Sometime in the early Eighties, I'm convinced that Jim Henson told George Lucas "Hey, look, since Yoda worked so well in The Empire Strikes Back why don't you make more muppet aliens instead of dudes in masks for the next film?" I'm pretty sure that Lucas took his advice, which eventually gave Dante Hicks a reason to declare in Clerks: "All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets."
But what was a liability for the third Star Wars film is exactly what makes The Dark Crystal so remarkable. Whereas a freaky-looking abomination like Sy Snootles stuck out like a sore thumb in Return of the Jedi, she'd probably be right at home within the framework of Jim Henson and Frank Oz's completely original and fully fabricated world.
Think about how important context is as you watch the film's trailer:
To be perfectly honest, the plot itself is no great shakes since it essentially boils down to a simple fetch-quest. In a lengthy preamble we're introduced to a magical realm where a great, life-sustaining magical crystal once fragmented. This resulted in the creation of two distinct races: the serene Mystics and the repellent Skeksis. Wanna guess who's good and who's evil?
We're soon introduced to our unlikely protagonist. Like most fantasy heroes, Jen was orphaned at a young age but in this case he was adopted by a druid-like race called the Mystics. At face value, he appears to be the last of the Gelflings, a small, slight, elven race that's been virtually eliminated from the world. And, as you might expect, there's a prophecy floating around which maintains that a Gelfling will eventually overthrow the nasty Skeksis.
From his deathbed, Jen's Master suddenly tells him that he needs to find a lost shard and re-unite it with the titular Dark Crystal before the three suns align. If he fails in this task, the realm will be plunged into darkness and the Skeksis will rule supreme for all eternity. Although Jen is understandably confused as to why no-one's ever told him this before, he strikes out on his quest in an effort to save his benefactors.
After the Skeksis Emperor dies in concert with Jen's Master, the sneaky Chamberlain squares off against the General in a Trial By Stone. The General proves triumphant and the Chamberlain is promptly defrocked and exiled. After he hears of the existence of Jen and his mission, the newly crowned Emperor dispatches the beetle-like Garthim to hunt down and capture him.
Meanwhile, Jen finds the crystal in the company of Aughra, an acerbic, one-eyed hippie astronomer in dire need of electrolysis and a sports bra. Aughra's orrery is attacked by the Garthim and Jen barely manages to escape. During his flight, he meets up with the winsome Kira, a female Gelfling who was taken in by a race of tiny farmers called the Podlings. Together the two of them attempt to unravel the mystery of the Gelfling downfall, try and avoid the machinations of the wayward Chamberlain and strive to re-unite the shard with the Dark Crystal within the Skeksis castle.
Although The Dark Crystal didn't resonate with audiences enraptured by E.T. at the time, I think it had a tremendous effect on other film-makers. Yoda's demise in Return of the Jedi is strikingly similar to the death of Jen's Master. The Podlings are tortured like the the droids in Jabba's palace. Jabba himself has a lot in common with the Skeksis, including abominable table manners and a predilection for eating little live things. In fact, the Skeksis banquet sequence is nastier and more disturbing then anything glimpsed in the Hutt's throne room.
And if I didn't see Avatar as derivative before, I certainly do now. In fact, The Dark Crystal plays out like an analog version of James Cameron's inflated, desperate-to-impress sci-fi techno-fest. Both films attempt to create a fantasy realm, but only one of them feel "real" and organic to me. In The Dark Crystal every rock face, pond, ruined wall, blade of grass, underground labyrinth, creature and character was crafted, by hand, by skilled artist. The "ecology" of Avatar exists only within a metric shit-ton of computer coding dialed up by a bunch of pasty-looking nerds.
The character designs are excellent. Between the expert puppetry of Jim Henson, the voice acting of Stephen Garlick and the wide-angle costume work of Kirin Shah (who also doubled for Elijah Wood in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), the character of Jen comes across as a pretty authentic creation. Although both Jen and Kira's faces and hands look a bit stiff and waxen at time, this is just a minor quibble. The voice work of Kira by Lisa Maxwell is particularly endearing and it really helps bolster the character's appeal.
Looking like skinned vultures, the Skeksis ooze more degenerate evil then most "adult" movie villains. Although their screen time is limited, Jim Henson and Frank Oz take great pains to invest each one of them with distinctive appearances and personality traits. The General-turned-Emperor is vainglorious and boastful, flaunting dominance over his rivals yet coveting elixirs to retain his "youth". The Scientist is gleefully sadistic, using the Dark Crystal to distill the essence of captive Podlings. The Chamberlain is downright Machiavellian, getting a ton of mileage from his mantra of "Mmmm...MMMMMMM!!!" every time he hatches a new scheme.
In contrast, the ur'Ru *slash* Mystics are Zen-like and passive. Their design is fantastic: like narcoleptic, New Age sheepdogs crossed with pygmy brontosauri. At first glance, the Landstriders might seem like impractical evolutionary designs, but at least they're original-looking. And the Podlings get two incarnations: first as little Greek party-animals and then as zombie-like slaves after the Skeksis sap them of their life force.
Of course, I'd be totally remiss if I didn't mention Kira's ferocious but scaredy-cat pet Fizzgig. If you crossed Kevin Smith with an electrified tribble and then gave him a set of bear trap dentures, you'd have this endearing little scamp. When he's not threatening to bite everyone except Kira or rolling around using his own unique form of locomotion, he's barking up a storm or Hulk-raging at the entire world. Although he might seem all bark and no bite, he's quick to come to Kira's defense when she really needs help. I say fuck hover boards, I want a pet Fizzgig.
Aughra is also a fantastic creation, invested with so much verve and hutzpah that she reminds me of a certain diminutive, green Jedi Master. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the two were briefly married at one time. Again, with Frank Oz and David Greenaway as her puppeteers, Billie Whitelaw providing her voice and Kiran Shaw in costume for long shots, the character truly lives and breathes with a slew of physical tics, vocal cadences and mannerisms. Hell, most contemporary Hollywood flesh and blood actresses aren't nearly as expressive.
But perhaps the greatest character of The Dark Crystal is the environment itself. The dusty, Arizona-like valley of the ur'Ru resembles a lived-in Navajo camp. Aughra's planetarium is an incredible spectacle, especially when you consider that it's a practical set. The background and foreground of the swamp where Jen and Kira first meet is practically teeming with "life". The smoky, knock-down environs of the Podling pub are also quaintly authentic.
The most wondrous sets appear in the Skeksis castle. From the subterranean tunnels underneath the keep to the majesty of the main crystal chamber, from the animal-testing lab of the Scientist to the degenerate opulence of the Skeksis dining hall, every frame of The Dark Crystal feels like a Moebius painting come to glorious life. Indeed, this film practically begs to be witnessed on the biggest screen imaginable.
Something a bit more ethereal but no less important is the incredible score by Trevor Jones, who also provided the music for Time Bandits, Excalibur, and Labyrinth. His main title for The Dark Crystal is extremely evocative, giving me the impression that I'm about to watch a PG-rated segment of Heavy Metal.
Admittedly the film's plot is scant and predictable. Find the shard, re-unite it with the Dark Crystal and we're pretty much done. But when Jen and Kira discover the ruins of the Gelfling city and the ur'Ru and the Skeksis start to perish in tandem, the scenario begins to develop some real thematic heft. The concept of diverse beings having the same progenitor is a comforting thought. It's like a fantasy version of the classic Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within", in which Kirk gets split in two versions of himself: one passive and milquetoast and the other aggressive and cruel. Although they're as different as night and day from one another, they're both undeniable a part of Kirk.
I think that The Dark Crystal wasn't a box office smash at he time because people had a hard time reconciling the film's sometimes dark elements with its muppet denizens. Mercifully the film has since gained a cult following and it's now recognized as a genuine classic. I just think it's sad that we live in a world where we've been spoon-fed two crap Phantom Menace sequels and we haven't even gotten so much as a single follow-up to this wildly original-looking film.
To hell with more Star Wars movies; The Dark Crystal really deserves more cinematic exploration.