat what each other say, rarely have any opportunity to emote, and are just boring as hell to watch. Now this could be somewhat attributed to the actors, but actors are limited by the material that they’re given. An outstanding actor is only as good as the script they’re given. There are countless examples where A-list actors deliver bad performances because they’re hampered by a script that gives them nothing to work with. Dark Crystal‘s script just does nothing to help either Stephen Garlick or Lisa Maxwell bring Jen and Kira to life respectively, though if I’m being blunt I don’t think their performances would have been elevated by much with a better script.
The Skeksis fare a bit better, with most of them kept in the shadows and speaking only rarely. Their physiology tells us everything we need to know about them. They’re the bad guys and you only need to look at them for one second to understand that. The main Skeksis we follow, The Chamberlain, played by Barry Dennen, is an interesting antagonist because he’s written as a manipulator with motivation. He was banished from the Skeksis for failing to become emperor, so now he’s trying to get back in their good graces by kidnapping the last Gelflings. Dennen delivers his dialogue in a sing-song style, teetering between a calm and malevolent demeanor. His character has motivation, while the Gelflings don’t besides having to complete a generic prophecy. Despite that, I wouldn’t say his dialogue was all that compelling, but rather his demeanor. I’m tempted to find a version of the movie that removes all dialogue outside of the narration, since I would probably fall in love with a depiction of Thra without words.
By the time the movie reaches its conclusion where Jen is able to save the day, Thra is restored, and the Skeksis are defeated, I’m left feeling indifferent. Sure, it was a fun ride, but I was left feeling nothing outside of an appreciation for the film itself. Henson’s technical prowess is completely on display here. These puppets are still a sight to behold, but it’s a shame that his vision wasn’t given more room to breathe. His ideas feel constrained and rushed. If you follow Henson’s vision of the film, it’s clear he had a huge plan for the property with backstory and lore elements that went beyond the original movie. However, none of that extra effort makes it through the final product. Sure, we get a few drips of terminology from the movie and can piece elements together on our own, but unless you are actively seeking out information and going the extra mile, the lore doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you know that the Skeksis bred the Crystal Bats through generations in order to use them for surveillance, because the bats are barely featured in the movie.
The original question I posed at the beginning is why Netflix would think about reviving this property in 2019 for a prequel miniseries, and the reason is because of how much unexplored territory was left to mine. It’s clear that the creators of Age of Resistance were huge fans of the original that wanted to explore the world more. There was a lot of material left to mine that unfortunately didn’t make it into the film and deserved to be fleshed out. Age of Resistance is giving the original movie the room to breathe and truly flesh out its world.
If the original movie was simple it was due to necessity. It had a budget of around $25 million and was extremely ambitious in its goals. Dark Crystal tried to create a stunning world of puppets, magic, and adventure while still keeping it simple for kids. The main takeaway from those kids was pure terror though, but now that they’re full grown adults, there’s clearly an appreciation for the movie and seeing that world fleshed out more. Thra needed more justice done to it. So maybe the original movie isn’t bad or unimpressive. Maybe it just needed that little extra push to reach its full potential.